Creatine is one of the most widely used and well-researched supplements on the market. In fact, the creatine market in the United States alone is estimated at $14 million per year and over 50 percent of professional football players report using the supplement.
Readily available in pills, powders and sports drinks, many athletes and fitness enthusiasts try creatine at some point, so it’s worth knowing all you can about the supplement.
As always, before taking any exercise supplement, discuss it with your doctor to be sure that it will not have any negative interaction with your medications or preexisting conditions.
What It Is and What It Does
Creatine is an amino acid that is naturally created by your body. It is also available in fish and red meat. Creatine is converted to creatine phosphate and stored in the muscles, which allows your body to use it immediately.
To understand why it’s so important to have creatine phosphate readily on hand, we have to understand how muscle contractions are powered. The primary fuel for all muscle movements is adenosine-triphosphate (ATP). The problem is that our muscles can only store enough ATP for short bursts of activity and it takes a relatively long time to synthesize. To compensate for this and speed up the process, a common compound, adenosine-diphosphate (ADP) steals a phosphate molecule from the creatine phosphate. This creates more ATP for immediate use.
Because creatine supplementation gives you excess reserves of this backup fuel, it primes your body for high-intensity, short-duration exercise like sprinting or weight lifting. Since you have extra fuel available, you should be able to do more reps and run longer, subsequently getting a more effective workout.
The research on creatine is mixed, although the majority of studies show that creatine can help to improve explosive speed, strength and lean muscle mass. Creatine doesn’t appear to be useful in long-distance endurance training, however.
According to the Mayo Clinic, many frequent users of creatine supplements ignore and exceed the recommended dosages. This is likely because serious fitness enthusiasts are either taking bad advice, or they figure they can’t get too much of a good thing.
The general recommended dose is 20 grams of creatine per day, divided into four doses of five grams each. The duration of the supplementation will depend on your goals and there are plenty of conflicting opinions out there. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking creatine for 4-7 days for enhanced athletic strength and performance. Smaller maintenance doses of five grams per daycan be taken after that.
Although traditional gym wisdom supports cycling on and off creatine, this assertion has come under fire. There is no evidence to support that cycling improves the efficacy of the supplementation or that it will prevent side effects as long as you follow the recommended dosages. Despite this evidence, many people still cycle creatine.
Considerations and Potential Side Effects
Some people seem to have no response to creatine. Recent research suggests that these people may simply have a naturally elevated creatine reserve already.
Allergies to creatine are possible and will cause a rash, itching and/or shortness of breath.
Gastrointestinal discomfort as well as bloating from water weight are both common side effects of creatine supplementation. You may also experience muscle sprains or cramps that could lead to more serious injuries.
Although creatine was linked with kidney damage in the past, this connection has been weakened by modern research but not severed. Both kidney and liver functions may be altered, so users with preexisting conditions in these particular organs should talk to their doctor first.
Creatine has the potential to alter insulin activity, but more research is necessary. If you have diabetes or hypoglycemia or are undergoing any treatments that could affect your blood sugar, you should use caution taking creatine.
Have you taken creatine supplements? Share your experience with us in the comments.