Supplementing with Creatine Reduces the Need for Sleep

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We all need to sleep. While how much we really need is debated, somewhere around 7-9 hours per night seems to be the “sweet spot” where health and performance are optimal — at least this is what the sleep literature would suggest.

Why we sleep is not completely understood, but one of the hypothesized reasons is that sleep allows our brain to restore energy that we use while we are awake. Our brain is always using energy (in the form of ATP), but interestingly, the brain’s metabolic rate declines during sleep. We use about 44% less glucose and consume about 25% less oxygen during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep compared to when we are awake.

A buildup of a molecule called adenosine is largely responsible for our drive to sleep.

Throughout the day, adenosine levels build up in the brain. This is because adenosine is produced as a byproduct the breakdown of ATP — as we expend energy, we produce more adenosine. This buildup of adenosine increases our “sleep pressure.” Eventually, when so much adenosine builds up, we are driven to bed (this is why caffeine keeps us awake — it is an adenosine receptor antagonist and blocks the effects of adenosine).

The ATP-PCr System

Since our brain replenishes energy during sleep, this is perhaps why sleep deprivation is associated with a host of adverse cognitive outcomes including short-term performance decrements and long-term chronic conditions such as cognitive decline. If you’ve ever skipped a night of sleep, you’re well-aware that the next day you are far from your mental best. An energy emergency in the brain could be the culprit.

This brings up the question of whether preventing brain energy depletion could reduce the need for sleep? If one of the main purposes of sleep is related to brain energy replenishment, this could indeed be true.

Furthermore, could replenishing brain energy during sleep deprivation prevent some of the adverse metabolic effects or reduce the need to “recover”?

A study published in the journal Sleep Research investigated these questions.

Brief study methods

This study was conducted in rats, male Sprague-Dawley rats to be specific. 

For 4 weeks, the rats were supplemented with creatine monohydrate (Cr). Cr, often associated with weight-lifting and muscle building, also plays a large role in our body’s energy supply by regulating ATP availability, especially in the brain and muscles. During situations of high metabolic demand, a molecule called phosphocreatine (PCr) is broken down in order to synthesize ATP, which we can then use as cellular energy.

It was hypothesized that Cr supplementation, by increasing total energy availability in the brain, would reduce the need for sleep in rats. Furthermore, if Cr could prevent the energy deficit in the brain created during sleep deprivation, perhaps it would compensate for some of the effects of sleep deprivation in the brain and reduce the need for make-up sleep.

Rats were implanted with EEGs (to measure brain activity) and EMGs (to measure muscle activity), as well as a microdialysis cannula to obtain tissue samples from relevant brain areas.

At baseline, during sleep deprivation, and during recovery sleep, the rats had measures of sleep (EEG) and tissue samples performed. These same measures were repeated following 4 weeks of Cr supplementation.

– Cr supplementation increased wake time and decreased total sleep time

– Cr supplementation decreased time spent in NREM slow-wave sleep, but did not alter the amount of time spent in REM sleep

– At baseline, sleep deprivation increased “sleep pressure” in rats — shown by an increased NREM and REM sleep during the first 2 hours of recovery sleep

– Cr supplementation reduced “sleep pressure” after sleep deprivation — rats needed less NREM and REM sleep during recovery sleep vs. the baseline condition

– Creatine supplementation attenuated the increase in brain adenosine concentrations during sleep deprivation.

The novelty of this study is in showing that after 4 weeks of Cr supplementation, rats had enhanced wakefulness levels following sleep deprivation compared to baseline values. These changes in wakefulness occurred in tandem with a tendency for brain PCr levels to increase and a reduction in adenosine levels.

Providing an energy substrate (or at least a precursor) such as Cr seemed to have some sort of metabolic benefit for the brain. Perhaps by increasing the pool of high-energy phosphates, the authors speculate, Cr supplementation reduced the need for the brain to replenish these reserves through sleep — both at baseline and under conditions of sleep deprivation.

It will be interesting to see whether Cr supplementation could prevent cognitive issues in humans stemming from a lack of sleep. Cr has shown to benefit several neurological disorders including ALS, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. It’s even considered by some to be a nootropic (cognition-enhancing drug).

Even though Cr is shown here to reduce the need for sleep, I would limit these findings to the (rat) brain, as they likely don’t extend to the negative cardiovascular and metabolic effects of sleep deprivation. Nor do we know how these results might translate to humans. Nonetheless, these results are quite interesting.

Creatine is a generally low-cost and extremely safe supplement (often found in the form of creatine monohydrate), so it might be worth experimenting with for yourself. I know of individuals who supplement with a low dose of Cr for metabolic as well as cognitive benefits. Studies have shown good evidence that Cr may also help with sport performance.

Overall, it’s worth a shot, especially on those unwanted (or sometimes necessary) sleepless nights.

Study cited

Dworak M, Kim T, Mccarley RW, Basheer R. Creatine supplementation reduces sleep need and homeostatic sleep pressure in rats. J Sleep Res. 2017;26(3):377-385.

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