What Does Creatine Do and Do I Need It?
If you are into working out and supplements, you have probably heard about creatine. It’s one of the most well-known and researched supplements available. Still, this widely researched and popular sports supplement doesn’t have the best reputation. You might be wondering several things about it, like what does creatine do, is it safe, and should I be using it?
To break down everything you need to know about creatine, we’ll discuss:
- What does creatine do?
- How does creatine work?
- What are the side effects of creatine?
- What are the benefits of creatine?
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a natural substance found in human (and other vertebrate’s) muscles and brains. It is also stored in the kidneys, testes, liver, and pancreas in small amounts. It serves the body as an energy source to carry out cellular functions. The organic compound shares many properties with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which serve various functions throughout the body. The human body can produce creatine by using the amino acids glycine and arginine.
Several factors affect your body’s creatine stores, like how much meat you consume, how often you exercise, the levels of certain hormones, lean body mass, and of course, whether you supplement with creatine.
What Does Creatine Do?
Mainly, creatine serves as an energy source and is used by skeletal muscle fibres. If you think back to biology class, you might recall something called adenosine triphosphate. ATP is cellular energy. As the cells use ATP, adenosine diphosphate is produced as a byproduct. Creatine, stored in the body as phosphocreatine, then provides the third phosphate molecule to replenish the ADT byproduct to ATP. In this way, creatine helps maintain cellular energy levels. Besides providing energy, what does creatine do?
Creatine and the Brain
It’s not just muscle cells that use phosphocreatine for energy. The brain is an organ that requires a constant, readily available source of energy. It is constantly working, day and night. Disruption in the brain’s energy supply can lead to various neurodegenerative diseases and more. So, what does creatine do in the brain? The brain stores concentrated phosphocreatine levels, and researchers think that these stores can help protect brain cells from being damaged due to a lack of oxygen. Creatine does this by protecting the structural integrity of the cell. Another benefit of creatine is a healthier, more resilient brain.
While the body typically creates phosphocreatine from foods that provide the correct amino acids, many people have success supplementing with creatine. For the purpose of this article, we will be talking primarily about creatine supplements, unless otherwise noted.
How Creatine Supplements are Made
Unlike supplements like whey protein, which are derived from the whole food source, scientists create creatine synthetically in a lab. It does not come from animal products, though the whole food sources are pretty much exclusively in animal flesh.
There are several different kinds of synthetic creatine, including:
- creatine monohydrate, the most common form and the only one with research behind it
- creatine hydrochloride
- kre-alkalyn, otherwise known as buffered creatine monohydrate
- creatine nitrate
- creatine citrate
- creatine magnesium chelate
- creatine malate
- creatine ethyl ester
Science can only support creatine monohydrate because that is the form used in research studies. Creatine monohydrate is what we will focus on in this article. This substance is created by combining sarcosine (a sodium salt) and cyanamide (an organic amide compound) inside a steel reactor where they’re heated in a pressurized environment. This process results in crystalized creatine. The crystals are passed through the pressure heating process repeatedly to aid in the purity of the final product. The crystals are then milled, breaking them into a fine powder. This helps with mixability in a beverage and absorption in the body.
What is the Benefit of Creatine?
Now that we know how creatine supplements are made, let’s dive into the benefits of creatine. As we mentioned, creatine benefits extend beyond muscles and fitness. Creatine benefits the brain and has been known to improve heart health.
Creatine Benefits the Heart
More research is needed to conclusively link reduced risk of heart failure and creatine; however, preliminary research indicates that optimized phosphocreatine levels in the heart might help protect the cells from structural damage, similar to the way it protects brain cells. Because the heart is a muscle, it makes sense that creatine benefits heart health.
Creatine Benefits the Brain
We touched on how creatine might benefit brain health. Specifically, creatine supplementation helps to:
- lower the risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease
- improve cognitive performance
- improve mental health symptoms in those who suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more
- improve problem-solving skills and short-term memory
Creatine Benefits Fitness
The previously mentioned potential creatine benefits are exciting, and many studies call for continued research into the various applications of supplementing with creatine. However, the most common reason for adding creatine to a supplement stack is for the fitness-related creatine benefits, for which there is plenty of research.
How Does Creatine Work for Fitness?
Research indicates that creatine helps improve fitness in the following ways:
- Creatine helps to increase workload. Because creatine provides the energy you might not otherwise have, it allows you to work harder, lift more, and exercise longer. These factors play crucial roles in muscle growth.
- Creatine works overtime to improve the satellite signaling between cells, aiding in new fibres and improved repair.
- Creatine use can lead to a rise in anabolic (synthesizing) hormones.
- Creatine pulls water into the muscle cells, which leads to a visible increase in the size of the muscles and might also help with long-term muscle growth.
- Creatine reduces natural muscle breakdown that happens as a result of exercise.
- Creatine reduces myostatin levels, a protein that can completely prevent new muscle growth if levels are elevated.
Muscle Growth Benefits of Creatine
Many people reach for sports supplements when their goal is to pack on more lean muscle. One benefit of creatine is that it is the single most effective supplement for adding muscle mass. Users can see an increase in their muscle size in as little as five days, initially caused by an increase in water in the muscles. After this initial term, creatine signals the body to create more muscle fibres, leading to increased mass.
Creatine Benefits Endurance and Strength
As we explained in the how does creatine work section above, phosphocreatine provides an extra phosphate molecule to ADP, turning it into usable ATP energy. The more ATP, the longer your muscles can work. This additional energy leads to better workouts, which consequently improves strength.
Are There Side Effects from Creatine?
There are some minor adverse side effects from creatine, but many ignorant people peddle misleading or incorrect information. Common myths include kidney damage, heart damage, liver damage, and more. Some people confuse creatine with an anabolic steroid or claim women shouldn’t use it. While none of these myths are true, you might experience some of the following side effects from creatine, particularly if you start supplementing with a loading phase.
- Weight gain is a common side effect of creatine, but to brand this negatively is misleading. When you begin supplementing with creatine, a person can experience a 1-3 kg increase in body weight. This increase can be attributed to the initial water content increase within the muscles. Weight gain could continue to increase; however, the increase is from more muscle, not more body fat.
- Bigger doses of creatine, like in a loading phase, can lead to some digestive upset and bloating. Upset could include pain, nausea, diarrhea, and gas. For most people, the maintenance dose of five grams doesn’t lead to these unpleasant side effects from creatine. If you experience these problems during the loading phase, you can simply skip this step and start with the maintenance dose. Do this knowing that the full benefits from supplementing won’t happen as quickly, as it can take up to one month to fill phosphocreatine stores without the loading phase.
These are the only scientifically documented side effects from creatine, which is why it is considered the safest sports supplement on the market. Let’s dive a little deeper into the myths about the side effects from creatine.
Is Creatine Dangerous?
If the answer hasn’t presented itself to you, we will come right out and say that no, for the average healthy adult, creatine is not dangerous. There are no seriously dangerous side effects from creatine, and even in the loading phases, the potential ones are relatively mild.
Side Effects from Creatine on the Liver and Kidneys
This creatine side effect myth has a clear origin. Some early studies showed a small increase in various markers used to indicate organ dysfunction. However, many long-term and well-controlled research studies have debunked these findings and found that adverse creatine side effects are almost nonexistent.
Side Effects from Creatine on the Heart
It’s not clear where the link between creatine and heart damage came from, but some people believe that a creatine side effect from long-term use negatively effects the heart. There’s no research to support these claims.
Dehydration a Creatine Side Effect
One of the misconceptions about creatine use is that it can lead to dehydration, leading to muscles cramps and even death in severe cases. To reiterate, many, many studies have refuted these claims. In fact, creatine use might positively benefit an athlete in hot and humid settings that might otherwise lead to dehydration. This is because creatine improves the blood plasma volume at the onset of dehydration.
Consuming enough water is critical to your health, and creatine use doesn’t hinder your hydration in any way. Of course, you need to drink water when you take creatine like you must drink water every day to stay healthy.
Is Creatine Bad for You?
We hope that by now you can see that creatine is not bad for you. In fact, your primary health care physician probably prefers you to use a supplement like this, as there are so many research studies that prove that the very mild creatine side effects are safe for healthy adults.
Can Creatine Effect You Sexually?
Lastly, separate from the harmful creatine side effect myths, there is the perception that improved sexual function in men is a side effect from creatine. If you recall, we mentioned above that creatine supplementation leads to a rise in anabolic hormones.
Testosterone is a hormone that, among other things, regulates sex drive in both men and women. It is also an anabolic hormone, which promotes muscle growth. Studies do note that after ten weeks of supplementing, testosterone concentration levels increased. In this way, creatine does work to support the sexual health of both men and women.
Now that you have all the facts let’s get to the bottom line. Should you take creatine?
Should I take Creatine to Gain Muscle?
Yes! If your goal is to gain lean muscle mass, creatine is your friend.
Should I take Creatine to Improve Endurance?
Yes! If you want to be harder, faster, better, stronger, you want creatine.
Should I take Creatine to Lose Weight?
While not as clear-cut as our other answers, we have to go with yes. If your goal is to lose weight, more specifically body fat, use creatine. Increasing your muscle mass helps speed up the metabolism, making it easier to lose weight while also creating the curves and definition most people are after.
The bottom line is that creatine is safe and massively effective. With all the creatine benefits and so few creatine side effects, we think that most people can benefit from adding creatine to their supplement stack. The exception is in people with pre-existing liver, kidney, or heart problems. Creatine is also not recommended for people under eighteen years of age due to the lack of research in adolescents. You should always talk to your doctor about any of your concerns with your nutrition and your supplements.