Are you familiar with creatine? If you are, creatine probably conjures images of elite athletes gaining incremental performance advantage. And if that’s the case, you are right. Creatine is, as Performance Nutritionist Matt Gardner puts it, "recognised as the most effective nutritional supplement in enhancing lean body mass, strength and exercise tolerance."But can creatine also enhance brain function? Mental sharpness? Memory?
First: what is Creatine?Creatine is a non-essential amino acid, which means the human body is capable of synthesising it. It is naturally present in meat – a kilogram of beef contains about 5grams of creatine. But it is not present in any plant food sources, and the body’s synthesis of creatine is far from perfect. As a result, vegetarians and vegans who do not supplement on creatine tend to have significantly lower levels of creatine present in their muscle tissue than omnivores.
What does it do?If you remember science lessons from school, you’ll know that our cells run on energy provided in the form of ATP. Creatine is utilised by the body to metabolise a very quick source of ATP energy, by binding creatine and phosphate. This method of synthesizing ATP molecules is up to 70 times faster than other methods used by the body. At the same time, despite its relative small size within our body, our brain can burn through 20% of total our daily energy. In periods of intense mental focus, ATP provides rapid energy to the brain. Put simply, creatine serves as the kindling to fire up our thoughts.
Is Creatine supplementation necessary for good brain function?Several studies (1, 2 and 3) have concluded that creatine supplementation provides significant improvement in brain function. This was particularly true in two cases:
- Memory was significantly improved under time pressure - which makes sense, since creatine is used as a “short cut” energy source.
- Supplementation benefitted vegetarian groups (whose baseline creatine levels were lower than omnivore groups) to a greater extent than omnivores.
What other elements can improve brain function?Though creatine is one of the most researched supplements for increasing immediate energy source, other elements can have a positive impact on cognition. Ginkgo Biloba acts as a natural blood thinner, a little bit like aspirine. This means better circulation of oxygen to the brain. There is strong evidence suggesting that Ginkgo Biloba improves working memory performance (4). Folate, Biotin and vitamin B12 all contribute to normal psychological function. Incidentally, B12 deficiency is also a common risk among vegans and vegetarians - alongside lower creatine levels. In addition, "when the body utilises creatine, says Matt Gardner, it will use a number of creatine transporters. These transporters seem to be more effective when in the presence of carbohydrates. In a nutshell, when insulin is stimulated (a hormone created by the pancreas as a result of eating carbohydrates) this increases the muscle membrane permeability in order to more effectively transport the creatine into the muscle."
Mind & Body Creatine: the all-in-one brain boosterSo now we know:
- Creatine plays an essential part in brain function, particularly under time pressure (such as in a high-level meeting or in an exam).
- Ginkgo Biloba, Folate, Biotin and B12 all contribute to good brain health and psychological function.
- Creatine and B12 levels are lower in non-meat eaters than in omnivores.
- The body best absorbs creatine alongside an insulin-triggering, carb-rich snack or meal.
Matt adds: "it would be adventagous to consume Motion Nutrition's creatine supplement after exercise with a carbohydrate and protein source in order to increase absorption. For example via a liquid option like a homemade smoothie with a Motion Nutrition protein powder and a banana."
"On a rest day, concludes Matt, consume the creatine supplement with one of your meals that contains a starch based carbohydrate option like brown rice, sweet potato or whole meal pasta."