Creatine 101 — What Is It and What Does It Do?

By: Dale Blair

Creatine is the number-one supplement for improving performance in the gym. Studies show that it can increase muscle mass, strength and exercise performance. There are many misconceptions about creatine being illegal or being a steroid. Creatine is not a steroid; it is not strictly a performance-enhancing supplement and it definitely does not introduce exogenous synthetic testosterone into the body. Additionally, it provides a number of other health benefits, such as protecting against neurological disease.  Some people believe that creatine is unsafe and has many side effects, but these are unsubstantiated claims and are not supported by evidence. In fact, it is one of the world’s most tested supplements and has an outstanding safety profile. This article explains everything you need to know about creatine.   What Is Creatine? Creatine is a substance that is found naturally in muscle cells. It helps your muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Taking creatine as a supplement is very popular among athletes and bodybuilders in order to gain muscle, enhance strength and improve exercise performance. Chemically speaking, it shares many similarities with amino acids. Your body can produce it from the amino acids glycine and arginine. Several factors affect your body’s creatine stores, including meat intake, exercise, amount of muscle mass and levels of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1. Creatine alters several cellular processes that lead to increased muscle mass, strength and recovery.    

How Does It Work?

Creatine can improve health and athletic performance in several ways.

In high-intensity exercise, its primary role is to increase the phosphocreatine stores in your muscles.

Creatine also helps you gain muscle in the following ways:

  • Boosted workload:Enables more total work or volume in a single training session, which is a key factor in long-term muscle growth.
  • Improved cell signaling:Can increase satellite cell signaling, which aids muscle repair and new muscle growth.
  • Raised anabolic hormones:Studies note a rise in hormones, such as IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1), after taking creatine.
  • Increased cell hydration:Lifts water content within your muscle cells, which causes a cell volumisation effect (it makes the muscles look fuller) that may play a role in muscle growth.
  • Reduced protein breakdown:May increase total muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown (catabolism).
  • Lower myostatin levels:Elevated levels of the protein myostatin can slow or totally inhibit new muscle growth. Supplementing with creatine can reduce these levels, increasing growth potential.

Effects on Strength and Exercise Performance

Creatine can also improve strength, power, and high-intensity exercise performance.

Studies have shown that adding creatine to a training program increased strength by 8%, weightlifting performance by 14% and bench press one-rep max by up to 43%, compared to training alone. In well-trained strength athletes, 28 days of supplementing increased bike-sprinting performance by 15% and bench-press performance by 6%.

Creatine also helps maintain strength and training performance while increasing muscle mass during intense over-training.

Impact on Your Brain

Just like your muscles, your brain stores phosphocreatine and requires plenty of ATP for optimal function.

Supplementing may improve the following conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain or spinal cord injuries
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Memory and brain function in older adults

Although it can benefit older adults and those with reduced stores, creatine exhibits no effect on brain function in healthy adults.

What if you are a vegetarian?

Vegetarians tend to have low creatine stores because they don’t eat meat, which is the main natural dietary source. In one study in vegetarians, supplementing caused a 50% improvement in a memory test and a 20% improvement in intelligence test scores.

Other Health Benefits

  • Lower blood sugar levels.
  • Improve muscle function and quality of life in older adults.
  • Help treat non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Dosage Instructions

Many people who supplement start with a loading phase, which leads to a rapid increase in muscle stores of creatine.

To load with creatine, take 20 grams per day for 5–7 days. This should be split into four 5-gram servings throughout the day.

Absorption may be slightly improved with a carbohydrate- or protein-based meal due to the related release of insulin.

Following the loading period, take 3–5 grams per day to maintain high levels within your muscles. As there is no benefit to cycling creatine, you can stick with this dosage for a long time.

If you choose not to do the loading phase, you can simply consume 3–5 grams per day. However, it may take 3–4 weeks to maximize your stores.

Since creatine pulls water into your muscle cells, it is advisable to take it with a glass of water and stay well hydrated throughout the day.

Safety and Side Effects

Creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements available, and studies lasting up to four years reveal no negative effects.

One of the most comprehensive studies measured 52 blood markers and observed no adverse effects following 21 months of supplementing. There is also no evidence that creatine harms the liver and kidneys in healthy people who take normal doses. That said, those with preexisting liver or kidney problems should consult with a doctor before supplementing.

Although people associate creatine with dehydration and cramps, research doesn’t support this link. In fact, studies suggest it can reduce cramps and dehydration during endurance exercise in high heat.

The Bottom Line At the end of the day, creatine is one of the cheapest, most effective and safest supplements you can take. It supports the quality of life in older adults, brain health and exercise performance. Vegetarians — who may not obtain enough creatine from their diet — and older adults may find supplementing particularly useful. Creatine monohydrate is likely the best form. Try out creatine today to see if it works for you. Article by: Dale Blair  

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