WHAT IS CREATINE?
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid produced in the liver that helps supply energy to cells all over the body – particularly muscle cells. It is made out of three amino acids: L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine.
Creatine is transported through the blood by an active transport system, it is then used by muscles that have high energy demands, such as the brain and skeletal muscle. In fact, around 95 percent of creatine in the human body is stored in skeletal muscle.
Creatine was first identified by the French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, in 1832. The chemical is not only naturally made by the body, it can also be obtained from some foods and supplements.
Because of Creatine’s ability to supply energy where it is demanded, the chemical is mainly used by athletes to increase their ability to produce energy rapidly, improving athletic performance and allowing them to train harder.
The International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allow the usage of creatine, and it is widely used among professional athletes (such as John Elway and Sammy Sosa).
Creatine is a natural substance that turns into creatine phosphate in the body. Creatine phosphate helps make a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP provides the energy for muscle contractions.
The body produces some of the creatine it uses. It also comes from protein-rich foods such as meat or fish.
AN OVERVIEW OF CREATINE SUPPLEMENTS
In their quest to run farther, jump higher, and outlast the competition, many athletes have turned to a variety of performance-enhancing drugs and supplements. Creatine is the most popular of these substances, believed to enhance muscle mass and help athletes achieve bursts of strength.
Part of the reason for creatine’s popularity might be its accessibility. Creatine powder, tablets, energy bars, and drink mixes are available without a doctor’s prescription at drug stores, supermarkets, nutrition stores, and over the Internet.
Although creatine is a natural substance, it hasn’t been well-studied over the long-term. Researchers still aren’t sure what effects it might have on the body, particularly in young people, or how effective it might be.
HOW IS CREATINE USED?
Back in the 1970s, scientists discovered that taking creatine in supplement form might enhance physical performance. In the 1990s, athletes started to catch on, and creatine became a popular sports supplement. According to studies, 8% of adolescents take creatine. The supplement is particularly popular among high school, college, and professional athletes, especially football and hockey players, wrestlers, and gymnasts. An estimated 40% of college athletes and up to half of professional athletes say they use creatine supplements.
Creatine is thought to improve strength, increase lean muscle mass, and help the muscles recover more quickly during exercise. This muscular boost may help athletes achieve bursts of speed and energy, especially during short bouts of high-intensity activities such as weight lifting or sprinting. However, scientific research on creatine has been mixed. Although some studies have found that it does help improve performance during short periods of athletic activity, there is no evidence that creatine helps with endurance sports. Research also shows that not everyone’s muscles respond to creatine; some people who use it see no benefit.
Extensively studied for both its safety and benefits, some of creatine’s supposed benefits are supported by research and some are not. Creatine also shows promise outside of the athletic and performance setting, but more research is needed in these areas.
- Increase in muscle size – Creatine supplementation causes an increase in the water content of muscles, making them “larger.” This is not due to an increase in the size of the muscle fibers. However, creatine can increase “real” fat free mass over time, as its strength and power-boosting properties allow higher quality training and thus, better gains.1
- Improved athletic performance – A large body of research shows that oral creatine supplementation can make an athlete faster and stronger when performing high intensity activity.2 3 4 5
- Increased muscle protein synthesis – I found a few studies which refuted this claim.6 7 Still, if someone who uses creatine can lift more weight, muscle protein synthesis should increase; although, the creatine itself simply increases the available energy supply (ATP) for muscle contraction. Creatine itself does not stimulate protein synthesis.
Remember, there has never been a scientifically controlled study showing that jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is any better than jumping out without one.
CREATINE SIDE EFFECTS & RISKS
Creatine supplementation should be safe when used by healthy individuals. Most of the health risks attributed to creatine (kidney and liver damage, increased risk of injury) have not been shown in clinical studies.8 And although no long term studies have examined use of creatine, I am unaware of any reports of physical harm from supplementation in a person without kidney disease. However, there is evidence creatine supplementation can damage unhealthy kidneys.9
Dehydration is also a concern with supplementation, as creatine will draw water into the muscle cell. If you use creatine, be sure to drink plenty of water, which you should be doing anyway. And as with all supplements, due to a lack of regulation, toxins and impurities in a product are always a concern. Buying a reputable brand makes this less of an issue.
GI distress is a common side effect of creatine. Taking it with food, not “loading” (see below) or perhaps using a form besides monohydrate may lessen or eliminate this reaction.
Again, creatine is very safe for most people. However, since kidney and liver disease, in their early stages, may not produce any symptoms, it is a good idea to have your doctor test your kidney and liver function, especially if you plan on using supplements.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.
- Athletic performance. Many factors seem to influence the effectiveness of creatine, including the fitness level and age of the person using it, the type of sport, and the dose. Creatine does not seem to improve performance in aerobic exercises, or benefit older people. Also, creatine does not seem to increase endurance or improve performance in highly trained athletes. There is some evidence that creatine “loading,” using 20 grams daily for 5 days, may be more effective than continuous use. However, there is still some uncertainty about exactly who can benefit from creatine and at what dose. Studies to date have included small numbers of people (all have involved fewer than 72 participants), and it is not possible to draw firm conclusions from such small numbers.
- Syndromes caused by problems metabolizing creatine. Problems metabolizing creatine cause low levels of creatine in the brain, which results in mental retardation, seizures, autism, and movement disorders. Taking creating by mouth daily for up to 3 years increases creatine levels in the brain and improves movement disorders and seizures, but has little effect on mental ability in children and young adults with the creatine deficiency syndrome called gaunidinoacetate methyltransferase (GAMT) deficiency. However, taking creatine for up to 8 years seems to improve attention, language, and academic performance in children with the creatine deficiency syndrome called arginine-glycine amidinotrasferase (AGAT) deficiency. Taking creatine does not seem to improve brain creatine levels, movement disorders, or mental abilities in children with creatine transporter defect.