As I write this I’m at my old stomping grounds in northeast Ohio. There’s a saying that this place has two main exports: steel and depression.
They weren’t kidding! It’s been nothing but overcast, rainy weather since I’ve been here and I can already feel its effect on my mood.
To counteract the crummy climate I’m loading myself up with a special white powder to help alleviate the doldrums and take my mind to a higher place.
If a local didn’t know any better they might think I’m dealing cocaine since I have this massive bag of porcelain dust that’s lying right next to me, but the substance is much more benign.
Isn’t creatine that stuff body builders take in huge amounts and sometimes OD on?
If I’m not into weight lifting and don’t want extra hair on my chest then why should I bother?
Well, there are plenty of good reasons. It’s true that athletic performance is the most advertised benefit of creatine supplementation, but for the same reasons it helps you exercise better it also helps you think smarter and be more relaxed.
It’s a critical and underappreciated nutrient for mental health.
Creatine Helps Your Body Use Energy
To burn energy your body has to metabolize a molecule called ATP. One might think that loading up your body with more ATP would help your energy levels but this isn’t the case. Your body doesn’t store ATP. The centenarian on his death bed, the endurance athlete in the middle of a marathon and the couch potato slammin’ brews in his living room all have ATP levels that are practically identical.
Instead, your body stores phosphate, which can be used to make more ATP when needed. Phosphate is stored and shuttled to and fro’ with the use of creatine. The ability to pump up ATP levels when needed is why creatine is popular with athletes, but this also makes it useful for preventing brain farts.
20% of your body’s resting energy is used up by your brain, despite the fact that it comprises 2% of your body weight.
Your neurons have very high and fluctuating energy needs. Your brain can drain 25% of its energy pool in under 10 seconds.
So it has a high need to keep creatine handy.
In fact, people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s probably have their pathology begin because their brain cells run out of ATP, which triggers cell death and marks the onset of the disease.
Should it be a surprise then that people with neurodegenerative disorders show improved motor functions and improvements in well being after creatine loading?
Your brain stores creatine in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. People who supplement with creatine typically have greater mental focus and PTSD sufferers usually calm down when they use it. [footnote]The effect on cognition is most pronounced for people who are already suffering from some sort of extreme mental state – sleeplessness, dementia, etc. If you’re healthy this goes way down, possibly to nothing. See here.[/footnote]
Creatine: The Chill Pill No One’s Talking About
Creatine has a surprising use case as an adjunct to an anti-depressant.
A far cry from those roided up bodybuilders you see on that protein label, eh?
So what exactly allows creatine to help us chill out and cut down on our neuroticism?
To make creatine your body needs to use a molecule called sam-E. Sam-E does a lot of remarkable things in the body. It’s used to promote something called the methylation cycle, a process the body uses to make a lot of compounds, like dopamine and serotonin. Ie, the “happy” chemicals.
Sam-E is a finicky molecule. Very fleeting, highly unstable, and not always present in the quantities needed for optimal health. Particularly mental health.
What’s a moody, neurotic, sam-E starved chap to do?
Well, loading with creatine would be a good place to start.
4 out of 5 sam-E molecules in your body are used to make creatine. So 80% of your body’s sam-E is spent going down the creatine-making rabbit hole before it has a chance to do anything else.
The research on this effect is nascent, but there are nibbles here and there that creatine supplementation has an effect on the body that’s similar to sam-E, since it allows your body to use more of it.
For example, creatine loading in mice increases the activity of serotonin receptors. Creatine also reduces circulating levels of homocysteine, which is a methylation cycle intermediate that builds up when the process stagnates. It’s also an important risk factor for heart disease.
Creatine: When you know more about what’s wrong, you can help make it right!
And No, It Doesn’t Have Side Effects
There’s a perception that something about creatine is inherently dangerous. Taking it might make you more aggressive, enlarge your testicals, or radically alter your sex hormones, causing your voice to drop an octave or two if you get ahead of yourself.
None of that’s true.
Everyone makes about 3-4 g of creatine each day in their liver, and the groups of people that need it most are ones you wouldn’t normally associate with roid-rage: vegetarians and the elderly.
Most of the elderly are in some stage of neurodegeneration, where your brain cells lose their ability to get oxygen and process energy, which causes your brain to go all cannibalistic on itself.
Well, that’s exactly what creatine prevents!
Veggies won’t get creatine from their diet since it’s only found in meat and seafood. Vegetarians who load with creatine show improved cognition.
So folks, if you add all this up, taking creatine is a “win” for most people, particularly those that don’t think they need it.
Granny a little slow on the uptake these days?
Is that annoying, ultra-skinny vegan friend of yours always bragging about how he has the perfect diet?
That moody co-worker about to make you bounce off the walls with frustration?
Let’s all do them a favor and see if we can get a little more creatine in their lives.
The internets is surprisingly mum on this topic, but I really like this article by Optimal Performance on creatine and its benefits.
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