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Is Pre-Workout Bad For Your Brain? (Ingredients And Impact)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

There is no doubt that pre-workout can boost workout performance, but one of the common questions I get as a fitness professional is whether this popular supplement is bad for your brain.

To give my clients an accurate answer and hopefully put their minds at ease, I went over a few scientific studies on the subject and consulted our dietician about the common ingredients in pre-workout and their impact on the brain.

Read on to find out what I learned.

Quick Summary

  • Many ingredients added to pre-workout aim to increase blood flow to hard-working muscles and may also increase blood flow to your brain, resulting in headaches for some people.
  • Caffeine is a common ingredient found in most pre-workout supplements, and as a central nervous system stimulant enhances many cognitive functions.
  • Nootropics or cognitive enhancers are ingredients in many pre-workout supplements, including caffeine, creatine, and L-theanine.

Is Pre-workout Bad for Your Brain?

A muscular person with a headache in the gym

Pre-workout is not bad for your brain, but it does come with some risk of side effects, including jitteriness and headaches.

Let’s examine this popular workout supplement a bit closer.

Ingredients

Let’s first look at the most common pre-workout ingredients and how they may affect the brain.

Caffeine

The most common ingredient in many pre-workout supplements is caffeine.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that most know improves energy and alertness, but it is also proven to enhance exercise performance [1].

Caffeine can improve many aspects of brain function [2].

These include:

  • Vigilance
  • Mood
  • Learning
  • Reaction Time
  • General cognitive function
  • Attention
  • Alertness

However, caffeine withdrawal symptoms might include headaches, and over the course of the abstinence crisis, it might actually cause the reverse of the aforementioned effects.

L-Citrulline

L-Citrulline is added to pre-workout to boost nitric oxide production and increase blood flow [3]. This increased blood flow helps hard-working muscles during a workout to get you better pumps and benefits the brain in several ways [4].

Some of these include:

  • Increased energy
  • Increased oxygen
  • Improved mental clarity
  • Boosted memory
  • Increased cognitive capacity to think clearly and make decisions
  • Improved problem-solving skills

Creatine

A person drinking pre-workout

When people think about creatine in pre-workout supplements, they understand its benefit to muscle growth and recovery.

Additionally, many studies suggest that creatine benefits cognitive function [5].

More research shows that creatine supplementation of 5-20 grams daily may improve healthy adults’ short-term memory and reasoning ability [6].

Nootropics

Many popular pre-workout supplements contain nootropics, also known as cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs”.

In pre-workout, they are not drugs but natural ingredients that improve cognitive function [7].

Nootropics can enhance brain function in the following ways:

  • Increase focus and clarity
  • Increase motivation to perform tasks
  • Improve understanding
  • Boost memory and knowledge retention
  • Reduce mental fatigue
  • Reduce boredom
  • Improve brain health
  • Improve mental acuity
  • Improve reaction time
  • Heighten mood
  • Boost creativity

Examples of nootropics in pre-workout include:

  • L-theanine
  • Creatine
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Acetyl L-Carnitine
  • L-Tyrosine
  • Vitamin B12
  • Caffeine

“L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea that can increase feelings of calmness and may be linked to increased creativity. Its effectiveness is even greater when combined with caffeine.”

- Erica Julson, MS, RDN

Uses

A person holding a bottle of pre-workout

The most common practice is taking a pre-workout supplement before exercise to enhance athletic performance and increase stamina and energy.

Additionally, pre-workout can improve focus for studying, increase mental function for work or school, or increase mental energy for a late-night cram session.

Side Effects

Most side effects from pre-workout supplements come from the stimulants they contain.

These include:

  • Jitteriness
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Drowsiness

How to Safely Use It

A muscular person drinking from a bottle

For most people, pre-workout supplements are safe.

It is always best to consult your doctor before using any supplement, including pre-workout, to discuss any underlying medical conditions or medication interactions.

Also, to minimize potential adverse effects, do not take a higher dose than the manufacturer suggests.

If you are sensitive to stimulants, you can cut the dose in half to see if that helps with any side effects.

FAQs

Does Pre-workout Mess With Your Head?

Pre-workout can mess with your head, likely due to stimulants. Caffeine is the most common stimulant in pre-workout supplements that can cause anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.

Headaches are another side effect of stimulants and citrulline, another common pre-workout ingredient.

Does Pre-workout Affect Serotonin?

Pre-workout can affect serotonin which helps regulate behavior and attention. If pre-workout contains caffeine, it increases the serotonin neurons in the brain leading to improved mood and energy levels [8].

So, Is Pre-workout Really Bad for Your Brain?

My research suggests that pre-workout supplements themselves are not harmful to your brain, but some ingredients may cause adverse effects like headaches or anxiety.

Since there is no shortage of pre-workout options, we research and test many products here at Total Shape to make finding the right one easier for our clients.

Check out our lists of best pre-workout supplements here:

Top picks on our lists proved to be reliably effective with many of our clients without causing any of the commonly reported side effects.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7739593/
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00665.x
  3. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/l-citrulline-uses-and-risks
  4. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-you-think-better-after-walk-exercise
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7916590/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6093191/
  7. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/features/nootropics-smart-drugs-overview
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1356551/
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