Creatine is one of the most talked about supplements on the market. However, with all of this talk comes many misconceptions around safety, protocols and effects on health and performance. In this post we’ll give you everything you need to know about creatine so that you can decide if its something that may benefit your goals.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a molecule made from amino acids that is found in muscle-tissue, especially red meat & seafood. Our bodies are able to synthesise creatine in our liver, and to a lesser extent, kidneys and pancreas. In our muscle, creatine is joined by a high energy phosphate group and stored as ‘phosphocreatine’ AKA ‘creatine phosphate’.
During high intensity movements, such as jumping, power lifts, sprints etc, our phosphocreatine is called upon to produce ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) energy. ATP is produced when the phosphate part of the molecule is split from the creatine and used by the body to produce ATP. This rapid surge of energy enables athletes to repeatedly train and perform at high intensities.
At rest, the creatine molecule quickly joins with another phosphate molecule to again form phosphocreatine.
How can creatine affect health & sports performance?
You could argue that creatine could be a supplement that everyone should be taking. It’s has been found to improve:
Muscle strenght & power
Rehabilitation from injury (including concussion)
Brain function and memory
Power & strength:
Creatine’s effect on power and strength is one of it’s most well known and well researched benefits. One study showed an improved of 7.5% in short duration, high intensity exercise (Branch J, 2003).
More specifically, supplementing with creatine increased number of repetitions performed from baseline by 45.4% compared to the placebo group who only increased by 22.9%.
Creatine also increased the amount of weight lifted from baseline by 24.7% compared to the placebo group who only saw and increase of 13.4%
Anaerobic endurance exercise (activities that use carbohydrate as the fuel source lasting between 30-150seconds) also are influenced by creatine. The group supplementing with creatine saw and improvement of 4.9% where as the placebo group saw a decrease of -2%.
Creatine supplementation may also improve muscle recovery.
Specifically creatine supplementation has been shown to:
Decrease muscle damage after sporting or endurance events. Often creatine is supplemented alongside carbohydrate.
Attenuate the loss of strength and muscle damage acutely post resistance exercise.
There are a number of theories in the research as to how creatine has these effects. One theory is due to creatine antioxidant properties. As an antioxidant, creatine is able to mitigate free radical damage post exercise.
Creatine can improve body composition (increased muscle mass and decreased fat mass). Creatine supports training and recovery so that the body can work harder and see greater adaptations leading to increased muscle mass. In turn, increased muscle mass means an increased metabolic rate and increased calories burned at rest, leading to a decrease in fat mass. There mechanics for how creatine effects the muscle, however, much is still being researched.
Creatine supplementation may also positively impact bone health through the enzyme ‘creatine kinase’ (CK). CK is required for bone and collagen formation (Funange VL, 1992; Katoh RK 1991). Recent research suggests that supplementation with creatine monohydrate may improve bone mineral density (Antolic A, 2007) (important for older women or anyone with a history of underfuelling).
Creatine not only supplies energy to muscles, but also to the brain and it seems that supplementation with creatine may actually increase the energy supply to brain tissue!
Higher creatine levels in your brain have been proven to enhance performance in various cognitive tasks (ferrier et al 2000). There seems to be evidence suggesting that creatine may improve short term memory and intelligense/reasoning (think maths!) (Ling et al. 2009, Rae et al 2003). Creatine’s affects on other forms of brain function are not yet clear with the research showing many mixed results.
There may also be a difference between results among the elderly verse young people. It may be that the elderly respond better to creatine supplementation. It may also be the case that creatine supplementation helps the brain function in disease states or stressed individuals (Mcmorris et al., 2007; Fernandez-Espejo, 2004; Turner et al., 2015; Bender et al., 2005)!
It’s important to remember that the research is still young and much more needs to be done to really flesh out the effects in brain function and health.
How to take creatine
If we know that the body can produce its own creatine as well as consume it through meat and seafood, why is there a need for supplementation? This is because it is difficult to eat enough foods to boost and maintain your stores of creatine.
supplementing with correct dose = ‘saturation level’ for muscles – longer lasting high intensity fuel than by food alone
Although creatinephosphate does resynthesises, it only happens at rest
Closer you are to saturation level = able to train for longer = better results long term
0.1 g/kg body weight combined with resistance training improves training adaptations at a cellular and sub-cellular level
There are 2 main dosing protocols for taking creatine:
Loading followed by maintenance
Daily single dose
Loading followed by maintenance:
In this protocol, you’ll take complete a week long loading phase where you’ll take 20g creatine per day, split into 4 doses of 5g. After this phase, you’ll move onto maintenance where you’ll take a single daily dose of 3-5g (or 0.03g of creatine per kg of your body weight) (Buford T, 2007).
I recommend this protocol more for athletes who have an event coming up in the next month or so as you will reach saturation faster than taking a daily single dose. Often clients find that taking 4 doses each day can be inconveient. You also may notice a greater initial gain in weight when loading as creatine is stored with water (don’t freak out, it’s just water fluctuations!).
Daily single dose:
If the above strategy sounds like a real pain, do not fear. There is plenty of evidence to say that taking a single dose each day can still get results, however, it can take between 21-28 days to produce effects. For this single dose, we recommend taking between 3-6g of creatine per day or 0.03 – 1.0g creatine per kg body weight (Hickner R, 2010; Willoughby DS, 2001).
I recommend this method to most of my clients, especially, if they aren’t competing in the next month and if they are using weight to track progress in other goals.
Safety & side effects
Creatine is one of the most well researched supplements among adults. Although, it has received some bad press over the years, you can be confident that it is safe for us (as long as you are over 18 years).
There have been isolated cases reporting renal disfunction associated with creatine use. However, since then, researchers have investigated this further and found that although creatine supplementation does increase creatinine levels in the urine, there are no negative consequences when the above protocols are followed (Yoshizumi W, 2004; Thorsteinsdottir B 2006,Pline K 2009).
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