Creatine & Cognitive Performance

12/22/2021 | 6 min. read

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

Healthy Directions Staff Editor

The supplement aisles are full of products that claim to boost performance. Of course, the type of performance varies. Exercise performance is among the most popular.

Most people want to be stronger, fitter, and perform better, no matter the task at hand. This goal is not limited to professional athletes.

One performance marker that is commonly overlooked is cognitive performance. Sure, people want to be in peak physical shape, but what about peak cognitive shape? What about brainpower?

Cognitive performance includes working memory, attention, concentration, and more. It also has multiple mental abilities, such as learning, thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving.

Interestingly, one dietary supplement, popularly known for its performance in the weight room, could also benefit cognitive performance.

Creatine has proven effective for helping to increase muscular strength, but what about brainpower?

A Look at Creatine

Creatine is one of the most popular supplements on the market. Most forms of creatine are oral creatine supplements. It is the go-to supplement for improving exercise performance at the gym, such as muscle strength and resistance training. If you're someone who gets muscle cramps, wants to help improve their endurance, or wants to work toward getting more lean body mass, taking creatine in doses may help.

Many people are unaware that creatine is a naturally occurring substance found within the body’s muscle cells; the fancy name is methyl guanidine acetic acid — but we’ll stick to creatine.

Under normal conditions, creatine is primarily stored in the skeletal muscles, but it can also be found in the brain, kidneys, pancreas, liver, and testes (in much smaller amounts).

From a chemical standpoint, creatine is synthesized from three amino acids: glycine, arginine, and methionine. On average, our bodies produce about one gram of creatine each day.

What Does Creatine Do in the Body?

In the body, creatine binds with phosphate to form phosphocreatine and becomes a readily available source of energy for the muscles — the fast-twitch skeletal fibers in particular.

In short, the muscle relies on adenosine triphosphate (ATP) during exercise; a creatine energy source helps replenish the supplies. This helps reduce muscle fatigue during high-intensity exercise.

Dietary Creatine

On average, our bodies require approximately 1 – 3 grams of creatine per day, half of which usually comes from diet. In addition to being produced naturally, creatine is also found in many protein sources, including:

  • Red meat – Beef is one of the most complete dietary protein sources and boasts a particularly high creatine content — roughly 5 grams per kilogram in uncooked beef.
  • Chicken – A popular source of lean protein, chicken contains roughly 3 g/kg of creatine.
  • Pork – Also a popular protein source, pork contains about .7 grams of creatine per 100 grams.
  • Salmon – In addition to its high omega-3 fatty acid content, seafood like salmon boasts around 4.5g/kg of creatine.

Creatine as a Supplement

People are most familiar with creatine as an exercise supplement. It is the most popular nutritional supplement among weightlifters and bodybuilders and can be found in various forms, from pills, liquids, and powders.

Proven Benefits of Creatine

Numerous studies have examined the efficacy of creatine as an exercise performance supplement. Additional supplementation of creatine can aid in ATP production and help reduce the breakdown of protein in the muscles.

Increases muscular strength and size

Creatine is often used for both short and long-term muscle growth. Since it aids in ATP production, creatine allows for extra energy during exercise while helping to reduce muscle fatigue. Research has shown creatine to be an effective dietary supplement to help increase lean muscle mass and strength. It may help reduce muscle loss in older adults.

As we age, we lose muscle mass. Several studies have shown creatine’s ability to help slow down muscle loss in aging adults when used in combination with resistance weight training.

Cognitive Performance and Creatine

Creatine has proven efficacy when it comes to exercise performance, but what about cognitive performance?

We all know that a healthy body is important, but most neglect that our brain is part of that body. Cognition is equally as important (perhaps more important) than strong muscles. Cognition is essential for everyday function.

Our brain is complex — very complex. It comprises over 100 billion nerve cells, each with thousands of neural pathway connections. Cognition is essentially the mental actions or processes we use to acquire knowledge and understanding – we do this through sensory experience and thought.

Cognitive Performance

Cognitive performance can be broken down into many different abilities or skills.

  • Attention – Ability to hold concentration on a particular thought, action, or object in environments with multiple stimuli, e.g., mental clarity.
  • Memory – We have short-term or working memory with limited storage and long-term memory with unlimited storage.
  • Perception – This is made up of senses; we can recognize and interpret sensory stimuli.

Part of cognitive performance also involves executive functions, such as problem-solving, decision making, self-regulatory processes. Cognitive abilities also involve language and motor skills. There are many cognitive health supplements that can help improve cognitive function.

Creatine for Cognitive Performance

Like our muscles, our brain requires energy to perform, especially since it is constantly under a heavy cognitive load. Just like our muscles, the brain also stores phosphocreatine and requires ATP optimal energy production and function.

Supplementing with creatine could help increase creatine storage in the brain, which could help improve cognitive function. Again, this is thought to be due to the brain’s increase in energy supply (ATP).

Emerging Research

One systematic review of randomized controlled trials looked at the efficacy of creatine supplementation on cognitive function in healthy individuals; the findings were promising.

It consisted of six different studies (281 individuals). Their findings suggest creatine supplementation (5 – 20 grams a daily for five to six days) may improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning in healthy individuals.

Another study found creatine supplementation to improve cognitive performance markers in elderly individuals, especially in spatial recall, long-term memory tasks, and random number generation.

As promising as these findings are, there is still much research to be done about the effects of creatine for those in cognitive decline linked to neurodegenerative diseases.

Safety Concerns and Side Effects with Creatine

Creatine is one of the safest supplements on the market; it has also been tested and researched the most. Even so, there are a few common concerns associated with creatine use.

Bloating is a common complaint by those who supplement with creatine; some also complain of stomach discomfort. Usually, these complaints come during the loading phase of creatine — when you first start taking it. Most creatine suppliers advise you to build your tolerance during the loading phase to avoid bloating issues.

Another complaint leveled at creatine is its effects on the kidneys. However, these claims are not backed by any sort of extensive scientific research.

Bottom Line

Creatine is a naturally occurring substance within our body. Naturally, it has a vital role in aiding ATP production, which is essential for maintaining optimal energy, especially in the muscles.

As a supplement, creatine is the most popular for use in exercise performance, especially among weightlifters and bodybuilders. Its effectiveness for improving muscular strength and mass has been proven in clinical studies.

Mind and memory supplements help support cognitive health. Interestingly, creatine has also started gaining traction as a possible aid in cognitive performance. Although more research is needed, the results have been promising so far.

Sources:

Important roles of dietary taurine, creatine, carnosine, anserine and 4-hydroxyproline in human nutrition and health | NIH

Effects of acute creatine monohydrate supplementation on leucine kinetics and mixed-muscle protein synthesis | NIH

Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: a meta-analysis | NIH

Increase of total creatine in human brain after oral supplementation of creatine-monohydrate | NIH

Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials | NIH

Creatine supplementation and cognitive performance in elderly individuals | NIH

Healthy Directions Staff Editor