Creatine 101: A Controversial Supplements Debunked

Creatine 101: A Controversial Supplements Debunked

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a molecule that is naturally produced in the human body to supply energy to muscles and neurons. It is synthesized in the liver, pancreas and kidneys from amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine.  

Approximately 95% of the human body's creatine is stored in skeletal muscle as phosphocreatine. The remaining 5% is stored in the brain, liver, kidney and testes.

Phosphocreatine acts as a high-energy reserve that can rapidly produce ATP, the primary energy molecule used during short bursts of intense activity like weight lifting or sprinting. This is why creatine has become a popular sports supplement among athletes looking to improve high-intensity exercise performance.

In addition to being produced naturally in the body, creatine can also be obtained through food sources like red meat and fish. A typical omnivorous diet provides about 1-2 grams of creatine per day, with the richest sources being herring, salmon, tuna, and beef.

So in summary, creatine is an organic compound that supplies energy to cells throughout the body, especially muscle and brain cells. It is produced in the body as well as obtained through certain high-protein foods. Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts use creatine supplements to increase their stores of this molecule.

How Creatine Works

Creatine is one of the most well-researched sports supplements available today. It works by increasing the body's stores of creatine phosphate, which helps provide energy to all cells in the body, but primarily muscle cells. 

Here's how it works:

1. Creatine supplementation increases the levels of creatine phosphate stored in your muscles. Creatine binds with phosphate to form creatine phosphate.

2. Creatine phosphate (CP) is a high-energy molecule that rapidly regenerates ATP, the primary fuel source for high-intensity exercise like weightlifting or sprints.

3. Having higher CP levels can enhance strength and power output by providing more ATP energy for muscular contractions. This is because CP can regenerate ATP faster than other energy systems.

4. More ATP energy produced in your muscles allows you to lift heavier weights, complete more reps, run faster, and train longer before fatigue sets in.

5. Creatine supplementation has repeatedly been shown in research studies to increase power output, strength, and high-intensity exercise capacity.

6. Higher CP levels may also help muscles recover faster between sets and after workouts. This can lead to greater adaptations over time with consistent training.

In summary, creatine boosts available energy in muscles, leading to direct improvements in strength, power, workout performance, and recovery.

Benefits of Creatine

Creatine is one of the most widely used and thoroughly researched sports supplements. It has been consistently shown to increase muscle size and strength gains from strength training. Here are some of the main benefits of creatine:

Builds muscle size and strength - Numerous studies have shown that creatine supplementation, combined with strength training, increases lean body mass, muscle size, and strength output compared to training alone. The boost in strength can be up to 15% greater than training without creatine.

Enhances high-intensity exercise performance - Creatine plays a key role in providing energy for high-intensity activities. It can improve performance and delay fatigue during sprints, weight lifting, and other anaerobic exercises lasting up to about 30 seconds. This can allow you to train harder for longer.

May improve brain function - There is some evidence that creatine may enhance cognition and memory, especially in people with low creatine levels. More research is needed, but some studies suggest creatine may help improve symptoms in neurological diseases like Parkinson's.

In summary, creatine is a safe, well-researched supplement that can provide significant performance and muscle building benefits for strength trainers and athletes engaged in high-intensity activities. It may also have cognitive benefits, though more research is needed in this area.

Is Creatine Safe?

For most adults, creatine is safe to take as a supplement when following the recommended guidelines for dosage and usage. There have been no studies reporting any serious side effects from creatine supplementation. 

The most common minor side effects reported in studies are:

Weight gain - Creatine draws water into your muscles, causing them to swell slightly. This may lead to a gain of 1-2 pounds in the first few weeks of supplementing. However, this initial weight gain levels off after the "loading phase".

Stomach discomfort - Some users report mild discomfort like cramping or nausea when starting creatine. This effect usually goes away quickly as the body adjusts. Taking creatine with food may help reduce digestive issues. 

Overall creatine is considered one of the safer sports supplements available today. It has been extensively studied for decades with no serious adverse events reported in healthy adults at recommended dosages. As with any supplement, it's recommended to consult with a doctor if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.

Creatine Dosage

The most common recommended dosage for creatine is 3-5 grams per day. This amount, taken consistently, is sufficient to increase creatine stores in your muscles over time. Higher doses have not been shown to provide additional benefits. 

Some people follow more complex cycling protocols, like taking 20 grams per day for 5-7 days to load creatine (known as the creatine loading phase), followed by 3-5 grams per day as a maintenance dose. However, loading is not necessary for most people to see results from creatine.

The best time to take creatine is debated, but many take it after workouts on training days. Creatine pulls water into your muscles, so taking it with adequate water is important to stay hydrated

The bottom line is that 3-5 grams per day, taken consistently, is an effective dosage. More complex cycling or timing strategies can be tested, but are likely not necessary. Stick with the standard recommended dosage first before experimenting with loading phases or intricate timing protocols.

Types of Creatine

Creatine supplements come in various forms, but the most common and well-researched form is creatine monohydrate. This type makes up about 90% of the creatine that is naturally stored in the human body. Numerous studies have shown creatine monohydrate to be effective for improving exercise performance and increasing muscle strength and size. 

Creatine monohydrate is inexpensive and widely available as a sports supplement. It is relatively stable with a long shelf-life and dissolves well in water. Some individuals may experience mild side effects like bloating or cramping from creatine monohydrate, so alternatives have been developed.

Other forms of creatine include creatine hydrochloride and creatine ethyl ester. Proponents claim these newer forms are more soluble and may cause less side effects. However, there are fewer studies on these alternate forms of creatine compared to the large body of research on creatine monohydrate. While they may provide similar benefits, creatine monohydrate remains the most common, effective, and economical choice for most people.

When to Avoid Creatine 

Creatine is generally considered safe for most healthy adults when taken at recommended dosages. However, there are a few cases where creatine should be avoided:

Pregnant or breastfeeding women - Creatine crosses the placenta during pregnancy and is excreted into breast milk. The effects on unborn babies and infants are unknown, so creatine should be avoided as a precaution.

Pre-existing kidney disease - Creatine places additional strain on the kidneys, which filter out creatine waste. Those with kidney disorders should not take creatine due to the risk of worsening kidney function. 

If you fall into any of the above categories, it's best to avoid creatine supplements. Check with your doctor before starting creatine if you have any concerns about interactions with medical conditions or medications. For most others, creatine is likely safe when taken as recommended, but moderation is still advised.

Creatine vs. Other Supplements

Creatine is commonly compared to other popular sports supplements like protein powder, pre-workout, and BCAAs. Here's how creatine stacks up:

Compared to protein powder - Protein powder is taken to help build and repair muscle tissue. Creatine does not play the same role as protein, but rather helps provide energy to muscles. Many people take both creatine and protein powder to maximize muscle growth.

Compared to pre-workout - Pre-workout supplements contain ingredients like caffeine to boost energy and performance. Creatine directly increases stores of ATP energy in muscles. The effects of pre-workout and creatine are complementary. Some pre-workouts contain creatine as well.

Compared to BCAAs - Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are taken to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Creatine does not have a direct impact on protein synthesis, but may help speed recovery between workouts. BCAAs and creatine work through different mechanisms.

The bottom line is creatine has a unique effect on muscle energy stores. It can be effectively combined with protein, pre-workout, and BCAAs for maximum benefits. Of all sports supplement ingredients, creatine is one of the most researched and proven to increase strength and muscle gains.

Creatine Loading Phase

The creatine loading phase involves taking higher doses of creatine, usually 20-25 grams per day, for the first 5-7 days when starting supplementation. The goal is to saturate your muscles quickly to maximize performance gains.

Pros of Loading Phase:

- Allows you to experience the effects of creatine faster, usually within the first 1-2 weeks.

- Maximizes muscular creatine stores more quickly. 

- May provide greater performance enhancement in the beginning.

Cons of Loading Phase

- Requires taking large amounts of creatine (4-5 servings per day), which some find inconvenient.

- Can cause temporary weight gain due to increased water retention.

- May increase risk of side effects like upset stomach or cramping.

- Not necessary to get results from creatine.

The loading phase is optional. You can saturate your muscles with creatine over time without loading by taking 3-5 grams per day for 4-6 weeks. This slower saturation may delay results slightly but also reduces risk of side effects.

Whether you choose to load creatine or not, make sure to drink plenty of water each day to stay well hydrated. Proper hydration can reduce side effects and maximize creatine uptake in muscles.

Creatine for Women

Creatine can offer several benefits for active women who engage in high-intensity exercise. While creatine is often associated with male bodybuilders and athletes, research shows it can also improve performance and training adaptations in females.

Some key benefits of creatine supplementation for women may include:

Increased strength and power output - Creatine enhances the body's stores of phosphocreatine, providing more rapid energy during high-intensity anaerobic exercise like weight lifting. This can directly increase maximal strength and power.

Improved muscle gain - Along with supporting greater gains in strength, creatine supplements may help women increase muscle mass more effectively when combined with resistance training. The extra energy supplied by creatine aids muscle protein synthesis.

Enhanced high-intensity endurance - By providing muscles with a rapidly-available energy source, creatine can delay fatigue and allow women to train at a higher intensity for longer periods. This is especially beneficial for HIIT workouts.

Reduced fatigue - Research indicates that creatine supplementation can help reduce muscle damage and post-workout soreness in females. This may allow for quicker recovery between workouts.

Increased hydration - Creatine pulls water into muscle cells, resulting in increased hydration, muscle volumization, and a pumped look after training. This may also aid performance.

The recommended dosage for women is the same as for men - 5 grams per day. It's best to spread this out into 2-3 smaller doses of 2-3 grams each. Creatine is safe for women, and negative side effects at proper doses are rare. However, high loading doses over 10 grams per day are not recommended. With a moderate daily dosage, women can safely experience the performance and physique benefits of creatine.