Ah, creatine. Some people love it. Some people think it’s steroids. There was a ton of research on creatine published in the 1990s – early 2000′s, and more has trickled in since then. Here I’ll give you an overview of creatine: what it is, what it does, how you take it, and the research on its effectiveness and safety.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a protein made up of 3 amino acids. It is found in meat and fish, and is also produced in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas and is stored in muscle cells.
What Does Creatine Do In the Body?
Creatine has a few important functions in the cell, including:
1. Provides readily available energy to skeletal muscles.
2. Helps reduce acid build up in muscles caused by lactate and Hydrogen during exercise.
3. Activates certain pathways that generate energy.
The recommended dose of creatine – the dose used in the majority of studies – is 20 grams per day (in 4 daily doses of 5 grams) for 5 days followed by 2-3 grams per day for up to 10 weeks. This is the dosage commonly tested in athletes, so it’s not known if the same dose is effective in non-athletes.
Effect of Creatine on Athletes
Abundant evidence has found that creatine in the recommended dose increased the amount of creatine in the muscles by 20% on average, but responses ranged from 0-40% and were influenced by the amount of creatine already present in muscles. Creatine has also been found to
- Increase body mass. Some research has attributed this to water weight, while other research has shown the gains were mostly in dry, fat free mass. Other research found that long term supplementation increases the diameter of muscle fibers without adding water. For the most part, research consensus suggest that the gains are mostly muscle mass.
- Enhance muscular force and power. One study found that creatine users saw an increase in bench press repetitions and power during jump squats compared to non-users and another found that creatine users increased their bench press, squat, and power clean weight volumes.
- Help maintain goal speed/work level on the last few repetitions or seconds of output.
Insulin (a hormone that helps the body use carbohydrates) is also thought to increase uptake of creatine, meaning that you may see increased benefits by eating carbohydrates (fruits, juices, and starches) along with a creatine supplement.
While the consensus is that creatine can increase body mass and enhance strength, endurance, and speed in power and strength athletes, little research supports its use among endurance athletes. Some research showed creatine use slowed runners in a 6 km run, most likely due to increased body mass, but another study suggested it could be useful in enhancing the short kick sprint at the end of a long distance run. For the most part, though, creatine is not associated with any performance benefits for longer duration endurance sports like distance running and soccer.
It’s also important to note that, while the research showing the benefits of creatine supplement for athletic performance, research with opposite findings are also prevalent. The thinking is that there is an upper limit to the amount of creatine the muscles can store, and evidence indicates that when high levels of creatine are ingested, the body responds by decreasing its production of creatine. So, a person with low natural levels of muscle creatine taking a supplement might see performance gains whereas a person with higher levels their muscles or who get a lot of creatine from food sources would see less or no improvement.
Is Creatine Safe?
There has been some speculation that creatine supplementation can cause kidney or liver damage. Several studies analyzing blood values indicative of liver health found no evidence that creatine could damage the liver. There has also been little evidence to suggest creatine causes kidney damage. Some adverse side effects including gastrointestinal upset. muscle cramps, and dizziness but these were mostly anecdotal, and no hard evidence suggests creatine was the culprit for these ailments. One case reported rhabdomyolysis (severe muscle breakdown), but this person was taking over 10 grams of creatine (a VERY high dose) for over 6 months before that occurred.
The other safety concern with creatine is based on food safety. While creatine is approved by the FDA, it is regulated as a vitamin or supplement and not as a food, meaning it’s hardly regulated at all. Because of this, manufacturers can add any number of ingredients and make dubious health claims without proving safety and/or effectiveness. Some creatine supplements have been found contaminated in recent years. Since it is widely available online and at a number of retailers, it’s important to exercise caution and look for supplements that have undergone third party testing.
The Bottom Line
Creatine is a useful performance aid in short duration, quick burst athletic exertions like sprinting and power lifting, and users have a low chance of experiencing serious or even uncomfortable side effects. Creatine should, however, be used with caution and in moderation as research into the effect of supplementation over a number of years is still needed.