The Hidden Health Benefits of Creatine
The research in unanimous in preaching the benefits of creatine supplements for athletes.
It allows the body to work at a higher intensity, increases muscle performance, increases muscle mass, increases maximal strength, increases power and increases work capacity. All favourable effects for those looking to increase performance. In fact, the International Society of Sports Nutrition goes so far as to say that “…it is the most effective nutritional supplement available today for increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and building lean mass.”
But what of longevity?
What of health?
Aside from the performance benefits, how can the use of creatine supplementation increase your lifespan, and more importantly, your HEALTHspan?
Is creatine an important supplement for someone looking to live healthier for longer?
But first, let’s start with a super simple description of what creatine is.
Creatine is a compound already present in the body – stored in our muscles. Our kidneys and liver produce about half of our creatine requirements. The remainder must be consumed as part of our diet – with the highest sources from red meat, fish and poultry. But the amount of creatine many people consume as part of their diet is insufficient, so creatine supplementation (in the form of a supplement called ‘creatine monohydrate’) is a common practice.
So let’s push the performance benefits of creatine to one side, and take a brief snapshot-summary of how creatine can improve your health.
In summary, in addition to performance benefits, creatine supplementation has been shown to:
- Improve cognitive function.
- Improve mood.
- Improve memory.
- Increase intellectual capabilities.
- Reduce mental fatigue.
- Protect against Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, lateral sclerosis, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, stroke.
- Reduce blood lipid levels.
- Treat the symptoms of muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, seizures, spinal cord injury, muscular injury and pulmonary disease.
- Improve ability to undertake activities of daily living.
We’ll explore the benefits of creatine supplementation in three separate areas, how it boosts function, how it can protect against disease and decline, and how it can be used to treat medical conditions.
How creatine supplementation boosts function:
Creatine supplementation has been shown to increase cognitive function. McMorris et. al. “concluded that creatine supplementation aids cognition in the elderly.” (2007). In 2006, the same research team examined the ability of creatine to reduce the cognitive function that is associated with sleep deprivation, and found that “…creatine supplementation had a positive effect on mood state and tasks that place a heavy stress on the prefrontal cortex (complex cognitive behaviour).”
There is some evidence that creatine supplementation can increase memory, as demonstrated by Benton and Donohoe (2011) who found that “…in vegetarians… creatine supplementation resulted in better memory.” This suggests that those with inadequate levels of dietary creatine would benefit from supplementation.
In 2002 research, Wyss and Schulze stated that the creatine system was important for “…proper brain function” and that supplementation may assist in “…strengthening memory function and intellectual capabilities”.
These memory-boosting finding were echoed in 2003 research by Rae et. al., with the addition of increased intelligence, stating that “Creatine supplementation had a significant positive effect on both working memory and intelligence…”
Watanabe et. al. “…demonstrated that dietary supplement of creatine reduces mental fatigue when subjects repeatedly perform a simple mathematical calculation.” (2002).
The protective benefits of creatine supplementation:
Creatine also has a preventative effect for numerous conditions.
“Supplementation display(s) neuroprotective effects in several animal models of neurological disease, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” (Wyss and Shulze, 2002).
1999 findings from Matthews et. al. echoed these findings, stating that creatine may have a “neuroprotective effect” against Parkinson’s.
And 2001 research by Kaemmerer et. al. states that for Huntington’s Disease, “Dietary supplementation with creatine improves survival and motor performance and delays neuronal atrophy…”.
As part of an early stage treatment plan for Alzheimer’s, Burklen et. al. (2006) proposed that creatine may improve mental concentration, memory and learning.
There are also potential benefits for atherosclerotic disease, with the research going on to state that “…oral creatine supplementation may… also lower the risk for developing… coronary heart disease or cerebrovascular disease.” And Prass et. al. (2007) found that creatine had benefits in both the protection and recovery from a stroke.
Individuals with high blood lipid levels may also benefit from creatine supplementation, with 1996 research from Earnest et. al. stating that “…creatine… may modulate lipid metabolism in certain individuals.”.
Creatine supplementation to treat medical conditions:
Aside from both the preventative and ‘health-boosting’ effects of creatine, it has been shown to have significant effects on training a variety of medical conditions and injuries.
Increases in strength across the board were observed by Tarnopolsly and Martin in 1999 in patients with neuromuscular disease.
Walter et. al. in their 2000 research found “…significant improvement in muscle strength and daily-life activities” in patients suffering from muscular dystrophies.
In 2008, Adhihetty and Beal proposed that creatine supplementation is an effective treatment method in Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.
A massive 70% reduction in fatigue and a 50% reduction in dizziness was observed in children who had suffered from a traumatic brain injury in a 2007 study by Sakellaris et. al. Similar conclusions were drawn in 2000 and 2004 research.
Conditions such as epilepsy (and other seizures) were found to benefit from creatine supplementation in 2009 research from Rambo et. al. who stated that a “combination between creatine supplementation and physical exercise may be a useful strategy in the treatment of convulsive disorders.”.
Protective effects were observed when creatine was used prior to surgery following spinal injury in 2002 research from Hausmann et. al. This was supported by research by Jacobs et. al. in the same year that stated that “Creatine supplementation enhances the exercise capacity in persons with complete cervical-level spinal cord injury and may promote greater exercise training benefits.”.
Following an injury or surgery that resulted in immobilisation of a limb, creatine was found by Eijnde et. al. in 2001 to both slow the loss of muscle strength, and to aid in rehabilitation due to the effects of creatine on a certain protein in the body.
2001 research by Hespel et. al. echoed these findings, stating “oral creatine supplementation stimulates muscle hypertrophy during rehabilitative strength training.”
Similar strength-maintaining benefits were seen in patients with pulmonary disease, with 2005 research from Fuld et. al. stating that “Creatine may constitute a new… treatment in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”.
Improvement in activities of daily living:
And of course, although we may not all consider ourselves athletes, the challenges of our daily lives both now and into old age can benefit from improving our physical abilities. The ‘events’ of our life may not involve competitions to see how fast we can run, or how much weight we can lift over our heads, but we will benefit from being stronger. Increased strength and power are both associated with increases to both your lifespan and your healthspan. So all the benefits of creatine we’ve spoken about for athletes, also apply to us ‘normal folk’.
To learn more about the importance of both strength and power for longevity and quality of life, read:
- The Complete Guide to Training Power for Health and Performance
- Why You Need to Lift Weights For Your Health
Creatine for vegetarians and vegans:
As creatine is primarily consumed through animal-based foods, it’s worth looking at the effects of restrictive diets such as vegetarian and vegan diets. Burke et. al. (2003) found that “…total creatine was significantly lower in vegetarians compared with non vegetarians…”. The health and performance benefits of creatine are therefore diminished in those following a vegetarian and vegan diet. For these populations, creatine supplementation is recommended. In fact, the research indicated that vegetarian “…subjects with initially low levels of (creatine) are more responsive to supplementation” due to the lower baseline levels they usually experience as part of their diet.
Safety of creatine supplementation:
The benefits seem clear, but it’s natural (and important) to question the safety of health supplements. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, “There is no scientific evidence that the short- or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals.’
Creatine supplementation should be considered as part of a three-pronged health improving strategy to boost function, protect against disease and decline, and treat medical conditions.
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Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.