Bodybuilders are not especially well-known for their wisdom or intelligence, but can there be side effects of nutritional supplements that even benefit the brain, making athletes more intelligent?
Nowadays every other U.S. adult consumes dietary supplements and in particular bodybuilders and athletes in general often supplement their diet to gain muscle, increase their bodyweight or improve their performance. One of the most popular supplements, especially among sportsmen, is creatine, in a row with vitamins, proteins and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Creatine is an organic acid which is synthesized by the human body itself, thus, an additional intake of creatine is not mandatory. But why do so many people rely on creatine anyway? The reason is obvious: Creatine is primarily stored in the muscles and provides energy when and where it is needed. Hence, it could be useful to have some extra energy up one’s sleeve, in cases of high energy consumption during weight lifting or endurance training. Many users report increased power, less exhaustion or improved performance, which are plausible explanations for a constant supplementation with creatine. The question is: How to build a bridge to wisdom and intelligence?
As already mentioned, large parts of the available creatine in the body are stored in the muscles. However, the remaining part is located in the brain. If higher muscle creatine is able to improve human’s muscle performance, it seems to be plausible that increased brain creatine could be able to improve human’s brain performance, such as memory functions or cognitive processing. Research on this topic is not as numerous and progressed as in the muscle context, but there are promising hints that a supplementation with creatine could benefit brain functioning as well.
In an experimental study, Rae and colleagues investigated whether a long-term supplementation with creatine has an effect on intelligence and on working memory in healthy vegans and vegetarians. This group is worth special attention, because they are said to fundamentally have lower levels in brain creatine in consequence of not consuming meat. In an impressive way, the results show the feasibility of cognitive enhancement with the help of creatine: Increased brain creatine levels and, consequently, a better performance in both tasks examining intelligence and working memory could be confirmed in this study. Thus, vegans and vegetarians seem to profit substantially from a diet supplementation with creatine, filling up their brain creatine storage and providing the necessary energy for cognitive processing. To think one step further, vegans and vegetarians are not the only individuals in need of extra energy in the form of creatine. Just as much, for people whose cognitive processing is impaired because of external influences, the enhancing effects of creatine would be quite useful.
Concerning this, McMorris and colleagues explored the impact of a pre-supplementation with creatine on cognitive performance, psychomotor performance as well as mood state, following 24h of sleep deprivation. While fighting against the urge to sleep, energy is consumed steadily, leaving less and less energy for additional tasks. As a result of this examination, an administration of creatine (compared to an administration of a placebo) led to lower performance decrease triggered by sleep deprivation. The results support the assumption that in particular individuals with impaired cognitive abilities profit from the energy supply by creatine. Furthermore, in this study creatine supplementation was proved to be mood enhancing, indicating that facilitated task performance reduces stress perception and allows positive feelings. However, there has to be conducted much more research on creatine as cognitive enhancer to clarify the remaining questions and uncover underlying processes. Nevertheless, the basis is already established to reveal further fields of applications and to benefit more and more people.
Even though several uncertainties remain, creatine is a promising tool for pushing the brain, like bodybuilders push their muscles and it can be concluded that athletes’ dietary supplementation with creatine might make them a little smarter than we all would have expected.
McMorris, T., Harris, R. C., Swain, J., Corbett, J., Collard, K., Dyson, R. J., . . .& Draper, N. (2006). Effect of creatine supplementation and sleep deprivation, with mild exercise, on cognitive and psychomotor performance, mood state, and plasma concentrations of catecholamines and cortisol. Psychopharmacology, 185, 93-103.
Rae, C., Digney, A. L., McEwan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double–blind, placebo–controlled, cross–over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150.