Welcome to another installment of supplements 101, a series where I try to break down the complicated science of supplements and make it easy for you to understand!
This week we’re covering creatine.
What is creatine?
Creatine is an acid, typically found in the muscles and in the brain. It is used primarily in the process of helping your muscles produce energy during high strain, such as when lifting heavy weights or doing some other form high-intensity training. How does it do this? When you body’s energy source (ATP) is used up, it gets converted to another substance, ADP, and can no longer be used to boost your energy. Creatine works by taking ADP and converting it back to ATP so that it can be used again! This helps maintain your body’s level of energy-producing molecules.
Creatine is not essential to consume as a supplement, as it is already produced naturally by the body. Our liver, kidneys, and pancreas all produce it.
Plus, you can actually get a good amount of creatine through your normal diet if you regularly consume foods that come from animal sources (e.g. meat, dairy). On average, people who consume this type of food will consume about 1 gram of creatine per day. However, if you consume a primarily plant-based, vegetarian/vegan diet, you are unlikely to be getting adequate quantities of creatine from your food.
Why might you consider supplementing?
There are three main reasons why you might consider taking supplemental creatine:
- You eat no or very few animal products, so your levels of creatine are lower than the average person, and you want to replace what you’re missing so that you aren’t limited in your fitness goals.
- You have naturally low creatine for some other reason, such as the balance of hormones in your body or the fact that you are aging, which is associated with reduced creatine stores.
- You eat enough creatine-containing foods, but would like to add some in addition so that you can attempt to improve athletic performance.
What are the potential benefits?
Proponents of creatine have claimed that it has a variety of potential benefits for fitness, including::
- Increased energy during high intensity exercise
- Increased potential volume during a workout (you can sustain your exercises for longer without getting weak), which is key for long-term muscle growth
- Improved muscle repair, which can help with growth
- Creatine draws water to your muscles, which can help them appear bigger and potentially grow faster
- Reduces muscle breakdown
Creatine has also been said to have some positive effects on mental health and brain function:
- Improved memory
- Reduced mental fatigue
- Improved reaction time
- Reduced brain fog
Does it really work?
There have been many claimed benefits to creatine supplementation, but how many are actually backed by science? Does creatine really help improve muscle growth and brain function?
Unlike a lot of other supplements, the answer is actually yes! Creatine has been studied for decades, and there is a great deal of scientific literature that has been published on its positive effects.
Let’s look at some highlights from a few studies:
- A 2008 study over 8 weeks of heavy resistance training found that individuals who supplemented with creatine had significantly greater increases in body mass compared to those who did not supplement (2.2 vs 0.6 kilograms)
- A 2010 study found that individuals who had supplemented with creatine had decreased markers of muscle damage after a high intensity Iron Man competition (however, note this was a very small sample size). Another study found similar effects of decreased muscle damage, this time when looking at a high intensity weightlifting set.
- Studies on older adults (in their 50s through 70s) found that creatine supplementation led to increased lean muscle mass, chest press, and leg press strength after resistance training.
- A 2018 paper found that “short term memory and intelligence/reasoning may be improved by creatine administration.”
- A 2021 paper summarized many of the positive mental effects of creatine, some of which are listed as follows:
- In sleep deprived rugby players, creatine supplementation helped with passing accuracy
- In healthy young adults, creatine use improved performance on a test of recalling numbers backward
- A test of healthy, young, sleep deprived men and women found that creatine supplementation helped with movement, reaction time, balance, and mood.
What about side effects?
Creatine is generally considered quite safe. However, there are some potential side effects you should be made aware of.
- Weight gain–though this often seems to come through lean muscle growth
- Worsening of kidney dysfunction in those that already have kidney disorders. Those who have healthy kidneys do not seem affected. You should probably not take creatine if you have kidney issues (though of course, consult with a medical professional)
- Creatine can raise levels of creatinine in your body, which is one sign used to diagnose kidney dysfunction. This may make your doctor–or you–think that you have kidney problems even if you don’t!
What about pregnancy? Many supplements are deemed dangerous to pregnant women.
Creatine is a very interesting case in this respect. There is actually some evidence that creatine consumption could help with pregnancy in a few different ways:
- Increasing the survival likelihood of pre-term babies
- Lessened effects from issues due to hypoxia, where a baby receives inadequate oxygen to the brain during or shortly after birth
- Potential ability to decrease c-section rates by helping enable consistent labor through improved uterine muscle function
Of course, once again, it is important to check with a medical professional before using any supplements during pregnancy!!
What kind of creatine should you take?
There are a bunch of different varieties of creatine supplements that you can buy. These include:
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Creatine Ethyl Ester
- Creatine Hydrochloride
- Buffered Creatine (Creatine + an Alkaline Powder)
- Liquid Creatine
- Creatine Magnesium Chelate
While all of them are some form of creatine, they are not all created equal! Some options are much better than others. If you’re in the market for creatine, I recommend looking into Creatine Monohydrate. Why this one over the others?
- It’s got the best record of safety and side effects
- It’s one of the cheapest and easiest to find online
- It has the most scientific backing behind it, as most creatine studies focus on the monohydrate form
- It works just as well (or better) than any of the other options!
How often should you take creatine? And how much?
In order to get the most from the benefits of creatine, you need to make sure you are taking it in the right intervals and dose sizes.
There are two primary ways of taking creatine:
- Using a loading phase, where you take heavy doses daily (20-25 grams/day–typically taken in four doses about every four hours apart) for about 5-7 days to build up your creatine stores, then cut back to a daily maintenance level of 3-5 grams/day.
- Using no loading phase, and just starting with the maintenance level of creatine, taking 3-5 grams per day every day.
Both strategies work and are considered safe, but many prefer the loading phase strategy because it builds up creatine stores faster so you can start to get the beneficial effects earlier on. If you do not use a loading phase, it can take around three weeks to build up enough creatine to start experiencing any changes.
The evidence on timing is up for debate. It is not completely clear whether there is an optimal time of day to take creatine, though some studies have suggested that taking it post-workout is more effective than pre-workout.
However, with creatine, the thing that’s considered most important is just that you take it! Consistency is key, and over time it’s a lot more important that you’re taking it at all, than when you’re taking it.
So there’s everything you need to know to get started with creatine!
Creatine is generally a safe and effective supplement–and the one that I would recommend the most out of any! It’s relatively cheap, doesn’t taste bad or produce many significant side effects, and can have a lot of beneficial effects in some users.
For ease of your use and consumption, I’ve gone ahead and summarized all the information from this guide into a graphic below!