There is no shortage of products and supplements available on the market in the health and fitness industry. It only takes a four second scroll on Instagram or Tik Tok for you to be plagued with various products all purporting to confer incredible health benefits such as making your skin glow and providing you the ability to lift up a car, simultaneously. As consumers and individuals involved in the fitness industry, it can be an overwhelming task to sift through the commentary associated with supplements and decide what should be dismissed, and what products are valid and useful. Most of us don’t have spare time to review complicated scientific research to ascertain the necessary knowledge to guide our decisions about what supplements we should be taking. If we turn to social media as our main source of knowledge, it can be hard to know who is providing reliable and accurate information, particularly when many people are paid by supplement companies to promote their products. Luckily, no company is braindead enough to sponsor me, so you can trust me as an objective and unbiased source for information on creatine.
What is Creatine?
Before deciding whether to ingest a new supplement or product, it’s wise to actually know what it is you are taking and what it does to your body. Creatine is a molecule that it naturally produced in the body from amino acids. Creatine stores energy phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine which are given to ADP to regenerate it to ATP. This is the main energy carrier in the body, and thus creatine plays a role in the production of energy in the human body. Whilst creatine is naturally produced in the body, we need to replenish about 1 -3g of creatine per day through external means in order to maintain adequate stores. This occurs through the consumption of animal-based foods such as red meat and fish. Many athletes consume additional amounts of creatine as a supplement in the form of powder or capsules. By adding more creatine to your diet, this increases the creatine concentration in the muscles, which in turn increases the production of ATP and thus allows your body to perform better during exercise.
What are the Benefits of Creatine?
As one of the more thoroughly researched supplements, creatine is used in the health and fitness domain because it is proven to increase strength and power output for resistance training. It has also been shown to help with recovery following exercise, as well as injury prevention and rehabilitation. When taken in conjunction with resistance training, creatine can facilitate an increase in muscle as a result of it’s enhancement of exercise capacity and training adaptations. In other words, creatine can allow our bodies to work more efficiently and handle more load, and thus achieve progress more rapidly in the gym.
As discussed, whilst creatine naturally occurs in the body, a small percentage of it is reduced to creatinine and excreted in our urine. Therefore, we need to replenish our creatine stores by obtaining creatine externally through the foods we eat. This is particularly important for people who have natural deficiencies in synthesising creatine in the body, or creatine transporter deficiencies. Vegetarians who abstain from eating meat which contains creatine have also been shown to have lower creatine stores in the muscles, and therefore may benefit more from creatine supplementation for them to maintain adequate muscle and brain levels of creatine.
The main benefits of creatine that have been studied relate to physical strength, however early research suggests that there are cognitive benefits for taking creatine. Whilst creatine stores are mainly located in muscles, small amounts are also located in the brain. Creatine supplements increase phosphocreatine stores in the brain, which theoretically could improve brain health and reduce symptoms associated with neurological diseases. Some early research has suggested that creatine supplementation can improve short-term memory and intelligence levels. Moreover, it has been suggested that taking creatine reduces the impact and slows the trajectory of the development of some neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Motor Neuron’s Disease and Huntingson’s disease. However, it’s important to underscore this with the caveat that further research needs to be conducted in this area to corroborate these earlier studies.
What are the Disadvantages of Creatine?
Creatine is one of the most heavily researched supplements in the sporting industry. There appears to be a plethora of studies to indicate that there are very few disadvantages to taking creatine, particularly for normal and healthy individuals. However, one of the consistently reported disadvantages is weight gain, which can often be a significant enough deterrent for some people to steer clear, despite the evidence of positive effects. It’s important to realise that any weight-gain associated with creatine supplementation is evidently not fat but likely water-retention, so little attention should be paid towards this “disadvantage”.
Another disadvantage that is often discussed is the impact that creatine has on gastrointestinal discomfort. Some people have reported experiencing painful stomach symptoms after taking creatine. There are arguments to suggest that perhaps there isn’t an established causative link between creatine supplementation and stomach problems and there may be other more valid explanations. Moreover, this disadvantage can be tempered by reducing the amount of creatine you have in one sitting, and taking it in small amounts over the course of the day as opposed to all at once. This may help to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms, however it can be difficult to remember to take it at several intervals during the day.
Due to the mechanisms pertaining to creatine-use and energy within the body, there is some evidence to suggest that creatine may have a negative impact on kidney function in individual’s with pre-existing kidney problems. This is because when creatine is converted into energy, this process leaves a chemical compound known as creatinine in the body. This is filtered through the blood via the kidneys, and then excreted through your urine as a waste-product. The theory is that excessive creatine in-take creates significantly more creatinine for your kidneys to filter, putting too much strain on the kidneys. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there is any impact on people with healthy kidneys, and it is recommend that people with kidney-related disorders speak with their medical practitioner before utilising creatine supplementation.
Conclusion: Should You Take Creatine?
As someone who isn’t a medical professional and who is merely a part-time health blogger at best, I am not going to recommend you take any supplement. I can, however, synthesise the scientific data available on creatine in a (hopefully) simple manner that might assist the reader to make an informed choice. It seems that everyone is in agreement on creatine though: it is ostensibly beneficial for increasing strength and muscle mass, with potentially even greater and more varied benefits. Moreover, it seems that the only downsides relate to gastrointestinal discomfort, which might be mitigated by reducing the amount you take at one time. Given the plethora of research available for creatine, the fact that it’s relatively cheap and the proven benefits, I take a creatine supplement everyday and I can indeed lift up my Mazda 2. With my pinky.