Creatine powder in a measuring scoop and a glass of water

What Is Creatine And What Does It Do?

Creatine powder in a measuring scoop and a glass of water

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Is just about everyone taking creatine to help them reach fitness goals?

 

Creatine is, actually, the most popular ergogenic (athletic-enhancing) supplement in history!

 

And there is always new research coming out about it. I mean ALWAYS.

 

If you don’t have the time or desire to sift through the tons of studies, I have a pretty nice summary here for you.

 

The bottom line is that there are a few reasons why it is so popular!

 

Does creatine help performance?

Yes, there are proven creatine benefits. It can increase the size of lean muscle mass when it’s used along with a resistance training program.

 

Creatine benefits both strength and performance during short-duration, high intensity activity. So, creatine can be helpful for activities like weight-training and sprinting.

 

With high-dose creatine supplementation, it’s possible to increase body mass by almost 2 kg within a week; however, know that this gain is mostly (lean) water weight.

 

On the other hand, creatine is not as helpful for longer-term, lower intensity activities like marathons.

 

FUN FACT: Creatine can also helps your brain, heart, bones, gut and liver too!

 

Creatine for Gut and Mental Health?

 

Oh, and, if you’re wondering; no, creatine is NOT a steroid; and, no, you don’t need to cycle it.

 

Protein shake bottle and jar of creatine powder

How does creatine work?

 

What does creatine do? Creatine is a naturally-occurring nutrient made from the amino acids arginine, methionine, and glycine. Creatine supplements works by increasing the creatine levels in the muscles, thereby giving them more energy.

 

On a biochemical level, creatine benefits athletes by sacrificing itself to help replenish the energy stored in ATP (your body’s energy molecule).

 

This means that your muscles can re-use more of their ATP for energy when there is enough creatine; and therefore, use less glucose (from glycogen).

 

So by helping regenerate ATP, creatine benefits you by preserving your muscle’s glycogen stores, and helps to reduce the amount of lactate produced.

 

Creatine also “hydrates” the muscles by pulling water into the cells with it. This increased water content is considered lean mass, and, at a cellular level, is associated with less protein breakdown, and more DNA synthesis.

 

Basically, creatine benefits you by:

  • Regenerating energy in your muscle cells;
  • Hydrating your muscles; and
  • Reducing the amount of glycogen used, and therefore lactate produced by your muscle cells.

 

How much creatine to get these results?

 

The average (sedentary) person needs about 2 g/day; however this number goes up for athletes and people with higher than average amounts of “lean mass”. The number here is higher, possibly closer to 5 g/day.

 

Creatine is found in meat, eggs, and fish, and is also naturally produced by the body as a means to store energy (i.e. for ATP). Levels of creatine are highest in heart and muscle tissue.

 

You may have seen estimates that most people consume about 2 g/day of creatine from food; however, a large study (NHANES III) showed that the number is actually closer to just 1 g/day. So, seeing as the average person actually needs 2 g/day, there may be many people, especially athletes, who simply need more.

 

By taking a creatine supplement, over and above your food intake, it helps you to get more each day. This can help your muscles to more easily recuperate the energy that they use when you work out.

 

While some people may not seem to benefit from creatine supplementation, this may be because they’re already getting enough from their diet.

 

For athletes who don’t eat very many creatine-containing foods, creatine supplementation may be particularly useful. This is particularly true for vegetarians who have lower muscle creatine (Ref).

 

Creatine powder and capsuels for bodybuilding

What is the best creatine supplement?

 

There are several different forms of creatine available, but the most studied is creatine monohydrate. Brands that contain “Creapure” have pure creatine monohydrate.

 

You can try a more soluble (and expensive) form if you find that you get stomach cramping with the creatine monohydrate form; just stay away from”Creatine Ethyl Ester” which almost completely degrades in your intestines and does not get absorbed. #wasteofmoney

 

The best creatine supplement is the one that is easiest for you to take. Some like creatine monohydrate powders, others find the capsules more convenient.

 

A few of my favourite brands are Allmax Creatine Monohydrate*, OPTIMUM NUTRITION*, Kaizen Naturals* and Genuine Health Fermented BCAA + Creatine*

 

How best to take creatine?

Creatine is something that you can “load” if you want to; however, it is not necessary. Loading can help to shorten the time before you start seeing results.

 

You can load by taking a larger amount (e.g. “loading dose”) for the first few days or weeks, and then taper it down to a regular, daily dose.

 

There are two ways you can take “loading doses”.

 

  • You can take 15-20 grams per day for 5-7 days; or
  • You can take 3-5 grams per day for 4 weeks.

 

Then, once your body has adjusted to this, you can move on to your regular, daily dose of 2-5 grams per day, indefinitely.

 

Should I take creatine before bed?

There is research to support the practice of taking protein before bed to help offset muscle breakdown while you sleep. Naturally people wonder if they should take creatine before bed for a similar effect as taking protein.

 

With the importance of sleep in bodybuilding, strength training and general health, there is quite a bit of buzz about taking creatine before bed. Does it affect the quality of sleep, or the ability to fall asleep? Does it help with gains?

 

Studies show that it really doesn’t matter when you take your creatine monohydrate. Take creatine before bed, take it before a workout or take it after working out. Creatine is absorbed and distributed throughout your muscles.

 

When is the best time to take creatine? The key is just to take it regularly so whatever method fits your routine, go for it.

 

It won’t interfere with sleep for the vast majority of people. Having said that, creatine has been shown to reduce fatigue. Anecdotally some people have found that it makes them feel more alert, so you may consider not taking it within an hour of sleep. Test the waters and do what’s right for you.

 

BCAA vs creatine

Ah yes, branched chain amino acids or BCAA. They’ve been promoted as dietary supplement to promote muscle growth. But how do BCAA benefits compare to creatine benefits?

 

BCAA have been shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis via leucine (Ref, Ref). Compared to placebo, people who consumed 5 g grams of BCAAs after a workout saw a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis (a.k.a. ‘growth’) (Ref).

 

Of course this is still less compared to those who consumed a whey protein shake with the same amount of BCAAs but more total protein (Ref, Ref).

 

Comparing BCAA vs creatine isn’t a fair comparison since they help in different ways. BCAAs, and whey protein for that matter, provide the building blocks for muscle protein synthesis. The leucine in both whey and BCAAs specifically simulate pathways that get the muscle synthesis kick-started. Creatine is about supporting energy pathways which help you ‘go the distance’.

 

FUN FACT: In the end, BCAAs, whey and creatine all complement each other to support your workouts and training.

 

Are there any negative creatine side effects?

 

Overall, creatine is considered to be a very safe supplement, even in long-term studies.

 

Remember to take creatine with enough water to prevent stomach cramping, and ideally take it with meals.

 

Does creatine make you bloated? Maybe. If you experience gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and nausea, you may be taking a bit too much. So, you can try reducing the amount you take each day, or spread the daily amount into smaller doses throughout the day.

 

Creatine is safe for most people, but you should consult your health care practitioner before using it if you have a kidney disorder, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

 

Taking creatine can cause “weight” gain due to its ability to hydrate the muscles. Keep in mind, this is extra weight IS NOT fat but water weight.

 

Two muscular men lifting a kettle bell

Can I take creatine while on a keto diet meal plan?

Seems like more and more people are on a keto diet or asking me for a keto diet meal plan. Naturally, people want to know about various supplements and whether those supplements will interfere with ketosis.

 

There’s no reason why creatine monohydrate, or other forms of creatine, would impact a ketogenic diet or ketosis. As far as I’ve seen, creatine supplements don’t use bulking agents such as maltodextrin or dextrose. I still recommend that ketogenic folks purchase a stand-alone, unflavored form of creatine and consume it with water or a keto-friendly beverage. Once you start adding in extra ingredients beyond the creatine, you’ll be risking getting too much carb.

 

To answer the quesetion, Is creatine OK with keto? The answer is yes

 

How long should I take creatine?

Back in the day of early research, scientists and bros alike used to recommend cycling creatine. A few months of taking it, then taking a break. Some website out there are still saying not to take creatine monohydrate for more than 6 months at a time.

 

Studies lasting up to four years of continued creatine supplementation found no ill effect (Ref, Ref). Also, to put a silly myth to rest, creatine supplements will not harm your kidneys (Ref, Ref).

 

The bulk of the research suggests that you can take creatine indefinitely.

 

Summary

  • Creatine is the most popular ergogenic supplement in history.
  • It improves strength and performance for short-duration, high intensity activities like  weight-training and sprinting.
  • Creatine works by preserving some of the muscle’s ATP, hydrating the cells and increasing their size, helping preserve the muscle’s glycogen stores, and helping to reduce the amount of lactate produced.
  • Athletes can probably use up to 5g/day; and creatine can be loaded if desired.
  • Overall creatine is very safe, but keep on the lookout for gastrointestinal symptoms, and speak with your health care practitioner before using if you have kidney issues, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding

 

Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto dietitian and functional nutritionist with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

 

References:

Antonio J, Ciccone V. The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 6;10:36. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-36. eCollection 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3750511/

 

Brosnan JT, da Silva RP, Brosnan ME. The metabolic burden of creatine synthesis. Amino Acids. 2011 May;40(5):1325-31. doi: 10.1007/s00726-011-0853-y. Epub 2011 Mar 9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21387089

 

Greenhaff’ PL. The nutritional biochemistry of creatine. November 1997. Volume 8, Issue 11, Pages 610–618 http://www.jnutbio.com/article/S0955-2863%2897%2900116-2/abstract

 

Health Canada, Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Monograph. Accessed January 29, 2017, http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/atReq.do?atid=creatine.mono&lang=eng

 

Jones CA, McQuillan GM, Kusek JW, Eberhardt MS, Herman WH, Coresh J, Salive M, Jones CP, Agodoa LY. Serum creatinine levels in the US population: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. December 1998 Volume 32, Issue 6, Pages 992–999.  http://www.ajkd.org/article/S0272-6386(98)70074-5/abstract?cc=y=

 

Kilduff LP, Georgiades E, James N, Minnion RH, Mitchell M, Kingsmore D, Hadjicharlambous M, Pitsiladis YP. The effects of creatine supplementation on cardiovascular, metabolic, and thermoregulatory responses during exercise in the heat in endurance-trained humans. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004 Aug;14(4):443-60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15467102

 

Low SY, Rennie MJ, Taylor PM. Modulation of glycogen synthesis in rat skeletal muscle by changes in cell volume . J Physiol. (1996).  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1160792/

 

Schilling BK, Stone MH, Utter A, Kearney JT, Johnson M, Coglianese R, Smith L, O’Bryant HS, Fry AC, Starks M, Keith R, Stone ME. Creatine supplementation and health variables: a retrospective study. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Feb;33(2):1838. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11224803

 

Spillane M, Schoch R, Cooke M, Harvey T, Greenwood M, Kreider R, Willoughby DS. The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Feb 19;6:6. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-6-6. http://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-6-6

 

Thompson CH, Kemp GJ, Sanderson AL, Dixon RM, Styles P, Taylor DJ, Radda GK. Effect of creatine on aerobic and anaerobic metabolism in skeletal muscle in swimmers. Br J Sports Med. 1996 Sep; 30(3): 222–225. PMCID: PMC1332335. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1332335/

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