Have you started taking creatine yet? Creatine is one of the most popular supplements for building strength and muscle. However, research over the last twenty years has shifted from looking at how creatine can help you build muscle to how it can boost your brainpower.
If you’re only going to take one nootropic supplement, there’s a good case to be made for taking creatine.
Like your muscles, your brain fatigues when it works hard without a break. Creatine’s mental benefits come from delaying the amount of time before you become mentally fatigued during mentally intensive activities.
There’s also research on healthy adults supporting that creatine can reduce symptoms of sleep deprivation, may improve neurodegeneration, and may increase your working memory.
Creatine is one of the cheapest nootropics supplements available even though it’s one of the most effective. It’s also unlikely you’ll have to worry about side effects while taking creatine. It’s considered to be extremely safe, and there have been no clinically significant side-effects reported.
If you’re new to nootropics, creatine makes a great supplement to start with to support your brain health. Even if you’re already taking several other nootropics, adding creatine to your stack may still be worthwhile.
We’re going to jump into the science behind creatine supplementation and then go over the health benefits. Keep following along if you want to learn about how to maximize your brain’s full potential.
How Can Creatine Help You?
Creatine is one of the most widely studied supplements. A quick search of ‘Creatine Supplementation’ on the PubMed database of peer-reviewed research brings up almost 2000 studies examining the effects of creatine.
What Is Creatine Exactly?
Creatine is a molecule made up of the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine. It’s found in every cell in your body and is made by your kidney, liver, and pancreas.
95% of creatine is stored in your skeletal muscles, and a 70kg person has about 120 grams of creatine in their body. The remaining five percent of creatine in your body is in your brain, liver, testes, and kidneys.
Although creatine plays a critical role in maintaining your overall health, creatine is considered non-essential because your body can make it from dietary protein.
So we’ve established that it’s a molecule made from three amino acids. But what does it do?
We’re going to briefly refresh you on your body’s energy systems. You may have learned this more in-depth in high-school biology class, but we’ll keep it simple.
Your Body’s Energy Systems
Your body has three primary energy systems. If you run a marathon or exercise for hours, your body relies primarily on burning fat for energy. The primary function of body fat is to provide your body energy when food isn’t available. However, burning body fat isn’t particularly efficient for short bursts of energy.
When you need to produce energy for roughly 12 seconds to 2 minutes, like when sprinting, your body relies mostly on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates stored in your muscles for are known as glycogen.
Breaking down glycogen provides quicker energy than breaking down fat. However, if you relied on this energy system exclusively, it would take you about 12 to 15 seconds to move your body. There’s a quicker energy system.
For very short bursts of energy that last less than 12 to 15 seconds, your body uses what’s referred to as your phosphocreatine energy system or ATP-PCR system. This is where taking a creatine supplement comes in.
The Importance of the Phosphocreatine Energy System
Your muscles and neurons store a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When this molecule is broken, energy is released, which your body uses to contract your muscles or fire neurons. However, your body can only store a finite amount of this molecule (about three to five seconds worth).
Once your body breaks down ATP, you’re left with a molecule called ADP and a phosphate molecule. To synthesize more ATP for energy, your body breaks down a molecule called phosphocreatine. The energy released from breaking apart this molecule resynthesizes ATP.
Hopefully, you can see why this might be important for your neurons. A neuron fires in quick bursts so the phosphocreatine energy system allows them to replace the potential energy that they use and they can fire more times before fatiguing.
So what does all this have to do with a creatine supplement?
When you ingest creatine as a supplement, your body stores the creatine as phosphocreatine, which saturates the amount of this molecule available to make energy. Having more phosphocreatine available allows your body to use the phosphocreatine energy system longer before having to switch to the slower energy system.
If you’re having trouble picturing it or want a more in-depth explanation of how these three energy systems work, this video does a good job at explaining it.
Running out of phosphocreatine is like being in the checkout line at the grocery store when the guy two rows in front of you forgot to write the codes on his bulk items and the cashier has to manually input every item. The line isn’t going anywhere until all his groceries get scanned.
Where Do We Get Creatine?
Your body naturally produces creatine from the amino acids we mentioned earlier. However, the amount of creatine produced by your body is insignificant compared to the amount you get through your diet (in most people).
The best dietary sources of creatine are meat or fish. There’s some research that supports that vegetarians may have a higher response to creatine supplementation than carnivores because they’re getting less in their diets (will look at the research later).
Here is the creatine content in a pound of some common foods:
Fruits/Vegetables Less than 0.01g
Types of Creatine Supplements
When it comes to creatine supplements, more expensive isn’t necessarily better.
Creatine Monohydrate is the most common form of creatine on the market. It’s also the cheapest form. If you walk into your local supplement store, this is the form of creatine you’re most likely going to find.
You can take creatine monohydrate as a powder or in capsules. Taking it as a powder is generally a little cheaper.
Creatine Ethyl Ester is a form of creatine thought to have better bioavailability than creatine monohydrate. However, there’s some evidence suggesting that’s it’s either less or equally as well absorbed.
Creatine Hydrochloride is more soluble in water than creatine monohydrate but there’s no research looking comparing its absorbability on humans compared to creatine monohydrate. If there is any additional benefit, it’s probably limited.
You may see some creatine supplements that are buffered to increase bioavailability. However, they’re probably not worth spending extra money on.
How to Take Creatine Supplements
You can take creatine in one of two ways. You can either start with a loading phase where you take a large amount of creatine upfront and lower your amount after the temporary loading period or you can just take a consistent amount.
If you’re doing a loading phase, you can take about 0.14g/lb of body weight. For a 180lb adult, this translates to about 25g of creatine per day. For the maintenance phase, you can reduce your dosage ten times to 0.014g/kg of body weight.
If you want to saturate your creatine stores, you may want to increase your dosage to about 5g, which should be enough for almost everybody.
There’s no need to cycle on and off creatine. You get most of your creatine from your diet. Creatine monohydrate is also the type of creatine most often used in research.
Who Should Take Creatine?
Basically anybody can benefit from creatine. However, certain demographics may benefit more than others. As we touched on already, we get most of our creatine through our diet.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you can probably benefit more from creatine supplementation than people who eat meat.
Everybody responds differently to creatine. Some people may notice a big effect right away while other people might not notice any changes.
There’s also some evidence that creatine can also prevent neurodegenerative disease and maintain cognitive ability with age.
If you’re over 60, creatine may help prevent these diseases. Research also shows that it can help older individuals maintain muscle mass as they age when coupled with regular physical exercise.
If you have a history of kidney disease in your family or if you’re at high risk for kidney disease, you might not want to take creatine. There’s no evidence that shows that it’s harmful to the kidneys of healthy individuals, but until more long-term research comes out it’s best to be safe.
Why Creatine Is One of The Top Nootropic Supplements
Often supplements get overhyped based on a few animal studies or in vitro studies. But when it comes to creatine, there’s tons of research on young, healthy adults to prove that it has benefits.
We already went over the science of why creatine can help you. Let’s look specifically at how allowing your neurons to fire longer can improve your mental health and cognitive function.
Creatine Supplementation May Improve Memory and Intelligence
Research on the effects of creatine for mental health is relatively new compared to research on its effects on the body. However, research published in Experimental Gerontology sought to examine the relationship between creatine and the cognitive function in healthy individuals
The experimenters performed a systemic review of six studies and 281 participants. They found evidence to suggest that taking creatine can improve short term memory, intelligence, and reasoning ability.
People who have a genetic creatine deficiency often have delayed childhood development, speech problems, low IQs.
Creatine May Decrease Mental Fatigue
There’s strong evidence that taking a creatine monohydrate supplement can decrease symptoms of mental fatigue.
A study published in the journal Neuroscience Research examined the effect of creatine supplementation on mental fatigue. The researchers performed a double-blind placebo study looking at the effect of 8g of creatine supplementation for five days on healthy individuals.
At the end of the five days, they measured significantly less mental fatigue in subjects who took creatine versus a placebo as measured by repeated mathematical calculations. Using spectroscopy, they also found that the participants who took had increased oxygen consumption by their brains.
Creatine May Improve Mental Function During Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation leads to lower levels of creatine in your brain. It’s thought that taking a creatine supplement can help reduce mental impairment when you haven’t been sleeping properly
In a study trying to prove that creatine may improve sleep deprivation, nineteen subjects were divided into either a control group or placebo group.
The participants in the creatine group took 5g of creatine per day four times a day for a week. They were then given several mental tests along with a light exercise program after 6, 12, and 24 hours of sleep deprivation.
The group that took creatine along with exercise had less impairment in their reaction time, balance and mood than the group that only exercised. The researchers also concluded that creatine improves performance in tasks that stress the prefrontal cortex.
Creatine May Improve Mood
Creatine may improve symptoms of depression by interacting with the hormone serotonin. In a study published by researchers in Seoul, South Korea, 52 women with major depressive disorder enrolled in an 8-week double-blind placebo study.
After taking 5g of creatine per day for the length of the study, the participants had significant improvements in symptoms of depression compared to a placebo group.
Creatine May Be More Effective for Vegetarians
Creatine is probably particularly beneficial for vegetarians since meat is the main source of creatine in the human diet.
In a study published by researchers at the University of Sydney, researchers gave vegetarians either 5g of creatine per day for six weeks or a placebo. Participants given creatine had significantly higher scores on intelligence and working memory scores.
Creatine May Improve Mental Alertness
One study found that taking dietary creatine may improve mental alertness. The 2011 experiment examined the relationship between creatine and skill execution in rugby players under sleep deprivation.
The researchers gave ten rugby players either creatine or a placebo before a period of sleep deprivation. They found that taking creatine led to a significant ability to maintain skill execution.
Creatine May Improve Symptoms of Aging
Creatine is also thought to play an important role in preventing diseases related to aging. As people get older their ability to regenerate phosphocreatine declines by roughly 8% past the age of 30.
One study that examined the effect of 20g of creatine supplemented daily to elderly individuals with an average age of 76. The researchers found that the participants had improved quality of life after one week of creatine supplementation.
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys. However, there’s no research to support this and the warning is usually given based on a lack of long-term research.
Your body usually metabolizes extra creatine into creatinine. Creatinine is then eliminated by your kidneys. When your kidneys are damaged, creatinine builds up in your blood. If a doctor expects you may have kidney damage, they can test your creatinine levels.
Taking more than roughly 20g of creatine a day can cause creatinine levels to rise in your blood in the absence of kidney damage. So even though creatine hasn’t been found to be damaging to the kidneys of healthy adults, it may cause a false positive reading.
The most common side-effect of creatine is water retention.
Taking a creatine supplement often leads to weight gain since your body stores creatine with water in your muscles. The total increase in weight gain can be over 4 lbs in some individuals. However, water retention varies widely between people.
There are no significant side-effects reported with short term creatine supplementation.
One study published in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry looked at the long-term effects of creatine supplementation. The researchers gave college football players 5g of creatine monohydrate for 21 months. They found that there were no negative health markers recorded in the almost two years that the football players took creatine.
Take Creatine to Improve Mental and Physical Health
The research on creatine is pretty definitive. No matter whether you’re an athlete or just want to have a little extra energy to play with your kids, you can almost definitely benefit from creatine.
You can take creatine all year round without having to do any cycling on or off, and research supports that it can improve both your mental and physical health.
For most adults, a serving size of about 5g should be enough to provide you with benefits from creatine. You’ll likely retain a little water after starting creatine. However, the water retention is in your muscles, so if anything, it may improve your muscular definition.
Daniel grew up in Halifax, Canada. He completed his Honours Kinesiology degree at Dalhousie University where he received an education in topics such as nutrition, exercise physiology, strength training, and sports psychology. He graduated with his MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan in spring 2019. Through his writing career, he’s developed a particular interest in endocrine and mental health research.