A widely available supplement popular with body builders and other athletes for supporting muscle growth and performance has found a whole lot of new fans… researchers who are studying its benefits for the brain and nervous system.
It turns out that this protein, which can help pump up muscles, pumps up memory too.
I’m talking about creatine. This supplement is a natural protein that your body can make in your kidneys and liver. It’s also found in meat and fish.
Creatine monohydrate – the type of creatine that’s the most popular among the muscular crowd – has been the subject of a large amount of research. One researcher has said there’s probably been more data collected on creatine monohydrate than any other supplement ever created.
One area of inquiry that’s pretty well-established is that vegetarians may be most in need of extra creatine since you can’t get much of it from your diet if you don’t eat meat or fish. A study at Stetson University in Florida demonstrates that when vegetarians or vegans take creatine supplements, their creatine levels climb and their brains work better.1
In this study, the researchers measured the cognitive performance of a group of vegetarians, then had them take supplements of creatine monohydrate for a month before giving them neurocognitive tests again. They also gave creatine supplements to meat eaters.
During that month, study participants initially took 20 grams of creatine a day for five days (the loading phase) and then took five grams a day for 24 days (the maintenance phase). The tests given at the end of the month showed vegetarians scored significantly better while the meat eaters stayed about the same.
Benefits For Older Adults
While the Florida study didn’t show improved brain performance in the folks who were already getting creatine from their diet, the researchers don’t report the age of their test subjects. It could be that younger, healthy omnivores whose brains are already working at their best in this study couldn’t be dramatically helped by taking creatine.
But a more recent review study by researchers in the United Kingdom and Canada shows that people of any age eating any sort of diet may be helped by taking creatine.2 In these tests, the brain improvements seemed to be strongest in older people. In particular, in the studies they reviewed, people aged 66 to 76 displayed the most “robust” effects.
These researchers say that the reason creatine seems to work well for seniors is probably due to the fact that the body’s creatine levels decrease as we age. In addition, since creatine helps the brain’s mitochondria deliver more energy to neurons and other cells, in older folks, whose mitochondria might not be functioning that well, creatine may support better mitochondrial function. And since older muscles may also weaken because the activities of mitochndria decrease, creatine could help those aging muscles retain more strength.
Good For Treating The Injured Brain
Aside from helping with memory and intellectual tasks, creatine has also been shown useful in helping the brain and nervous tissue heal from trauma and injury.
When Canadian scientists looked at the evidence for creatine’s effects after a concussion or other brain trauma, they found that it could help restore creatine in the brain (creatine brain levels drop after the brain is damaged).3 They also say that since the neurons in the brain have trouble getting enough cellular energy to function after trauma, creatine could potentially help neural mitochondria restart the supply of this energy and help brain cells receive larger amounts of cellular fuel.
Added to that, researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis have discovered that creatine can help nerve tissue in the rest of the body recover from injury.4
“Nerve repair requires a significant amount of energy,” says researcher Zu-Hang Sheng, PhD. “Our hypothesis is that damage to mitochondria following injury severely limits the available ATP (cellular fuel), and this energy crisis is what prevents the regrowth and repair of injured axons (nerve tissue).”
Dr. Sheng’s research shows that creatine can speed the removal of damaged mitochondria that can no longer function and help with the replenishment of mitochondria “to rescue the energy crisis.”
Using Creatine To Your Advantage
If you decide to take creatine monohydrate supplements, the recommended daily dose is between three to five grams, although some people take more at the beginning – just as the Stetson researchers gave people a larger initial dose for a few days at the beginning of their study.
The supplement is very safe – there are published studies lasting about five years that found very few side effects. However, taking a very big dose for a long time could theoretically stress your kidneys. And, if you have diabetes, kidney problems or liver problems you probably should talk to a knowledgeable healthcare provider about whether you can take creatine. And of course, get bloodwork regularly to check the health of these organs.