Creatine is one of the most popular supplements of all time, with research showing that it rakes in more than $400 million in sales each year. Despite its popularity, however, creatine is often viewed as a supplement exclusively for gym rats.
Sure, creatine is a favorite amongst gym-goers, with estimates suggesting that anywhere from 28 to 74 percent of them take it. (There’s a good reason for this: One 2022 review published in Nutrients concluded that creatine supplement very effectively increases strength and muscle size in subjects who regularly resistance train. Plus, one 2021 review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that creatine supplementation may provide additional fitness benefits, such as better post-workout recovery, injury prevention, and rehabilitation.) But, research also shows that creatine supplementation can benefit almost anyone, regardless of their activity level, fitness aspirations, or physique.
As Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., I.F.N.C.P., performance dietitian for the Cleveland Cavaliers puts it, “Yes, creatine is widely recommended to increase muscle growth, improve strength, and enhance post-workout recovery, but it is also incredibly good for brain health.” In fact, it’s being utilized more and more for a variety of cognition-related concerns, she says.
Clearly, there’s much more to creatine than big biceps. Here’s what you need to know about the supplement’s impressive brain benefits.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., I.F.N.C.P., is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and the Cleveland Cavaliers Performance Dietitian. Jenna Stangland, M.S., R.D., is. a registered dietitian and the director of nutrition for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jim White, R.D.N., is a dietitian, exercise physiologist, and the owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios
What Is Creatine, Exactly?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that helps the body deliver energy to the tissues in your body. “It works by helping the body replenish its stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s primary energy source,” explains registered dietitian Jenna Stangland, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The compound does this by increasing levels of a molecule called creatine-phosphate (or phosphocreatine) in the body, explains dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. The phosphocreatine then fuses with a molecule called adenosine diphosphate (ADP), which is a form of energy the body can’t use, to create ATP. Once complete, this reaction means more energy is available for use by your muscles, brain, and more, he says.
Between your pancreas, kidneys, and liver, your body naturally produces about one to two grams of creatine each day. However, it can use more than that—much more than that, depending on a number of factors, such as age, personal body chemistry, muscle mass, and daily activity level. Indeed, research suggests that individuals can benefit from consuming as much as 25 grams of creatine per day.
To obtain extra creatine, individuals can load up on certain animal-based foods, such as beef, poultry, and fish. Thing is, these sources contain small amounts of creatine (about one to two grams per pound, which puts you at about 0.25 to 0.5 grams per serving). To really move the needle, many people turn to creatine supplements.
The Role Creatine Plays In The Brain
Given how central the brain is to all of our conscious and subconscious actions and thoughts, it should come as no surprise that the organ demands a lot of energy. Really, it goes through ATP faster than an SUV goes through gas. In fact, the brain is responsible for 20 percent of all the energy the body burns through on any given day.
Since creatine is an essential ingredient for ATP production, the brain needs quite a bit of it in order to operate to its full potential. “Creatine helps create more phosphocreatine and ATP stores in the brain,” explains Bogden. As such, creatine plays a major role in brain health, supporting cognitive function, short-term memory, and reasoning skills, to name just a few. Plus, since ATP helps promote dopamine release in the brain, creatine is also thought to help support healthy levels of dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone) in the brain, Bogden adds.
Interestingly, despite how important creatine is for the brain (and how much the brain uses!), there isn’t naturally that much of this chemical available in your noggin. The fact is, while the brain uses 20 percent of the body’s energy, it contains just about two percent of the creatine in the body. That’s where creatine supplementation comes into play.
What The Research Says About Creatine Supplementation And Brain Health
Though the body of research on creatine’s ability to support brain health is still growing, the current body of evidence is certainly promising, says Bogden. Here are some of the most exciting findings to date.
One review published in the journal Nutrients in 2021 found that creatine supplementation can improve cognitive function (particularly in individuals with brain creatine deficits, as occurs in sleep deprivation, certain mental health conditions, and issues with cognitive decline).
Meanwhile, a 2022 review published in the same journal suggests that creatine may support recovery from certain brain injuries and be supportive in the face of neurological and cognitive decline when combined with other strategies.
Read More: 9 Daily Habits That Mess With Your Focus
Further, one 2022 study published in Nutrition Reviews found that creatine supplementation helped significantly enhance memory in older adults, especially those who are otherwise healthy. As it goes, this benefit seems to be especially powerful for older populations compared to younger people. “Brain creatine content may decline as you age, so those with lower brain creatine content may respond better to creatine supplementation when it comes to enhancing memory,” explains White.
Finally, one 2023 study published in Sports Medicine shows that creatine supplementation can help offset mental side-effects associated with sleep deprivation, such as lack of capital awareness, sour mood, and poor balance.
Are There Any Risks Of Supplementing With Creatine?
Generally speaking, creatine is considered safe for adults to consume at any time of day, as well as with or without food in small doses, says Bogden.
However, it’s always best to check with a healthcare provider before adding a new product to your supplement stack, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions. Creatine may negatively interact with certain medications such as NSAIDS, diuretics, cimetidine, and probenecid, making them less effective, according to White.
“People with kidney disease, high blood pressure, or liver disease should also avoid supplementing with creatine,” he says. That’s because creatine may increase blood levels of a compound called creatinine, which is already an issue in people with renal function issues.
How To Supplement With Creatine
There are no definitive guidelines around exactly how much creatine individuals should take for optimal brain health benefits. In fact, researchers have called attention to the current lack of dose-response studies and optimal creatine protocols for increasing brain creatine levels.
However, the protocol typically used for maximal performance benefits is also a sound recommendation for individuals most interested in the brain health benefits, too, according to White. With that approach, you’ll begin by taking five grams of creatine monohydrate powder four times daily (a total of 20 grams per day) for five to seven days. This initial phase, known as the “loading phase,” helps fast-track the process of the body building up its creatine stores so you’ll experience benefits more quickly. After that initial phase, you’ll drop down to a maintenance dose of between three and 10 total grams per day. Where you land will depend on your body size and any relevant goals. (Bigger-bodied folks, as well as individuals who want to put on muscle, will be on the higher end of the spectrum).
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Thankfully, working creatine into your day is pretty simple. “It does not matter if you take it with or without food,” says Bogden. “To reap the brain health benefits of creatine, consistency is what matters most, so try to incorporate it into something that you do daily, such as a recovery shake or morning smoothie,” she says.
Taken consistently, individuals can expect to notice results in just two to four weeks, says Bogden. (Research suggests that exercise performance benefits may kick in even sooner.)