What is Creatine?
Occurring naturally within vertebrates, creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid. Its main function is to assist in the supply of energy to cells throughout the body, especially within muscle tissue. The body produces creatine principally in the liver and kidneys from the amino acids glycine, L-methionine and L-arginine. From here, it’s transported throughout the bloodstream to be stored and used by muscles. The bulk of creatine (approximately 95%) can be found within the skeletal muscle.
The first source of energy for muscle contraction (such as for quick sprints) is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). As the muscle contracts, ATP provides energy by releasing one of its three phosphate groups being converted to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) through hydrolysis. ADP is then converted back to ATP by creatine phospate to be used by the muscles again.
When energy demands in muscle cells rapidly increase, creatine plays this critical role in meeting the cells’ requirements. Phosphorylation (the addition of phosphate to an organic molecule) occurs in conjunction with creatine to create creatine phosphate (CrP). To help ADP regenerate ATP, CrP donates it’s phosphate group.
This process is particularly important during high-energy exercise routines. The demand for energy within the muscles can elevate ATP requirements to levels several hundred times higher than needed during periods of rest1. During times of physical exertion, the CrP system is essential and the primary contributor to ATP regeneration within the first 10 to 15 seconds of intense activity2. Also, CrP replenishment is rapid, meaning that it can help supply the necessary ATP for extended periods of intense exercise.
Another key function of creatine is in the hydration of muscle cells. This promotes protein synthesis and elevated ion levels within the cell. As a result, there is an increase in muscle protein synthesis, improving muscle mass. In practice strength athletes, who supplement creatine in their diet, will increase the amount of water retained in their muscle increasing muscle size and weight.
Everyone benefits from creatine in its ability to offer an immediate energy source during intense physical exertion. However, bodybuilders and athletes involved in other strength and speed based sports find this organic acid particularly advantageous.
There have been numerous studies into the benefits of creatine supplementation. Many studies have reported that creatine supplementation in association with resistance training can help promote muscle growth and strength, while also assisting in muscle recovery3. Consequently, creatine has become a very important and popular supplement for many sporting individuals.
More resent research is revealing that dietary creatine supplements may also help the elderly perform daily physical activities more easily. As we age, there is a decline in muscle mass, muscle creatine, strength and bone density. High-dose, short-term creatine supplementation has been shown to have very positive effects on elderly patients through reducing fatigue, improving muscle strength and increasing muscle mass4.
The results also showed an improvement in cognitive processing. While more research is required, the initial findings suggest that creatine supplementation may offer many benefits to older adults and contribute to an improved quality of life.
From a normal daily omnivorous diet, most people intake approximately 1 gram of creatine. Creatine dietary sources include fish, meat and other animal products. For athletes wanting to build muscle mass, improve strength and speed, creatine supplementation offers a natural boost. Effective creatine supplementation must increase creatine stores within the muscles. There are two main approaches when it comes to using creatine supplements: rapid loading and slow loading.
Creatine rapid loading protocol
There have been numerous strategies applied in an attempt to maximise creatine concentration. The most common approach is to rapidly ‘load’ creatine. This is done by ingesting 20 grams daily as four 5 gram servings accompanied by a carbohydrate/protein rich snack. This rapid loading strategy is repeated for a period of between five and seven days. It’s then followed by a creatine ‘maintenance’ program, ingesting 1 to 10 grams per day5. Most individuals take 3 to 5 grams of creatine daily as part of their maintenance program.
The idea behind this strategy is that through taking a larger dose of creatine initially, it helps to super-saturate muscles with creatine, increasing its availability in muscle stores. This high concentration of creatine can then be maintained by smaller, daily doses.
Creatine slow loading protocol
An alternative approach to rapid loading is the slow-loading strategy. In this protocol, individuals take 3 grams of creatine supplement once a day with a carbohydrate/protein rich snack. Individuals that want rapid results from creatine supplementation tend to prescribe to rapid loading, while those wanting a more steady muscle growth prefer slow loading.
Interestingly, research has shown that both approaches have the same results on raising muscle creatine concentration over a period of 30 days6.
When Should You Take Creatine?
The best time to take creatine is following a period of intense exercise. The body absorbs nutrients more easily following a workout and this helps to refuel CrP stores. Also, ingesting creatine in conjunction with carbohydrates/protein after exercise will create an insulin spike and help to transport more creatine into the muscle cells.
The ideal duration of creatine supplementation is not clear. Many people take creatine for three months and then have a break for three months before starting the cycle again. Others prescribe to a cycle of two months on and one month off. Some creatine supplement users don’t cycle their use and maintain a regular daily dose of 3 grams. How long an individual should take creatine for is ultimately a personal decision, determined by their own physical needs and well-being.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid produced within the body. It’s also found in high concentrations within foods such as turkey and chicken. Beta-alanine is a precursor to carnosine. Carnosine is present within the muscle tissue to regulate intercellular pH, which is particularly important during periods of intense exercise due to the increase in lactic acid and subsequent acidosis.
During intense exercise, fatigue is brought about mainly through intramuscular acidosis7. Athletes have found that beta-alanine supplementation can help to boost carnosine levels and reduce muscle fatigue. By preventing acid build-up within the muscles, individuals find it easier to increase the duration of intense exercise. The recommended dosage of beta-alanine for optimal results is between 2 to 4 grams per day, depending on an individual’s bodyweight.
Many body builders and other athletes find that taking creatine and beta-alanine supplements is very beneficial to their performance. In one particular study, participants that used both beta-alanine and creatine supplements lost more body fat and gained more lean mass than those only supplementing with creatine 8.
Endurance performance is also reported to improve in conjunction with both creatine and beta-alanine supplementation9. In comparison with creatine, beta-alanine supplementation is a relatively new option for athletes. However, studies are showing that this supplement is proving to be highly valuable.
While creatine is safely used by many individuals there are some side effects that need to be considered.
Kidneys can become stressed with elevated creatine concentrations. Consequently, the rapid loading approach to creatine supplementation can have negative impacts on the kidneys. Also, creatine dehydrates the body by drawing more water into the muscle cells.
This can lead to gastrointestinal complaints, which are the most commonly reported side effect of creatine supplementation. Therefore, it’s extremely important to drink lots of water to rehydrate the body, reduce stress on the kidneys, and help to relieve gastrointestinal problems.
There is a general consensus within human studies that sort-term to intermediate-term creatine supplementation is safe. However, the impact of long-term use is largely unknown. Research investigating the long-term effects of creatine supplementation in mice showed the development of serious inflammatory lesions on the liver10. While this doesn’t necessary mean that long-term creatine use in humans has the same results, it remains a cause for concern.
Anyone that has kidney or liver problems shouldn’t take creatine supplements. Most studies show creatine supplementation for up to six months doesn’t produce serious side effects. However, prolonged, continuous use past the six months period should be avoided. It’s also important not to exceed the recommended dosage based on individual body weight.
Creatine is considered a safe and natural supplement to help improve physical performance, especially in the promotion of muscle mass, strength and speed. More recently, beta-alanine supplements have been taken along side creatine to assist with endurance. Together, these natural supplements are helping enhance athletic performance. As more studies investigate the effects of creatine and beta-alanine, it’s likely that these supplements will offer other health benefits. As a precaution, it’s recommended that anyone with any serious underlying health issues should consult their doctor or physician prior to taking these supplements.
Related sources and studies:
- “http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0100-879X1999000600001” ↩
- “http://easacademy.org/research-news/article/interaction-among-skeletal-muscle-metabolic-energy-systems-during-intense-exercise” ↩
- “http://www.nutritionjrnl.com/article/S0899-9007(04)00105-4/abstract” ↩
- “http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00726-011-0855-9?LI=true” ↩
- “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15707376” ↩
- “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828669” ↩
- “http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/20479615” ↩
- “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18548362” ↩
- “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16953366” ↩
- “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1295992” ↩