In their quest to run farther, jump higher, and outlast the competition, many athleteshave turned to a variety of performance-enhancing drugs and supplements. According to studies, 8% of adolescents take creatine for this purpose. The supplement is particularly popular among high school, college, and professional athletes, especially football and hockey players, wrestlers, and gymnasts. An estimated 40% of college athletes and up to half of professional athletes say they use creatine supplements.
Creatine is a natural substance, found only in animal flesh but most abundantly in skeletal muscle flesh (like steak). The body creates creatine in the liver, pancreas and kidney. Creatine turns into creatine phosphate in the body. Creatine phosphate helps make a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP provides the energy for muscle contractions and other functions of the body.
Of all the performance enhancing supplements, creatine is the most popular, in large part due to its accessibility. The University of Maryland Medical Center estimates that Americans spends about $14 million per year on creatine supplements. Creatine powder, tablets, energy bars, and drink mixes are available without a doctor’s prescription at drug stores, supermarkets, nutrition stores, and over the internet.
But….creatine may not be just for jocks anymore. In addition to increasing muscle mass, creatine can also be an excellent supporter of brain health. In a study from Australia, people who took creatine for six weeks scored better on tests measuring intelligence and memory than those who did not take it. The authors say the dietary supplement could help those who need a short-term boost in mental function, such as students studying for an exam.
Does creatine improve brain health?
Remember, our cells run on energy supplied by a molecule called ATP. Think of ATP as the gasoline of the body. Whether we fuel up with glucose (sugar) or ketones (produced when the body burns fat for energy or fuel), those raw materials eventually get transformed into ATP, which as it is broken down powers all sorts of energy-requiring processes. We will obviously burn through ATP faster in our muscles when we are exercising – running or jumping or performing various feats of strength, but we also burn through ATP faster when we are using our brains for something challenging. Our brain, which is the size of two fists held together, burns through 20% of the energy we use each day.
In other words, creatine not only helps us recover after exercise, but it helps with energy metabolism in the whole body, which means it also helps our mind work faster and grow stronger. Creatine can even slow down brain degeneration that comes from aging. It has been found to increase our attention, memory, and retention. Additionally, it increases brain health and prevents brain disease. Indeed, the same 5mg dose that athletes use for muscle performance has been found to decrease mental fatigue as well as muscle fatigue.
Creatine for depression
Depression is a mental illness that causes symptoms that include sadness, loss of energy, sleep problems, feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide. According to Medline Plus, 20 million Americans suffer from depression. MayoClinic.com reports preliminary studies which suggest a potential benefit of creatine for treating depression.
A 2007 study conducted by the Ness Ziona Mental Health Center reports the effects of creatine in treatment-resistant depressive and bipolar patients. The study involved eight depressive and two bipolar volunteers receiving 3 to 5 g of creatine monohydrate over a course of four weeks. One depressed participant improved significantly after a week of the study. The other seven depressive patients significantly improved while the two bipolar volunteers went into mania or hypomania. The researcher concluded that the preliminary study suggest creatine is beneficial for people suffering from depression, but may trigger mania in bipolar patients.1
Additional benefits on brain health
Many brain disorders involve a disruption of the brain’s energy supply systems. That applies not only to chronic, age-related diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s, but also to acute conditions such as strokes and traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.2 Creatine’s role as an energy-enhancer suggests it may be helpful in all of these conditions.3
Here’s a rundown on what we know about creatine supplementation in brain diseases associated with aging:
Alzheimer’s disease primarily affects memory and cognition, with debilitating loss of the ability to recognize loved ones, to navigate even around the home, and to sustain meaningful conversations.4
Creatine also protects brain cells against the root cause of this energy loss, namely the excitotoxicity that is a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases in general, and against the toxic Abeta proteins that are unique to Alzheimer’s.5 Creatine protects against this toxicity, which impairs mitochondrial energy production.6,7
Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of movement control in the brain; it produces tremors, slowed movements, and a characteristic “mask-like” face. Advanced Parkinson’s disease can also include dementia, with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s.4,8
Creatine also enhances the survival and protection of neurons that produce dopamine, the missing transmitter in the disease.9,10 Studies have shown that creatine improves patient mood, allows smaller doses of medication to be used, and also reduces the side effects of those meds.11,12 This is especially noteworthy for Parkinson’s patients, since the most commonly prescribed medication for Parkinson’s ( L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine) causes disturbing side effects including out-of-control movements.13
Huntington’s disease is a genetic neurodegenerative disorder that involves damage to motor control centers in the brain, and symptoms include wild, out-of-control movements.14
As with the other disorders, the brain cells of Huntington’s patients display excessive amounts of the aging pigment lipofuscin—indicating underlying problems with cellular energy.15, 16 This suggests creatine may be an important component in the battle against this disease.
Strokes most often occur as a result of insufficient blood supply to areas of the brain. Decreased blood flow to the brain is associated with excessive amounts of lipofuscin (the aging pigment).17 This suggests stroke damage at the cellular level is not unlike that of degenerative diseases of the brain—and indicates that creatine’s ability to lower the accumulation of this aging pigment may make it beneficial for stroke victims as well.
Mouse studies of creatine supplementation show marked reduction in the size of damaged areas after blood flow to the brain is interrupted by a stroke.18 In addition, creatine supplementation also replenished ATP in the brain that had been depleted as a result of stroke. Human studies of creatine in stroke victims are not yet available. However, given creatine’s strong safety record, researchers recommend that people at high risk for strokes consider supplementing with creatine.18
Creatine may seem like a treatment option if you are suffering from any number of brain diseases or deficiencies, but please consult your doctor before you decide to self-medicate! The participants – both human and animal- of these studies were all watched and monitored under a doctor’s care.
- Khatri N, Man HY. Synaptic Activity and Bioenergy Homeostasis: Implications in Brain Trauma and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Front Neurol. 2013 Dec 11;4:199.
- Klein AM, Ferrante RJ. The neuroprotective role of creatine. Subcell Biochem. 2007;46:205-43.
- Nussbaum RL , Ellis CE. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Engl J Med. 2003 Apr 3;348(14):1356-64.
- Brewer GJ, Wallimann TW. Protective effect of the energy precursor creatine against toxicity of glutamate and beta-amyloid in rat hippocampal neurons. J Neurochem. 2000 May;74(5):1968-78.
- Adhihetty PJ, Beal MF. Creatine and its potential therapeutic value for targeting cellular energy impairment in neurodegenerative diseases. Neuromolecular Med. 2008;10(4):275-90.
- Klein AM, Ferrante RJ. The neuroprotective role of creatine. Subcell Biochem. 2007;46:205-43.
- Korczyn AD . Dementia in Parkinson’s disease. J Neurol. 2001 Sep;248 Suppl 3:III1-4.
- Andres RH, Ducray AD, Perez-Bouza A, et al. Creatine supplementation improves dopaminergic cell survival and protects against MPP+ toxicity in an organotypic tissue culture system. Cell Transplant. 2005;14(8):537-50.
- Andres RH, Huber AW, Schlattner U, et al. Effects of creatine treatment on the survival of dopaminergic neurons in cultured fetal ventral mesencephalic tissue. Neuroscience. 2005;133(3):701-13.
- Bender A, Koch W, Elstner M, et al. Creatine supplementation in Parkinson disease: a placebo-controlled randomized pilot trial. Neurology. 2006 Oct 10;67(7):1262-4.
- Valastro B, Dekundy A, Danysz W, Quack G. Oral creatine supplementation attenuates L-DOPA-induced dyskinesia in 6-hydroxydopamine-lesioned rats. Behav Brain Res. 2009 Jan 30;197(1):90-6.
- Available at: https://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/83/8325/8325l-dopa.html. Accessed April 3, 2014.
- Andres RH, Ducray AD, Huber AW, et al. Effects of creatine treatment on survival and differentiation of GABA-ergic neurons in cultured striatal tissue. J Neurochem. 2005 Oct;95(1):33-45.
- Klopstock T, Elstner M, Bender A. Creatine in mouse models of neurodegeneration and aging. Amino Acids. 2011 May;40(5):1297-303.
- Stack EC, Matson WR, Ferrante RJ. Evidence of oxidant damage in Huntington’s disease: translational strategies using antioxidants. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Dec;1147:79-92.
- Sekhon LH, Morgan MK, Spence I, Weber NC. Chronic cerebral hypoperfusion: pathological and behavioral consequences. Neurosurgery. 1997 Mar;40(3):548-56.
- Zhu S, Li M, Figueroa BE, et al. Prophylactic creatine administration mediates neuroprotection in cerebral ischemia in mice. J Neurosci. 2004 Jun 30;24(26):5909-12.