Creatine is popular with athletes and bodybuilders for its beneficial effects in enhancing muscle mass, strength and endurance. As a supplement, it has been used by athletes since the early 1900s (x). However, this bodybuilding supplement caught popular attention following the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Many track and field gold medalists admitted to using it regularly to improve their performance (x). Today, creatine is a common supplement for many bodybuilding and weightlifting champions. Even average gym-goers around the world use it daily. It provides a much-needed boost for high-intensity exercise and demanding physical performances. As a supplement, it is also helpful in treating fatigue, brain disorders and congestive heart failure (x).
What is Creatine?
As a nonessential amino acid, creatine is synthesized in the body by the liver, kidneys and pancreas. It is also found in many foods eaten everyday. About 95 percent of creatine is stored in the muscles in the form of phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine plays an important role in the recycling of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the foremost source of energy to fuel cells in your body (x). This recycling of ATP helps muscles become more pronounced. As a result, people with an adequate amount of creatine in their system often show increased muscle mass and improved athletic performance.
Creatine is a mixture of three amino acids — glycine, arginine and methionine (x). The majority of creatine produced in the body is stored in the muscles while the remainder is distributed to the brain, liver and kidneys. Aside from providing energy to the body, it also keeps muscle cells hydrated by drawing water into them (x).
A 1912 Harvard research paper was the first to claim that oral creatine would boost the natural creatine levels stored in muscles (x). As the body already produces it naturally, muscle cells can easily use and absorb the excess amounts we consume in the form of supplements. Today, it has become a well-known and widely used supplement to increase muscle mass, strength and overall performance. A few research studies suggest its advantage in protecting you against certain neurological disorders while toting multiple health benefits (x, x, x, x).
Different Forms of Creatine
You may see different forms of creatine available on the market. Of the many varieties, there are four major fore-runners to be aware of:
- Creatine Monohydrate is identical to endogenous creatine produced in the liver, kidneys and pancreas (x). Most people prefer Micronized Creatine Monohydrate because it almost dissolves completely in water with minimal stiring.
- Creatine HCL (Hydrochloride) is a combination of creatine and hydrochloric acid (x).
- Creatine Ethyl Ester (CEE) can help increase the amount of Phosphocreatine stored in the muscles (x).
- Kre-alkalyn or buffered creatine contains bicarbonate or other alkaline ingredients. These additions prevent its conversion into any other form prior to reaching the skeletal muscle tissue (x).
- Creatine nitrate is a newer form of creatine supplement. It contains nitrate molecule to ensure higher solubility in the body (x).
Although most variations of creatine include additional agents to promote better absorption, creatine monohydrate remains the most popular and highest searched on the market (x).
Creatine and Muscle Gain
So, how does a creatine supplement help with muscle gain? As mentioned previously, it increases the phosphocreatine stores in the muscles. Phosphocreatine plays an important role in producing ATP or high-energy molecules, which powers cells in your body. More phosphocreatine means you have higher stores of ATP, and this enables your body to perform better for longer, especially during exercise (x).
Numerous studies show athletes who take creatine supplements while training resulted in faster muscle growth compared to training without supplementation. It has a “volumizing effect” that promotes muscle growth by drawing water into the muscles, causing the muscle cells to swell. As a result, muscles look bigger (x). This “volumizing effect” combined with the ability to train better for longer results in lasting muscle gain and improved endurance.
Other Creatine Benefits
When we don’t need glucose, we store it in our muscles and liver in the form of glycogen (x). This is how creatine supplements help increase not only muscle growth, but also endurance. It facilitates the storage of more glycogen during training that can aid in longer sets (x). Athletes looking to build endurance may find it suitable, as glycogen is the main source of energy for our cells.
Reduces Inflammation and Cell Damage
Athletes taking creatine supplements have reduced muscle inflammation and reduced cell damage following lengthy and intense training. They also have quick muscle recovery (x). And faster recovery means getting back to the weight rack sooner.
Optimal Brain Function
Although the brain is not a muscle, it behaves like one. Your brain also stores phosphocreatine and derives function from the ATP produced by it. Research on brain functioning and creatine supplementation have highlighted that children and adults suffering from neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy or motor neuron disease can benefit from it. Studies indicate creatine supplementation reduces symptoms and can even slow the progression of certain neurological disorders (x, x, x).
Creatine also has positive effects on high blood sugar, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and muscle function in seniors. These benefits are not as widely tested as the use of creatine for athletic performance, but the potential benefits should not be ignored (x, x, x).
Creatine and Caffeine
Consuming caffeine and creatine separately can have beneficial effects on the body when used in the appropriate amounts. However, there is a continued debate over the safety of taking creatine with caffeine. According to a study, when taking the two together, the latter may reduce the efficacy of the former, impacting your muscle growth. However, the study was based on the consumption of massive doses of caffeine that could impact anyone negatively, even if they weren’t taken alongside creatine (x).
A few studies show that athletes drinking enough water may receive the full benefits of creatine even when consumed with caffeine. Researchers claim that caffeine hinders absorption of water, causing muscle cramping and dehydration, so those athletes who remained well hydrated showed little hindrance (x).
The Best Time to Take Creatine
As with any popular sports supplement, there are a number of debates surrounding creatine. When to take it is just one of these debates. Opinions differ if you should have it before your workout, after a workout or whenever you feel like it. Studies primarily focus on using it for muscle and strength gains. If it’s prescribed as a treatment for a medical condition, the times to supplement with it should be suggested by your doctor.
Those who advocate taking creatine supplements before a workout cite creatine’s ability to boost ATP or cellular energy in muscles. The higher levels of ATP should then provide more power for training (x).
Many claim that taking oral creatine after a workout is more beneficial. This is because the muscles are better able to absorb it following an intense workout session. The body also needs insulin to drive creatine into the muscles. If you eat insulin-spiking foods after a high-intensity training session, then your muscles may have an easier time absorbing the supplement (x).
The third opinion favors taking creatine anytime you feel it necessary. Proponents of this view consider taking it strictly before or after a workout as supplement superstition. They believe that it can be taken at any time and you stand to reap the benefits as long as you have it in the right amount (x).
Can Women Take Creatine?
Many express apprehension over women taking creatine for fear of water retention, weight gain, bloating and fatigue. However, women starting a career in weightlifting or doing regular workouts should not be afraid to take it. As creatine leads to a higher metabolism, women tend to develop lean, tight muscle tone instead of “bulking up.”
However, when one increases creatine intake to build more muscles, it is natural to gain weight. Don’t panic! You are gaining muscle, not fat.
Foods High in Creatine
Looking to pick up a little extra creatine from your diet? These foods, among many others, are known to house high levels of the natural compound.
- Chicken breast
- Turkey breast
Do note that creatine is only present in animal-sourced foods. Luckily, creatine supplements are available in various forms, which is excellent news for vegetarians and vegans.
Creatine Side Effects
Like any other supplement, there are reported side effects to be aware of. Many of the reported side effects of creatine are due to user error or simply not drinking enough water for proper absorption. The most commonly reported side effects include:
- Muscle cramp
- Gastrointestinal pain
- Weight gain
- Inability to tolerate heat
Research shows that creatine may have an effect on hair loss. In one study, 20 college-aged male rugby players took either a creatine supplement or placebo for three weeks. Results showed that dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels in the subjects given creatine supplements increased by 56 percent after seven days (x). DHT is a derivative of the testosterone hormone, and high levels of it have been known to cause hair loss — particularly in those genetically prone to hair loss.
Though this research is intriguing, however, more studies are necessary to confirm creatine’s effects on hair loss.
The side effects listed above have more to do with improper dosing and/or lack of hydration or ingestion when the stomach is empty than related to disadvantages of creatine. Athletes who follow the guideline of 3-5 g per day usually do not experience any adverse side effects. However, its dosing instructions differ based on whether you need it for athletic performance or to treat a medical condition. The amount also varies for children.
When using creatine as a supplement, water intake is extremely important for the body to absorb it properly and avoid any side effects. If you ever experience any side effects listed above, talk to a health care professional to know if it is the supplement causing the issues or if it is simply the method in which you are taking it.
When supplementing with creatine HCL powder, it is best to take it in doses of 750 mg to 1,500 mg daily. Creatine monohydrate (micronized) powder, on the other hand, should be taken in doses of 2,500 to 5,000 mg once a day with plenty of water. For creatine ethyl ester HCL (CEE) powder, the serving size for C\creatine ethyl ester (CEE) HCL ranges from 1,500 mg (about 3/4 tsp) to 3,000 mg (1 1/2 tsp) to be taken once before and once after a workout with water.
Of course, creatine also comes in capsule form. When supplementing with creatine monohydrate capsules, take four capsules daily. Caffeine should not be consumed while taking any creatine monohydrate supplement.
The Myth of Kidney Damage
There is a myth that long-term creatine supplementation leads to kidney and liver damage. To date, studies have not found any significant change in renal, hepatic, cardiac or muscle function with this supplementation. The confusion surrounding organ damage may be due to the fact that elevated creatine levels are viewed as an indicator of kidney related problems. However, when you are taking it as a supplement, it is natural that you will have more creatine in your blood. Many studies have debunked such claims, highlighting that there were no adverse side effects related to organ function (x, x).
The Bottom Line
You should consult a medical professional to check if there is any potential effect of creatine on your health. Ensure you have no medical condition. It must not interact with any medication you take. If it is right for you, it can be a very beneficial supplement. The right dose of creatine taken along with a good amount of food and water can provide immense benefits.