Creatine Supplementation

Creatine is one of the most popular sports supplements on the market today. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about what creatine is, who can benefit from it, and how it should be taken. This article will examine the facts about creatine supplementation and its potential benefits.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that is produced in the body from amino acids. It is stored primarily in muscle and brain tissue. The main role of creatine is to facilitate the recycling of ATP, which is the primary energy currency of cells.

ATP provides energy for muscle contraction. When ATP is broken down into ADP for energy, creatine helps to regenerate ATP by donating a phosphate group. This allows for quicker regeneration of ATP energy stores and improved performance during high-intensity exercise.

Creatine can be obtained through food sources such as red meat and fish. It can also be synthesized in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. However, creatine supplements can increase storage beyond what can be obtained from normal dietary intake.

Myth #1: Creatine is a Steroid

One common myth is that creatine is a steroid. However, creatine is not an anabolic steroid. Steroids are synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of testosterone in the body.

Creatine is a naturally occurring compound, not a drug. It does not artificially boost testosterone levels. The effects of creatine come from its ability to increase available energy stores in muscle tissue, not from altering hormone levels like steroids.

Myth #2: Creatine is Not Natural

Some argue that creatine supplements are not natural. While creatine in pure powder form may be manufactured, it is composed of two amino acids that occur naturally in the body – glycine and arginine.

Creatine produced in the body comes from these same building blocks. So while creatine powder is synthesized from amino acids, it is essentially the same compound that is naturally produced and stored in the muscles and brain.

Myth #3: Creatine is Only for Bodybuilders

Creatine was first popularized by bodybuilders and power athletes in the 1990s. This has led some to believe that creatine is only beneficial for muscle bulking. In reality, creatine offers performance and health benefits for men and women across various sports and activities.

Some major benefits of creatine include:

  • Increased strength output
  • Faster sprint times
  • Improved power and endurance
  • Enhanced muscle growth when combined with strength training
  • Reduced fatigue during repeated sprint or burst activity

Creatine fundamentally improves cellular energy production. This can enhance sports performance involving strength, power, and endurance – not just bodybuilding. The energy boosting effects also make it beneficial for recreational fitness for men and women of all ages.

Myth #4: Creatine Will Make Me Look Like a Bodybuilder

A common myth is that taking creatine supplements will lead to muscle bloating or make women look bulky like male bodybuilders. This myth comes from the fact that creatine draws water into muscle cells, known as cell volumization.

When beginning creatine use, an increase in body weight of approximately 2-4 pounds is common in the first 1-2 weeks due to this muscle cell volumization. However, this is not actual muscle tissue growth.

With consistent creatine use, this water weight gain subsides. Creatine does not cause extreme hypertrophy without sufficient strength training stimulus. The benefits of creatine for most athletes and active individuals come from performance enhancement, not drastic changes in physique.

How Creatine Works

To understand the true effects of creatine supplementation, it helps to understand how creatine works in the body:

  • Approximately 95% of creatine is stored in skeletal muscle tissue. The remaining 5% is stored in the brain, liver, kidney and testes.
  • Typical creatine stores are about 120 grams for a 70kg individual. Stores are replenished about 1-2 grams per day from liver and kidney synthesis and dietary intake.
  • Creatine transporter proteins help take creatine from the bloodstream into muscle and brain tissue. Activity of these transporters determines the rate of creatine uptake into cells.
  • Muscle creatine stores can increase by up to 40% with supplementation, further enhancing the pool of phosphocreatine energy.
  • Phosphocreatine rapidly regenerates ATP energy stores inside muscle cells during intense exercise. This fuels repeated bouts of high-intensity activity.

In summary, supplementing with creatine saturates muscle cells leading to more readily available energy. This is what provides the ergogenic effects for high-intensity sports, strength, and endurance.

Research on Creatine

Creatine is one of the most extensively studied sports supplements. Research over the past 25+ years has consistently shown creatine to be effective for:

  • Increasing Strength and Power: Short-term studies of creatine supplementation (5-7 days) in men and women have shown increases in bench press strength (5-15%), power output (5-15%), and performance in high intensity sprints (1-5%).
  • Muscle Growth: When combined with strength training, creatine has been shown to increase lean muscle mass gains by approximately 5-10% over a 12 week training period compared to training alone.
  • Improved Endurance: Clinical studies have demonstrated that creatine enhances repeated sprint performance. Cyclists also see improved endurance for high-intensity interval training.
  • Enhanced Cognitive Performance: Creatine supplementation may improve cognitive processing and memory recall in both athletes and older adults. This is likely due to increased phosphocreatine stores in brain tissue.
  • Neuroprotective Effects: There is emerging evidence that creatine may help reduce the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and ALS. More research is still needed in this area.

Overall, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies consistently demonstrate performance and cognitive benefits of creatine supplementation when used as recommended.

Is Creatine Safe?

At recommended dosages creatine is considered very safe for long-term use. No serious side effects have been reported in clinical studies lasting up to 5 years. However, there are a few considerations:

  • Dehydration: Creatine draws water into muscle cells. Proper hydration is important, especially when beginning creatine use.
  • Digestive Issues: Some users report minor digestive discomfort such as cramping or diarrhea when starting creatine. Taking smaller doses with meals often alleviates issues.
  • Kidney Issues: Case studies have reported kidney issues with combining creatine use at higher than recommended doses with dehydration tactics. However, studies show no harm to the kidneys at recommended dosages even with prolonged use in healthy individuals. Those with existing kidney conditions should consult a doctor before using creatine.
  • Medication Interactions: Creatine may interact with diuretics, anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), and caffeine. Consult your doctor if taking any medications.

Overall, studies consistently indicate that creatine is safe when taken at recommended dosages of 3-5 grams per day and with proper hydration.

How to Supplement with Creatine

Here are some key guidelines for how to use creatine properly to maximize both safety and effectiveness:

  • Dosage: The recommended dosage for most is 3-5 grams per day. Lower doses of 2-3 grams can still be effective long-term.
  • Cycling: There is no evidence that cycling on and off creatine is necessary. Continuous daily use appears most effective.
  • Loading Phase: Taking 20 grams per day for 5-7 days can help saturate muscles faster but is not essential. Lower daily doses still saturate over 2-4 weeks.
  • Timing: Take creatine any time throughout the day. Taking it with pre- or post- workout protein/carbs may optimize uptake.
  • Combining with Carbs: Consuming creatine with around 50 grams of carbs may increase uptake into muscle cells. But carbs are not essential to see benefits.
  • Powder vs. Capsules: Powder is more cost effective. Capsules avoid any potential bloating issues. Either format is effective.

With proper dosing and cycling, creatine can be used safely long-term without the need for loading phases or post-cycle clearance periods.

When to Take Creatine

The effects of creatine supplementation are amplified when combined with consistent strength training or high-intensity exercise:

  • Athletes: Those participating in power sports like football or sprinting can benefit from enhanced power output. Endurance athletes also see benefits for interval training capacity.
  • Weight Training: Adding creatine to resistance training workouts boosts strength gains from the workout stimulus. Gains in muscle, strength, and power are enhanced approximately 5-15% over 12 weeks.
  • Older Adults: Older individuals can use creatine to improve strength and offset age-related declines in muscle and bone density. Studies show benefit for those over age 65.
  • Vegetarians: Since creatine is mainly obtained from meat, vegetarian athletes can benefit from supplementation to boost stores.
  • Brain Health: Creatine may enhance cognitive performance and provide neuroprotective effects in those at risk of neurological disease. But more research is still needed.

Timing creatine around workouts is not critical. Consistently taking it daily over time provides the ergogenic effects.

What Happens When You Stop Taking Creatine?

A common question is what happens when you stop supplementing with creatine after taking it for some time. Here’s what generally occurs:

  • Creatine levels decline back to baseline over 2-4 weeks once supplementation stops. This comes from creatine being naturally cleared by the kidneys and not resynthesized without supplemental doses.
  • The benefits of creatine on muscle strength and performance decrease and return to normal baseline along with declining muscle creatine stores.
  • Some weight loss (2-5 lbs) initially occurs due to shedding the extra water weight from muscle cells that creatine draws in.
  • No negative health effects occur when stopping creatine. Kidney and liver function remain normal after supplementation ceases.

In summary, creatine provides performance benefits only with continued supplementation. The effects diminish over weeks once stopping, along with a loss of the initial water weight gain.

Myths and Facts About Creatine

Myth: Creatine Causes Weight Gain

Fact: Weight gain from creatine is due to water moving into muscle, not added body fat. once intake stops, this water weight disappears.

Myth: You Don’t Need Exercise for Benefits

Fact: Creatine enhances performance by providing more energy during exercise. Effects are minimal without consistent training stimulus.

Myth: Creatine Damages Kidneys

Fact: No kidney damage has been shown in studies at recommended doses. Those with kidney disease should consult a doctor before use.

Myth: You Must Cycle Creatine

Fact: Cycling on and off creatine is unnecessary. Continuous use at 3-5 grams per day provides ongoing benefits without cycling.

Myth: You Must Load Creatine to See Benefits

Fact: While a loading phase saturates muscles faster, lower daily doses reach similar saturation over a few weeks. Loading is not essential.

CREATINE: Naturally Occurring Compound

Despite common myths and misconceptions, creatine is one of the most well-researched and effective supplements available when used appropriately. It is not a dangerous steroid but rather a naturally occurring compound that provides improved strength, power, muscle growth, and recovery.

When supplemented in properly at 3-5 grams per day, creatine is safe for long-term use and provides significant performance and cognitive benefits. Anyone performing intense exercise can consider supplementing with creatine to enhance their workout capability and results.

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