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Everything You Need to Know About Creatine Supplements

You would be hard-pressed to find a jacked gym-bro who doesn’t rave about using a creatine supplement. Next to protein shakes, creatine is the most popular sports supplement on the market, but popular doesn’t always mean effective. With new supplements popping up all the time, how do you know what’s scientifically proven and what’s a fad?

By spending a little time looking into all your supplements, you can wade through trends and get down to what actually works. By doing this, you will save money, and you’ll reach your goals quicker. Google creatine and you will see fairly quickly that it should be your go-to supplement for gains. Let’s talk about why.

What Is Creatine?

Creatine exists naturally within your muscles and helps to produce energy when you’re exercising. Your body uses the amino acids glycine and arginine to manufacture creatine, and chemically, it shares many qualities with amino acids. It works mostly within the muscles, but about five percent exists in the brain, kidneys, and liver.

The creatine stored within the muscles is phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine is a form of stored energy that helps your body produce ATP, also known as cellular energy. More ATP in the body’s cells means better exercise performance.

Creatine stores also affect several cellular processes, which leads to an increase in muscle mass, strength, and better recovery.

Creatine container.

How Does Creatine Work?

Creatine does its work within the muscles by:

  • providing cellular energy to allow for intensified training
  • increasing the satellite signaling between cells
  • raising levels of anabolic hormones
  • pulling water into the muscle cells
  • preventing muscle waste due to exercise
  • lowering myostatin levels within the body (a protein that can slow or prevent muscle growth)

Consuming creatine also increases levels of phosphocreatine in your brain, which has an impact on brain health.

Where Do We Get Creatine?

It is found in animal products like:

  • red meat
  • white meat
  • fish
  • milk

You can also use creatine supplements to maintain your muscle’s supply if you don’t consume enough of these foods or none of them at all due to following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.

Are Creatine Supplements as Effective as Food Sources?

It is always better to get your nutrients from whole food sources if you can. You might often hear it emphasized that supplements are meant to supplement, not be your first source of nutrition. When you hear this, you might wonder if supplements are as effective as food, or in some cases, if the supplement version works at all.

In this case, yes, creatine supplements offer the same benefits as eating a steak. The one exception to noticeable changes with supplementation is that you regularly eat enough foods that contain it already. In this case, your reserves are already topped off, and supplementing won’t benefit you.

However, if you are unsure if you eat enough foods that naturally contain it, creatine supplements are one of the most cost-effective supplements on the market. 

Are Creatine Supplements Safe?

One of the most common misconceptions about creatine supplements is that they are somehow unsafe. People raise concerns about liver and kidney functions with long-term use. 

Along with being very popular and very effective, creatine supplements are also very well researched. The current research proves:

  1. It does not damage the heart, kidneys, liver, or skeletal muscles.
  2. It is safe, even for those with kidney disorders, as long as the disorder is not characterized by edema and swelling.
  3. Those with polycystic kidney disease, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or any other kidney disorder that causes tissue swelling should avoid it.

Are Creatine Supplements Vegan Friendly?

Natural food sources of creatine are animal products, including meat and dairy. Consequently, if you’re vegan, you might steer clear of it, thinking it doesn’t fall in line with your values and diet. However, most creatine supplements are synthesized from sarcosine and cyanamide. These are not animal products and, therefore, vegan-friendly.

This is excellent because muscle stores in people who follow a vegan diet are typically depleted, as they do not eat the foods that fill creatine reserves in the muscles and the brain. For this reason, creatine supplements can greatly benefit vegetarians and vegans who want to increase their muscle mass, strength, and endurance.

You should, however, check the ingredient list, especially if you choose a capsule supplement. Bovine gelatin, an animal product, is a typical ingredient in capsules.

What are the Benefits of Creatine?

This supplement is huge in the fitness world because of the scientific research behind all the athletic and performance-related benefits. While all that is true, if we limit creatine benefits to just the athletic benefits, we would only be considering the tip of a wellness iceberg.

In reality, creatine benefits humans in many ways, from head to toe.

Creatine Benefits: Muscle Growth

The number one reason creatine supplements are so popular in the fitness world is that one of the creatine benefits is long and short-term muscle growth. Studies show that even sedentary individuals—that is, individuals who do not exercise—can increase their muscle mass with supplementation.

Weightlifters who used the supplement in a twelve-week study increased their muscle fibers’ growth by two to three times more than those who did not take creatine. Out of all the supplements on the market that claim to increase muscle mass, creatine supplements are the single most effective. 

Woman weightlifting

Creatine Benefits: Strength

Another fitness-related creatine benefit is improved strength, power, and performance. Studies show that strength is increased by 8%. What’s more, one-rep maxes improved by up to 42% compared to lifting without creatine supplements.

Creatine benefits regarding strength are not limited to newbies either. According to research, even well-trained and seasoned athletes improved.

Creatine Benefits: Performance

Creatine benefits overall athletic performance as well and allows users to work harder and for longer than without the use of the supplement. It improves strength and athletic performance in the same way, primarily through the body’s boosted abilities to create ATP. Without creatine supplements, ATP is typically gone within eight to ten seconds. Because supplementing with it helps the body to produce more ATP, you can maintain your optimal performance for longer.

Creatine Benefits: Brain Health

Boosting the body’s ability to create ATP aids more than just the muscles, as the brain stores phosphocreatine in a similar way. Many studies show that creatine benefits:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Parkinsons
  • Huntington’s
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain and spinal cord injuries
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Memory and brain function

Depleted stores of creatine affect more than just exercise performance. Many vegetarians and vegans suffer from brain fog and poor memory due to depleted amounts within the brain. This is another reason these supplements benefit those who don’t eat meat or animal products. 

Creatine Benefits: Other Health

As with many supplements, more research is needed for definitive proof. However, studies show that some other creatine benefits are:

  • lowered blood sugar
  • improved muscle function
  • improvement in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease 

How to Use Creatine Supplements

Using creatine supplements is a convenient way to reap the creatine benefits without tracking all your food intake or eating tons of meat. However, like with all sports supplements, you should take a few steps to ensure you’re getting a quality supplement that’s going to give you results without any issues.

  1. Choose Creatine Monohydrate.

The most common form in supplements is creatine monohydrate. It’s also the most researched form. All the creatine benefits you’ve read about are based on monohydrate. There are other forms that are on the market, and some may claim superior, but they do not have the research to prove it. Unless new research comes to light, stick with the most widely researched form.

  1. Choose a trusted supplement brand.

As always, you should trust the supplement brand you choose. Look for brands that are banned substances and third-party tested. Further, check that the brand has an outstanding reputation. Sometimes the cheapest product is not the most trusted. 

Creatine in a shaker bottle.

  1. Learn the dosing protocol and read your supplement’s label. 

Creatine Supplement Dosing

These supplements are one of the only sports supplements with a dosing protocol, and while it can seem intimidating or complex, you will feel more comfortable when you understand it.

Following this protocol allows you to secure the creatine benefits a lot faster than if you were just to start supplementing by the label’s everyday directions.

The protocol is comprised of:

  1. Loading phase
  2. Maintenance phase

Begin your supplementation with the loading phase. Take 20 grams a day for a week. To avoid some unpleasant side effects, split the 20 grams into four 5-gram servings spread over a day.

After the five to seven-day loading phase, switch into a maintenance phase. Take three to five grams a day for the remaining time you use the supplement. There is no benefit or need to cycle. The only time you need to repeat the loading phase is if you have lapsed in taking your daily maintenance doses.

Do I Have to do the Dosing Protocol?

Some people simply don’t want to follow the protocol, and others might experience some annoying side effects. If this is the case, you can bump down from twenty to ten grams a day (in two 5-gram servings) for ten to fourteen days. Alternatively, you can skip the loading phase altogether. Though, in this case, it will take about three to four weeks to maximize your muscle’s stores and experience the benefits of creatine.

When Should I take Creatine Supplements?

If you’re familiar with protein supplements, you’re likely used to consuming your protein shortly after you finish a workout in what’s known as the “anabolic window.” Naturally, you might wonder if there’s a specific time to take creatine as well.

Extensive research has been conducted to try to determine the best time to supplement for optimal results. Some studies have shown slight benefits in taking the maintenance doses immediately following workouts, but others showed no benefit.

It does seem that taking the supplement shortly before or after exercising is better than taking the supplement long before or after the workout. For convenience, consider simply mixing your creatine supplement in with your post-workout protein shake. Alternatively, you could add it to your pre-workout supplement or intra-workout BCAA drink. 

Supplements

Should I Supplement on Rest Days?

It is less important to supplement on rest days. That’s because there is no need for the excess cellular energy that the supplement provides. However, you should take between three and five grams even on rest days to maintain the muscle stores.

It does not matter when you take your supplement on rest days, but it might be best to do it with a meal. Some research seems to indicate that consuming creatine with carbs improves absorption.

Potential Creatine Side Effects

Creatine supplements are very safe; however, they can cause some unpleasant side-effects, as noted. This is especially true during the loading phase, when larger doses may increase the severity and duration of some side effects.

Some normal side effects that you might experience are:

  • cramping
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • bloating and water retention
  • weight gain
  • sensitivity to heat
  • fever 

If you experience these symptoms, they may lessen with time, specifically when switching to the maintenance dosing phase.

Another important thing to be aware of is that creatine supplements can interact with nephrotoxic drugs, caffeine, and ephedra. The use of potentially nephrotoxic drugs (potentially NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium) in combination with creatine could potentially damage the kidneys. Caffeine may decrease the effectiveness, which is something to consider if you get it through a combination supplements like pre-workout. Lastly, the combination of caffeine, creatine, and the supplements ephedra carries a severe risk of stroke. If you are concerned, you should always talk to your primary care physician.

Creatine supplements are widely tested and deemed safe and effective for various health and fitness benefits ranging from muscle building and performance to brain health and sharpness. With minimal side effects, mostly reserved for the higher dose loading phase, creatine could be the missing piece in your supplement stack to achieve your fitness goals.  

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