Everything You Need to Know About Creatine
Creatine offers many benefits, but most people think of it as a supplement bodybuilders and athletes take to get bigger and stronger. While there may be some truth in that, that is a very narrow lens to look through. Creatine plays a major role in in the body’s ability to function properly. The heart, brain, bones, pancreas, and central nervous system each require creatine and a slight deficiency can lead to major conditions in these areas. It’s easy to see that creatine is essential to the human body and a deeper understanding can lead clue to just how powerful this molecule is.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a molecule comprised of three amino acids; L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine. It can be synthesized in the body, primarily in the liver and kidneys, but can also be found in meat and fish sources. The body generally produces between 1 and 2 grams of creatine per day and has a store between 120-140g. The actual level of these stores varies depending on an individual’s diet, muscle mass, exercise regimen, and hormone levels. Approximately 95% of the body’s creatine stores are found in skeletal muscle as phosphocreatine, with the other 5% being found in the brain, kidneys, and liver.
How Does Creatine Help Performance
Creatine positively affects athletic performance in a multitude of ways, but most of these benefits are directly related to the body’s ability to store it as phosphocreatine within the muscles. Phosphocreatine is easily converted into Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which is the primary source of energy in muscles. Since the muscles have this energy source available they are able to produce more force quicker and over time (1). This simply means they will be stronger and more powerful over a longer period of time than if they didn’t have those creatine stores. Here are some other benefits associated with creatine intake:
Enhanced Workload: Individuals can perform more total work within a training session, which can ultimately lead to increased muscle mass and stronger contractions within muscles.
Improved Hydration of Cells: Water content of cells becomes elevated which increases their total volume and can lead to muscle growth.
Increased Anabolic Hormone Levels: Creatine supplementation has been shown to increase IGF-1 (Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1), which stimulates muscle growth (2).
Reduces Muscle Atrophy: Creatine’s presence within muscles can improve total muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown during high intensity exercises bouts (3).
Decreases Myostatin Levels: Creatine can reduce the levels of myostatin within the muscles. Myostatin is a protein that inhibits muscle growth. By reducing this, creatine can help increase the growth potential of muscles (4).
Other Benefits of Creatine
Creatine is a well-known performance enhancing supplement, but it has been associated with brain health as well. This kind of makes sense since approximately 5% of the body’s stores are found in the brain and the brain requires a lot of energy in order to function properly. By having these stores in the brain, it can get to work quicker and work longer, essentially the same effect creatine has on muscles.
Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve many brain/neurological conditions such as: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Epilepsy. Creatine has also been shown to improve brain and spinal cord injuries, motor neuron diseases, and can boost overall memory and brain function.
Besides athletic populations, the elderly and vegetarians are likely to benefit from creatine supplementation the most. The elderly commonly benefit from the improved brain function associated with creatine and they are known to have lower creatine stores within their bodies. Vegetarians tend to have lower creatine stores because of their diet. Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve memory by up to 50% and intelligence by up to 20% in vegetarian populations (5).
Debunking Creatine Myths
Creatine is one of the most-studied supplements in existence. There have even been long-term studies (some as long as 4 years) that have shown no negative effects. Creatine is one of the safest supplements, but for some reason there is a lot of outdated information thrown out about creatine. Let’s go over some of the biggest myths that are still circulating.
Creatine Causes Dehydration: I’m not sure where this first originated but it has been shown that creatine actually increases hydration within cells. Researches have actually shown that individuals who supplement with creatine are less likely to become dehydrated that those who do not. They also experience significantly less incidences of cramps, muscle tightness, muscle strains, and heat illnesses.
Creatine Causes Weight Gain: While there is some truth to this, it’s not completely accurate. Individuals who begin taking a creatine supplement based on outdated “loading protocols” can see approximately 2lbs worth of weight gain, which can be contributed to the extra water retention within cells. In order to gain more than this, individuals would need to be in a caloric surplus. Creatine can help with the body’s ability to increase muscle mass and therefor overall weight, but that is only due to its ability to allow for more work at greater intensities. The individual would still need to be consuming more calories than expending in order for weight gain to take place. Essentially, if an athlete changes nothing within their diet or exercise routine, other than creatine supplementation, they could gain~2lbs from water retention, would be more hydrated and less likely to cramp or pull muscles, and would have a greater ability to produce force and be able to produce that force for longer periods of time. In order to gain more weight this athlete would need to increase their caloric intake.
Creatine Needs to be Loaded When Beginning to Supplement: Creatine does not need to be loaded. Outdated protocols for creatine supplementation suggested 15-20g daily for one week, followed by 3-4 weeks of 5g daily, followed by 1-2 weeks off. Loading creatine could help to reach maximal body saturation faster, but would also lead to more rapid weight gain from water retention. Loading wouldn’t have any negative side effects, but is not necessary and not loading is a cheaper strategy that would result in slower weight gain due to water retention.
Creatine Needs to be Cycled: Creatine does not rely on receptors and there isn’t a known “creatine sensitivity”. Because of these reasons’ creatine does not need to be cycled.
How Should I Supplement Creatine?
If you’ve read this entire post you know the powerful benefits of creatine supplementation. Figuring out how much and when to take it can be a pretty simple process. Creatine can be taken at any time, but for those who may have sensitive stomachs, taking it with a meal can help relieve any associated stomach issues. For general populations 2-3grams of creatine, per day, is an adequate amount. For individuals who train frequently or at high intensities, 5g daily could be more beneficial.
There are a lot of creatine supplements out there, but I would recommend Creatine Monohydrate if you’re going to take one. Creatine Monohydrate has been studied the most, is made synthetically (so it’s safe for vegetarians), is the cheapest, and doesn’t have any added ingredients.
Taking between 2-5g of creatine daily can improve a lot of aspects of daily living, as well as athletic performance. All of this while being completely safe and extremely well-researched. Creatine is essential to normal body function, and increased stores can help the body to function beyond its optimal level. Creatine has been wrongly associated with negative side-effects for a long time, and the science and research has completely debunked all of the myths.