Is Creatine Supplementation Safe & Beneficial?
Creatine supplementation can be a controversial topic, but it is one worth discussing! There is a plethora of research regarding the use of creatine in various settings. This blog post will take a look at the evidence, which is always my favorite place to start.
What is creatine?
First of all, let’s talk about what creatine is NOT: Creatine is not a steroid, steroidal substance, or stimulant. It is not banned or restricted in any form during athletic competitions. These are common misperceptions! In fact, creatine is naturally occurring, and we get a dose of it every time we eat animal products. Our bodies also form creatine from three amino acids (methionine, arginine, and glycine). This synthesis occurs in the liver and the kidneys. About 50 percent of our body’s creatine comes from our diet and the other half is formed within. Most is stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine, but there is also a smaller amount of creatine stored in brain tissue. Simply put, creatine is nothing more than an amino acid compound. The most popular and well-studied supplemental form is creatine monohydrate: Creatine with a water molecule attached.
What does creatine do in the body?
Creatine serves to increase the ability of muscles to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP)- also known as energy- particularly during high intensity exercise/repetitive use. In the form of phosphocreatine, it also functions as stored muscular energy for exercise. Another effect of creatine is the retention of water in muscle tissue, the pressure from which stimulates cell growth (increased muscle volume and mass).
Adequate stores of creatine improve cell signaling- the call to support growth and repair. Certain hormones involved in muscle growth such as IGF-1 are increased after taking creatine. Protein breakdown is inhibited in the presence of stored phosphocreatine. Finally, phosphocreatine stores in the brain contribute to increased brain health.
What are the actual benefits of creatine?
- Increased exercise performance: This is particularly striking in cases of high intensity workouts. Typically, muscular ATP is used up in about 10 minutes of high-powered physical activity, but with supplemental stores, this can be extended.
- Increased muscle fiber growth: A multitude of research studies show that creatine increases muscle mass and growth. In fact, a large research review showed that creatine is the most effective supplement for improvement in muscle mass. One study in particular demonstrated a two to three fold increase in muscle fiber growth with creatine supplementation in weight lifters as compared to strength training alone.
- Increased muscular endurance: Creatine has been shown to increase muscle glycogen storage by about 18 percent when taken long term. It also improves glycogen store replenishment. This translates to increased time to fatigue during longer bouts of exercise as well as improved recovery.
- Decreased muscle soreness and improved post-exercise recovery times: As noted above, increased glycogen storage can help with muscle recovery, but so can the improvement in muscular fiber growth and the decrease in protein breakdown that creatine supplementation supports.
- Decreased incidence of injury and accelerated recovery: Research shows that creatine supplementation can reduce the risk of athletic injury and speed recovery times when injury does occur. It also reduces muscle loss during periods of immobilization.
- Improved heat tolerance: Creatine supplementation can create conditions of hyper-hydration in athletes which can lead to better thermoregulation and overall heat tolerance.
- Brain health boosts and Neuroprotection: Increased stores of phosphocreatine in brain tissue can lead to improved short-term memory and overall brain health. Some studies show creatine to be neuroprotective and it can even reduce the severity of brain injuries. There is some early research showing improvements in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Most neurological research involving creatine supplementation has been performed on animals, so more work is needed to definitively translate this to human evidence, but it is promising.
- Mood benefits: Recent research shows that creatine monohydrate supplementation may improve symptoms of depression. Trial results indicate that supplementation with creatine plus a SSRI are far superior to a SSRI alone for subjects with major depressive disorder.
Who can benefit from creatine supplementation?
The above benefits appear to be true in diverse populations including male, female, younger, and older subjects. Vegetarians may experience the greatest benefit as their pre-existing muscular stores of phosphocreatine will be naturally lower at the outset.
Is creatine safe?
Creatine is one of the most studied and longest used performance supplements. Research dates back more than 50 years and repeatedly testifies to the safety of creatine monohydrate supplementation. In fact, studies have followed participants taking creatine for up to five consecutive years with no ill effects. Reports of kidney and liver damage related to creatine use have been unfounded in healthy individuals at normal dosages. Claims that creatine causes dehydration and muscle cramping have also been disproven in quality studies. As with any supplement, you should discuss the use of creatine with your personal medical provider.
How do I use creatine?
Some individuals engage in a loading dose phase of creatine supplementation. Research does not show this to be necessary, however, and I recommend a maintenance regimen from the outset. Though it may take longer to achieve full benefits, you will also avoid potential bothersome symptoms associated with higher dosages such as bloating and GI upset.
My recommendation is to take a quality (this is important- see below!) creatine monohydrate supplement at a dosage of 3-5 grams per day in a large glass of water. For the greatest benefits, take creatine within 60 minutes of a workout (before or after). Depending on your pre-existing muscle stores, you will see an effect anywhere between 7 and 28 days into this regimen. You should plan to stay hydrated and be aware that there may or may not be a small (about 3 lb on average) weight gain with supplementation. This is not fat! Any weight gain incurred will be related to increased fat free muscle mass as well as muscular water retention.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that creatine monohydrate supplementation is inexpensive, simple, safe, and effective. There are many myths and misperceptions out there, but a plethora of research backs its use in athletes as well as others. You can create or log into your Wellevate account to see and order my favorite high quality creatine supplement by clicking HERE. As always, I am here for any individual questions and support. Just reach out via my Contact Form!