What's Good for Your Muscles Is Good for Your Mind

What's Good for Your Muscles
Is Good for Your Mind

Muscle-building creatine also enhances memory and intellect
By Dr. Edward R. Rosick

he study of mind/body interactions is one of the most contentious fields of medicine today. Although the number of physicians who now believe that the mind and body are inextricably interconnected continues to grow, a significant number still insist that the mind and body are essentially separate entities with only minimal interactions. Of course, such stubbornness shouldn’t be surprising, because the belief it represents has long been ingrained in Western medical philosophy.

There are other belief systems, however, such as traditional Chinese medicine, that have always recognized the interconnectedness between mind and body. In addition, there is a growing body of research on such matters as the connections between chronic emotional stress, heart disease, and cancer, demonstrating that what happens in the mind can profoundly influence the functions of the body.

It has long been known, of course, that chemical agents that affect the body may also affect the mind, and vice versa, even if the effects in question are (or at least seem to be) totally unrelated. One such agent is creatine, a popular product used by bodybuilders and some other athletes to bulk up their muscles.

Creatine Provides Metabolic Energy

Creatine is an organic nitrogenous acid* produced naturally in the human kidneys, liver, and pancreas, but it’s concentrated primarily in muscle tissue, including the heart. It was discovered and isolated from meat extract in 1835, and meat remains our primary dietary source of this vital molecule. Vegetarians therefore have lower levels of creatine than do omnivores (i.e., most people). Creatine—in the form of creatine phosphate, or phosphocreatine—serves as one of the body’s primary storehouses of chemical energy for metabolic processes, along with the energy master molecule, ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which it helps to regenerate continuously.


*Technically, creatine is an amino acid, but not of the kind that constitutes proteins. Although it is an acid, it has basic properties as well, and the net result is that it’s weakly basic in solution.


There is some scientific evidence from laboratory studies on athletes indicating that creatine supplementation can increase muscle mass and strength. The effect occurs in short-duration, high-intensity activities requiring an all-out effort, such as sprinting and weightlifting, in which muscles can quickly become fatigued by the extraordinary demands placed on them. Such explosive effort causes a rapid buildup of lactic acid, and hence muscle fatigue, which creatine supplementation works to offset while helping to build muscle mass and strength.

The Brain Requires Lots of Energy

When you look at an NFL football player, especially the 350-pound hulks who play on the offensive line, what part of their body do you think needs the most energy? Their massive arms? Their barn-sized chests? Surely it must be their treelike legs, which have to support all that bulk! However, the part of their (and your) body that actually needs the most energy, proportionally, is a small, 3-pound mass of gray tissue residing in the skull: the brain.

While the human brain constitutes only about 1–3% of a person’s body weight, it uses about 20% of the body’s chemical energy. This energy is used, e.g., for neuronal repair, for producing, packaging, and secreting neurotransmitters, and for powering the bioelectrical discharges that occur when neurons communicate with one another. This last process, which occurs ceaselessly throughout our entire lives, entails the rapid, continuous exchange of sodium and potassium ions across neuronal membranes. It’s facilitated by biochemical “pumps” inside the membranes that move the sodium and potassium ions back and forth. It has been estimated that as much as 45% of a neuron’s energy reserve may be used to power these all-important ionic pumps.

Creatine Deficiency Diseases Result in Mental Retardation

With the knowledge of how important creatine is for brain functioning, it should come as no surprise that certain genetic disorders involving inborn errors of creatine metabolism in the brain can cause significant neurological defects. The first such disorder to be discovered, called GAMT deficiency, was clinically described in 1994.1 In this condition, there are low to almost undetectable levels of creatine in the brain. It manifests early in life as developmental delay, mental retardation, speech disabilities, and muscular weakness. Studies have shown that oral creatine supplementation at a dosage of 0.35–2.0 g/kg·day (grams per kilogram of body weight per day) in patients with this disorder can help slow or even reverse some of the most debilitating symptoms.

In another, similar genetic disorder called AGAT deficiency, there is minimal to no creatine metabolism in the brain, along with mental retardation, language disorders, and poorly developed fine motor skills.1 In two sisters, aged 4 and 6, with this disorder, creatine supplementation at 400 mg/kg·day produced rapid progress in fine motor skills and an increase in the girls’ general cognitive development.

Creatine May Help in Parkinson’s Disease

Creatine is also useful in treating some nongenetic disorders of the central nervous system. Although neurological disorders are caused by many different defects, it’s also thought that many seemingly diffuse diseases of the brain and nervous system share a common impairment of energy metabolism. There are now varieties of animal models and, in some cases, human studies showing that creatine supplementation can significantly ameliorate a variety of common symptoms of many neurological diseases.

In an animal model of Parkinson’s disease, creatine protected mouse brains against dopamine depletion and neuronal loss.2 And in two mouse models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, creatine supplementation extended the animals’ lifespan, improved motor performance, and protected against neuronal loss.3,4,5

Although there are fewer studies on creatine’s effects in human patients with neurological diseases than there are animal studies, the ones that have been done generally show positive results. A 1999 study on 102 patients with neuromuscular disease caused by disorders in mitochondrial function showed that creatine supplementation at 5–10 g/day increased all indexes of muscle strength; in addition, the patients reported an improvement in their ability to perform daily activities.6

Creatine May Help in Alzheimer’s Disease

Some researchers think that creatine may even be useful in combating the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In cultured rat neurons, creatine has been found to prevent the toxic effects of beta-amyloid, a protein deposit in the brain that is characteristic of AD. With this in mind, the authors of a recent study showing that elderly patients who have the ApoE genotype (which is known to be a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s) have decreased brain levels of creatine stated that “The potentially therapeutic effects of creatine in cognitive impairment and AD might merit further inquiry and should perhaps best not be overlooked.”7

Creatine Helps Healthy People Too

In addition to the evidence suggesting creatine’s potential in preventing and treating neurological diseases, there are studies showing that it can improve brain performance in healthy adults. A study published in 2002 examined the effects of creatine on mental fatigue in 24 men and women with an average age of 24.8 In this double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, the subjects who took 8 g/day of creatine over a 5-day period showed significantly less mental fatigue than the control subjects when performing simple mathematical calculations.

Is There a Better Whey to Build Muscles?

Dietary supplements containing creatine in the form of flavored drinks are especially popular with bodybuilders. Other ingredients include protein, and one that is often combined with creatine is whey, a nutritious waste product of cheese making. Although the whey/creatine combination is widely used, there was no scientific evidence of its effects on muscle characteristics until this year, when researchers at Victoria University in Australia decided to investigate.1

The researchers recruited 33 men in their 20s, all of whom were highly trained bodybuilders (and strength-matched to facilitate meaningful comparisons) for an 11-week study. The men were divided into four groups who were given (daily throughout the study) different drink mixes of equal caloric value. One group received a drink containing only carbohydrates; the second group received a whey drink; the third group received carbohydrates and creatine; and the fourth group received whey and creatine.

During the double-blind study, the men underwent fully supervised resistance training three times a week. By the end of the study, all of them had experienced gains in muscle mass and functional strength, as would be expected, but those who had taken the carbohydrate/creatine, whey, and whey/creatine supplements showed significantly greater gains than those who had taken carbohydrates only. The largest effect (literally), was found in the whey/creatine group, in which the gain in muscle mass was 12 times greater than in the carbohydrate-only group.

More research is needed to verify these preliminary results, but meanwhile, it couldn’t hurt to add some whey to your creatine if you want to build way bigger muscles.

  1. Cribb PJ et al. The effect of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle fiber characteristics, strength, and body composition. 2003 Experimental Biology Meeting, April 11–15, 2003, San Diego.

Memory and Analytical Skills Are Sharpened

In a more recent study, creatine supplementation was shown to improve scores on both intelligence tests and tests of working memory.9 The researchers speculated that, since there are scientific data suggesting that brain performance might benefit from an increased supply of fuel such as creatine during vigorous mental tasks, creatine supplementation might improve overall brain performance as well.

The researchers elected to use vegetarians and vegans for their study because they get little creatine in their diet; the idea was that creatine supplementation might be more effective in this group than in omnivores. Forty-five subjects (12 men and 33 women, aged 18–40) were enrolled in a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study for a period of 6 weeks, during which some received 5 g/day of creatine while the others received placebo. Both groups then took a battery of tests examining their memory and analytical skills. Following a 6-week washout period (no treatment with either creatine or placebo), the two groups were switched for another 6-week treatment period, and the same tests were conducted again.

As in earlier studies, the subjects who took creatine scored significantly higher on tests for both memory and analytical skills than those who took placebo. The authors concluded, “This trial of creatine supplementation showed beneficial effects of creatine on mental performance. These effects may add to the physical enhancement gained by athletes supplementing creatine levels and may be of use to those requiring boosted mental performance in the short term.” They also stated that (for technical reasons we need not go into here) they would expect to see beneficial effects of creatine supplementation on brain performance in most omnivores as well as in vegetarians and vegans.

Creatine for Both Brains and Brawn

For those of us who espouse a more integrated approach to medicine than many traditional physicians do, it is gratifying to see the growing acceptance by mainstream medicine of the idea that the mind and the body are one. For those who still think, however, that one must forsake the mind to develop the body (or vice versa), it should be gratifying to know that creatine is a supplement that can nourish the mind and the body and help bring both to greater levels of function and beauty.

References

  1. Wyss M, Schulze A. Health implications of creatine: can oral creatine supplementation protect against neurological and atherosclerotic disease? Neuroscience 2002;112(2):243-60.
  2. Matthews RT et al. Creatine and cyclocreatine attenuate MPTP neurotoxicity. Exp Neurol 1999 May;157:142-9.
  3. Andreassen OA et al. Increases in cortical glutamate concentrations in transgenic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis mice are attenuated by creatine supplementation. J Neurochem 2001;77:383-90.
  4. Ikeda K, Iwasaki Y, Kinoshita M. Oral administration of creatine monohydrate retards progression of motor neuron disease in the wobbler mouse. ALS 2000;1:207-12.
  5. Klivenyi P et al. Neuroprotective effects of creatine in a transgenic animal model of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Nature Med 1999;5:347-50.
  6. Tarnopolsky M, Martin J. Creatine monohydrate increases strength in patients with neuromuscular disease. Neurology 1999;52:854-7.
  7. Laakso MP et al. Decreased brain creatine levels in elderly apolipoprotein E4 carriers. J Neur Trans 2003;110:267-75.
  8. Watanabe A, Kato N, Kato T. Effects of creatine on mental fatigue and cerebral hemoglobin oxygenation. Neurosci Res 2002;42(4):279-85.
  9. Rae C et al. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proc Royal Soc London B 2003 Oct 22;270(1529):in press.


Dr. Rosick is an attending physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in preventive and alternative medicine. He also holds a master’s degree in healthcare administration.

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