- Creatine is a compound found naturally in our bodies, producing better athletic performance and brain health.
- Creatine supplementation may benefit brain function, memory, intelligence, and reasoning.
- Creatine supplementation may be particularly beneficial for older adults, vegans, and vegetarians.
- Most research points to a roughly five grams daily dose for brain-boosting effects.
Over the last few years, you've likely heard mention of a compound called creatine. Often found in supplemental form as a white powder, creatine monohydrate is found naturally in our bodies, especially our muscles.
It's been prized for decades by athletes for its role in muscle growth and athletic performance. Still, we're now learning that creatine supplementation may positively affect multiple aspects of brain function.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a compound of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. It was first discovered in 1832 in muscle, and most (over 90 percent) of our body's creatine is stored in our muscles. It is made from the amino acids glycine, methionine, and arginine.
Even though we have natural creatine, supplementation can dramatically increase our levels by 50-fold or higher.
How did creatine get so popular?
Around 80 years after its discovery, researchers at Harvard University demonstrated that consumption of creatine leads to an increase in the muscle content of creatine, and later, scientists showed that creatine can help create more energy in the form of ATP. In the 1990s, athletes had been using creatine to enhance athletic performance.
This led to higher-potency supplementation becoming more readily available. Several review articles have concluded that creatine supplementation can improve multiple measures of muscle performance in men and women and may enhance muscle recovery after exercise.
This has since been expanded to several other domains, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published on creatine supplementation.
Creatine and the brain's energy metabolism
Our brains are incredibly energy intensive, using over 20 percent of our body's energy despite only making up around 2 percent of our weight. With this in mind, creatine's energy-supplementing effect could, in theory, present a significant benefit for the brain.
Research has revealed that supplemental oral creatine does increase the brain's creatine levels and may help counteract mental fatigue. Access to extra brain fuel may help explain the diverse brain benefits of creatine supplementation.
Creatine and memory
Despite the litany of claims on the market, very few supplements have been shown to enhance memory statistically. Creatine is somewhat unique in this regard. In a robust 2022 meta-analysis, it was concluded that creatine supplementation significantly improved memory (compared to placebo). This improvement was particularly impressive among older adults (aged 66-77).
Creatine, intelligence, and reasoning
Like memory, few supplement-based interventions are linked to improved intelligence scores. That's what makes the data on creatine all the more interesting. In a systematic review of randomized trials published in 2018, researchers concluded that oral creatine supplementation may improve healthy individuals' intelligence and reasoning abilities.
Who could benefit most from creatine?
To date, the best data for the brain benefits of creatine supplementation appear to be in older adults, and potentially especially those who are vegan or vegetarian. Given what we know about its role in brain energy, it may be worth special consideration when our brains are under higher levels of metabolic stress (for example, if we're sleep-deprived or psychologically stressed).
Creatine supplementation in women
A common question around creatine supplementation concerns its use in women. As is often the case, there is less research on creatine use in women than in men. It is known that creatine stores in our body are partly under the control of hormones and that hormonal shifts occurring in women may have an essential role in the availability of natural creatine in the body.
In a review paper published by scientists at the University of North Carolina in 2021, it was suggested that "creatine supplementation may be even more effective for females by supporting a pro-energetic environment in the brain" and that "the current body of literature that has evaluated the effect of creatine supplementation in females suggests that the risk-to-benefit ratio is low."
Creatine and kidney issues
Another popular question about creatine relates to the potential that it could harm our kidneys or that it should be avoided in people with kidney issues. This particular question was addressed by researchers who published a review in the Journal of Renal Nutrition in 2021.
After analyzing all the relevant published studies, they concluded: "We are of the opinion that creatine supplements are safe for young adults and patients with chronic renal diseases."
While they generally believe the supplements to be overall safe, they suggested there may be a value in continued investigation of the effects on elderly patients with kidney issues.
What type and how much?
There are several forms of creatine on the market. These include creatine ethyl ester, creatine hydrochloride, buffered creatine, and creatine monohydrate. The most studied and available form is creatine monohydrate (it's also usually the most cost-effective).
There is some variability regarding optimal dosing, but generally, around five grams seems to be the consensus, and this does seem to generalize to many of the brain-specific studies. Some exercise research suggests that it should be taken after exercise and with food for maximum performance effects.
Creatine has emerged as a frontrunner among supplements scientifically studied for their benefits on brain function. While most research indicates that supplementation with creatine is safe, it's always worth speaking with a healthcare practitioner about any supplement intervention and ensuring the product comes from a trusted, quality company.
Generally speaking, most published research appears to support a dose of roughly five grams a day of creatine monohydrate to support muscle and brain wellness.