Creatine supplements may boost cognitive performance after poor sleep

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A recent study investigated how creatine supplements may improve cognitive performance after poor sleep. Aydan Metev/Getty Images
  • Creatine is a common sports supplement that is believed to increase the amount of energy muscle cells generate during exercise.
  • Some research suggests it may have positive effects on aspects of brain health.
  • A new study concludes that a high dose of creatine increases cognitive ability in sleep-deprived participants.

A recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports finds that just one large dose of creatine supplements may improve cognitive performance in people who are acutely sleep-deprived.

Experts hope that, in the future, creatine-based interventions could help people who need to perform at a high level despite insufficient sleep, like healthcare professionals, firefighters, and night-shift workers.

However, much more research is needed before we rush out and bulk-buy creatine.

Some athletes and fitness enthusiasts take creatine supplements to enhance physical performance. However, its role in cognitive performance has recently entered the spotlight. But what is creatine, and where does it come from?

Formed of three amino acids, the human body produces around 1 gram (g) of creatine daily, mostly in the liver and kidneys, and to a smaller degree, in the pancreas.

It is also present in some food — mostly meat and fish. Someone who follows an omnivorous diet will consume around 1 g per day.

Around 95% of the body’s creatine is stored in skeletal muscle but also in the brain.

Sports scientists are interested in creatine because it helps the body regenerate adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — our cells’ primary energy source.

Medical News Today spoke with Scott Forbes, PhD, about how this works. He told us that “[c]reatine gets converted into a molecule called phosphocreatine and this molecule can be broken down rapidly into energy (ATP).”

Forbes, who was not involved in the new study, is department chair of physical education studies at Brandon University in Canada and has published papers on creatine and brain function.

“The best part of this energy system is that it does not require oxygen. Therefore, if your brain requires energy quickly, it can use creatine (or phosphocreatine),” he explained.

MNT contacted Marco Machado, Ph.D., from Itaperuna University in Brazil, who has written a number of papers on the topic.

Machado was not involved in the current study, but explained that although some research shows that creatine might improve thinking abilities, it may only help people in specific circumstances.

“Particularly, it [creatine] has shown promise in improving cognition among older adults, especially those with lower intake of animal-derived foods, as well as in cases of mild brain trauma and sleep deprivation.”

– Marco Machado, PhD

According to Forbes, evidence is mounting that creatine may also “reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can benefit the brain,” and that “creatine may reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, be neuroprotective against brain injury, and help support brain health and development.”

In the latest creatine study, the authors recruited 15 participants. Each attended the laboratory on 2 nights, separated by at least 5 days. During one of the visits, they took a single, high dose of creatine, and on the other night, they took a placebo.

Earlier research has shown that the brain does not take up creatine unless it is stressed. As Forbes told MNT, “[w]e have conducted systematic reviews and original investigations on creatine and cognitive performance in young healthy adults in non-stressful situations and found little to no benefit.”

Sleep deprivation, however, puts the brain under duress, so, the researchers kept the participants awake overnight and asked them to complete cognitive tasks. They carried out the tests at the start of the study — before taking the creatine or placebo — and at three other time points throughout the night.

They found that 3 hours after the dose of creatine, there were positive changes in brain metabolism, and cognitive performance improved. This beneficial effect peaked at 4 hours but lasted up to 9 hours.

In particular, processing capacity and short-term memory were enhanced.

Forbes was impressed that just one dose provided measurable increases in cognitive performance because, previously, “researchers have speculated that a higher dose of creatine for a longer period of time is required to elevate brain creatine levels.”

“Since a lot of people experience sleep deprivation,” he continued, this “is some really cool data that shows creatine works. More research is needed, but these findings could be highly applicable to first responders — firefighters, military, police — healthcare workers, pilots, or athletes who may have trouble sleeping yet need to have their brains functioning at a high level.”

However, there are certain safety concerns. MNT spoke with one of the study authors, Ali Gordji-Nejad, PhD, from the Jülich Research Centre in Germany. Gordji-Nejad told us: “The dose in our study was very high (more than 20 g). Taking it is not recommended because of the strain on the kidneys.”

While people working on night shifts may benefit from creatine supplements one day, we must wait for more evidence.

“Only if future studies show the same cognitive improvement effect at significantly lower doses (around 5 g) could creatine be considered for long work nights,” said Gordji-Nejad.

He hopes there may be ways to enhance the effect so that a lower dose would still be useful: “The same or even better effect could also occur when creatine is combined with other components. This could be the focus of further studies.”

Machado also calls for caution: “Consulting with a qualified nutrition professional for proper dosage and guidance is crucial, as with any dietary supplement, to ensure its safe and effective use.”

He also explained how it is unclear who could benefit from creatine. “Conclusive evidence regarding cognitive benefits in young individuals with a balanced diet is still lacking,” Machado told MNT. This suggests “limited or no significant improvement in this demographic.”

Although the effect on cognitive performance was relatively short-lived in this study, Machado reminds us that this was just a “single-dose supplementation protocol.”

“Other research suggests that sustained supplementation over an extended period may yield more enduring effects,” he explained. “Further research exploring prolonged supplementation regimens could shed light on the potential for extending the cognitive benefits of creatine.”

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