Creatine is as close as it comes to being a wonder supplement. It has significant performance enhancing effects, while simultaneously being protective for health and increasing well being. Creatine is also one of the most widely researched and safest supplements available, which raises the question:
Why wouldn’t everyone take it?
Unfortunately, creatine is one of those supplements that is so effective, a number of myths have developed. People think it’s a steroid. They hear that it damages the kidneys. They think it’s only for body builders. None of these are true.
In fact, the people who can benefit the most from creatine are those least likely to take it: the elderly, vegetarians, women, and individuals with depression or traumatic brain injury. That’s not to say that athletes and body builders won’t benefit too—they’re just not the population that is most likely to have low muscle creatine stores.
This article will give you the ten most compelling reasons to take creatine and provide key points on how to get the most out of supplementation.
Benefit #1: Increase Strength & Power
Creatine is formed from the amino acids arginine and glycine and it serves as an energy reserve in the body for short-term, intense exercise. In fact, scientists first noticed that creatine improved power output by 40 percent in elderly when going up a flight of stairs.
Since then, studies show creatine can improve all measures of power performance, including squat and bench press power, vertical jump height, and repeated sprint performance. For example, trained handball players were found to increase power output by 17 percent in the bench press, 20 percent in the half-squat, and 5 percent in the vertical jump after supplementing with 20 grams of creatine for 5 days.
How does it do it?
Creatine literally increases energy levels in your muscles by raising the amount of phosphocreatine, which leads to greater ATP production. You probably remember from elementary biology that ATP is the energy currency for every cell. Anytime you want your muscle to contract so you can lift a weight or run up a hill, you have to expend ATP.
Benefit #2: Increase Time To Exhaustion and Work Capacity
One of the best ways creatine affects sports performance is by allowing you to get more work done in less time. It also increases the amount of time you can work at full capacity without passing out—bonus!
Anecdotally, creatine has been reported to increase emotional excitement to train and lower how hard a workout feels (RPE), which is a major plus since everyone has had days when the last thing they want to do is hit the gym.
In previously sedentary individuals, taking 15 grams of creatine a day for 5 days resulted in a 4 to 5 percent increase work capacity done on a repeated sprint exercise test. Creatine also benefits trained athletes: Elite sprinters who took creatine for 6 weeks performed greater total work and had higher peak power than a placebo group.
Benefit #3: Better Body Composition/Less Body Fat
Taking creatine can enhance the quality of your workout, which can lead to greater energy expenditure during training and in the post-exercise period for greater improvements in body composition and fat loss.
Simply, by increasing training intensity and volume, you’re able to apply greater overload to the body for a leaner, fitter physique.
Additionally, studies consistently show that creatine can double the muscle gains when training for hypertrophy. One review found an extra 2 to 4 pounds of muscle mass gained during 4 to 12 weeks of training in athletes. Interestingly, there appears to be a gender difference in lean mass gains with creatine supplementation.
While males tend to see substantial increases in lean body weight, the majority of the literature shows no evidence of statistically significant weight gain in women, but there are cases in which body fat is reduced for an improved body composition. In a study of female college soccer players, those who took creatine in conjunction with a training program lost 0.3 kg of body fat and reduced body fat percentage by 1.5 percent, whereas the placebo group had no change.
In another study of recreationally active women that tested the effect of creatine supplementation on anaerobic work capacity, there was no difference in body weight or fat mass changes in either the creatine or placebo group. However, the creatine group increased work capacity by a worthwhile 22 percent.
Benefit #4: Less Sarcopenia
Most people think that getting old and decrepit as we age is a given. It’s just something that happens that’s out of our control. This way of thinking is completely wrong.
The top two physiological factors associated with aging are a loss of strength and muscle mass. As we lose strength, our coordination is reduced and we are more likely to trip, fall, and hurt ourselves.
Another side effect of strength loss is that we become less active and we lose muscle. With loss of muscle comes bone loss and rapid fat gain. This leads to a cascade of negative metabolic changes that increase disease risk and make us more likely to get diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. And it’s all downhill from there.
Making sure that older people are getting enough creatine is one of the simplest things they can do to prevent all this misery. Supplementing with a few grams of creatine a day along with eating high quality protein from meat and fish can do wonders for helping an individual outwit aging.
Here’s some evidence: When older women age 58 to 71 took 0.3 g/kg/bw of creatine for 7 days, they increased bench press strength by 1.7 kg and leg press by 5.2 kg without even exercising. Walking speed improved and muscle mass increased for a better body composition.
Benefit #5: Stronger Bones
One of the biggest health risks as we age is bone loss. Although, weight training can reduce bone loss with aging, the reality is that older folks rarely train intensely enough to halt the reduction in bone density.
Taking creatine in conjunction with weight training appears to solve this problem. For example, when elderly men took creatine in conjunction with weight training for 12 weeks, they increased bone mineral content significantly more than a placebo group (which actually reduced bone strength by 1 percent, likely because the training program was not intense enough). Researchers think the increase in bone health is due to the men gaining muscle because more lean mass causes potentially greater tension on bone at sites of muscle attachment.
A second study of elderly women, found that creatine supplementation in conjunction with weight training for a year reduced bone loss significantly—the creatine group had a 1.2 percent decrease in bone loss compared to 3.9 percent in the placebo group.
What about if you don’t want to exercise and just want to sit on the couch?
It’s unclear if creatine supplementation alone affects bone mass, but animal studies are promising, with both young and old rats increasing bone mineral density after taking creatine. However, the benefits of exercise on reducing the effects of aging are enormous (exercise is the best preventative medicine), making it a no-brainer to combine creatine with training for the best results.
Benefit #6: Less Depression
A primary source of depression and low mood is thought to be poor brain metabolism—basically, the brain is not getting the energy necessary to keep you feeling good. Increasing creatine levels appears to be able to improve levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in animal studies, and it has an anti-depressant effect in humans as well, especially when paired with anti-depressant medication.
When 25 women with major depression took 5 grams of creatine a day along with an SSRI, they had significant improvements compared to a placebo group on a test measuring depression after only 2 weeks. Benefits persisted for the duration of the study and researchers recommend that creatine can augment the beneficial effects of medication on overcoming depression.
Benefit #7: Less Fatigue
Lack of sleep influences every aspect of your life, altering blood sugar control, raising the stress hormone cortisol, and significantly reducing reaction time and cognitive function. Not only will creatine supplementation improve work capacity and reduce the fatigue you experience during training, but it can also overcome the effects of sleep deprivation.
For example, when pro rugby players were sleep deprived, they had significant reductions in on-field skill performance and power output. By supplementing with creatine, they were able to overcome their exhaustion and perform just as well on repeat rugby skill passing tests as when they were rested.
Scientists note that creatine doesn’t increase levels of cortisol, making it preferable to caffeine for overcoming sleep deprivation. Lower cortisol allows for a more favorable testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, indicating greater motivation and readiness to perform.
Benefit #8: Better Metabolic Health
Creatine supplementation is generally safe for diabetics and has been found to improve metabolic health. In a study of non-diabetic, sedentary men, those who took creatine reduced the blood sugar response to a glucose tolerance test by 11 to 22 percent.
A second study found that diabetics who supplemented with 5 grams of creatine while engaging in an exercise program for 12 weeks significantly improved glycemic control and lowered their HbA1c from an average of 7.4 to 6.4. Markers related to insulin sensitivity also improved.
Researchers think creatine improves metabolic health by increasing the signaling pathways that allows the body to burn sugar for energy in the body. It’s unclear how beneficial creatine would be in the absence of exercise on metabolic health, but together, you have a powerful tool to optimize your metabolism.
Benefit #9: Improved Cognition
Your brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of your body’s total energy use. When your brain is crankin’ and the workload is heavy, lack of fuel is the factor limiting brain function. Creatine is a pivotal energy source for the brain because it provides “fast” energy. ATP, which you’ll remember is the energy currency of the brain, is resynthesized from creatine 12 times faster than via oxidative and 70 times faster than de novo pathways.
Creatine is neuroprotective in neurological conditions or any time brain function is reduced such as when you are sleep deprived. Vegetarians have a deficit of creatine and a series of studies show that supplementation can improve performance on brain tests.
When 45 vegetarians were given 5 grams of creatine a day for 6 weeks they improved by nearly 50 percent on an IQ test and also increased their working memory. On a test in which they had to remember long numbers like telephone numbers, creatine supplementation improved number length from an average of 7 to 8.5.
Benefit #10: Faster Recovery From Concussion
Anytime an athlete experiences a concussion or other traumatic brain injury, there is a reduction in creatine levels in the brain. This leads to the production of reactive oxygen species and the onset of oxidative stress, which causes a variety of neuromotor problems including poor brain function and reduced coordination.
Initial studies suggest that creatine supplementation may be neuroprotective, reducing the negative effects of lack of blood flow that coincides with concussion. This has been demonstrated with animal studies showing a reduction of cortical brain damage of as much as 50 percent.
Take Away Points:
Everyone can benefit from optimizing their creatine levels, especially athletes, vegetarians, and the elderly.
Frequently eating meat and fish that are high in creatine will go a long way towards achieving optimal levels. Supplementing with as little as 3 grams per day can ensure optimal creatine stores in omnivores, whereas vegetarians will likely benefit from up to 5 grams a day.
A loading dose is not necessary, however it will raise levels more quickly.
Take creatine with either carbs or protein in order to raise insulin to optimize creatine uptake into the muscles. You can take creatine either pre- or post-workout, but it’s generally recommended to take it within one hour of exercise.
Drink plenty of water to ensure adequate liquids for cellular hydration.
Additional positive effects that weren’t mentioned in this article include less arthritis, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and faster recovery from injuries.