Not all people who go in for sports are aware that supplements do not equal steroids, and this is specifically true for creatine, one of the safest, best researched, and beneficial supplements for your gains. Do you want to hear proof? Let's go!
There were more than 700 case studies with human subjects, proving creatine safety and efficacy. This makes creatine one of the most popular supplements you will find in sports nutrition sections. It is highly beneficial for your muscle growth and performance in the gym and has almost no side effects. However, because of its popularity, creatine is now surrounded by multiple myths.
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Today we will learn more about the best combinations between creatine and other nutrients, the best time to take your supplements, and we will bust some myths about creatine side effects.
Creatine is not a synthetic molecule produced in a laboratory. It is a natural component that your body naturally makes by itself. Your body produces on average 1-2 grams of creatine per day. You can also get it from food, like pork, fish, or beef. As vegetarians don’t eat animal products, they have a lower level of creatine1Blancquaert L., Baguet A., Bex T., et al. (2018, April). Changing to a Vegetarian Diet Reduces the Body Creatine Pool in Omnivorous Women, but Appears Not to Affect Carnitine and Carnosine Homeostasis: A Randomized Trial. The British Journal of Nutrition. DOI:10.1017/S000711451800017X.
Today, there are several types of creatine, but there is no scientific evidence that some are better than others. That’s why we will talk about creatine monohydrates in this article.
Creatine stimulates the faster regeneration of ATP and affects its level in your muscles. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate. These are energy molecules your body uses for immediate and energy-consuming actions like sprinting or weight lifting. Higher creatine levels in cells lead to more strength in your muscle and allow you to make more reps with heavier weights. In the long run, this stimulates muscle growth.
Creatine is proven to increase muscle power and other indicators of muscle strength, sprint performance2Kreider R. B. (2003, February). Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Performance and Training Adaptations. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. PMID:12701815, and work performance during sets of maximal muscle contraction from 5% to 15%. It is also able to improve skeletal muscle functioning3Candow D. G., Chilibeck P. D., Forbes S. C. (2014, April). Creatine Supplementation and Aging Musculoskeletal Health. Endocrine. DOI:10.1007/s12020-013-0070-4 in older men.
Even though creatine is primarily stored in muscles, some of it is also held in the brain. Taking creatine in supplements can increase the level of creatine in the brain by up to 10%. As creatine can promote energy supply to the brain and protect brain cells, it can also improve brain function. Randomized controlled trials show improvement in short-term memory4Avgerinos K., Spyrou N., Bougioukas K., et al. (2018, July). Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Cognitive Function of Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Experimental Gerontology. DOI:10.1016/j.exger.2018.04.013 among people taking creatine. Some research also demonstrated increased cognitive performance among elderly individuals5McMorris T., Mielcarz G., Harris R. C., et al. (2007, September). Creatine Supplementation and Cognitive Performance in Elderly Individuals. Neuropsychology, Development, and Cognition. Section B, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. DOI:10.1016/j.exger.2018.04.013.
Summing up: Your body naturally produces creatine. Creatine is a set of amino acids; it’s not a steroid or some hazardous substance. It aids ATP regeneration, increases your muscle strengths, and helps to grow muscles.
Overconsuming creatine can have some side effects6Ostojic S. M., Ahmetovic Z. (2008). Gastrointestinal Distress after Creatine Supplementation in Athletes: Are Side Effects Dose-Dependent? Research in Sports Medicine. DOI:10.1080/15438620701693280. The most popular one is stomach upset. It can happen if you’ve taken the whole dose of creatine during the load phase (20-25 grams) in one go. If you distribute this amount throughout the day, gastrointestinal distress is much less probable.
Another side effect of taking creatine is bloating. The thing is, it retains water in your muscle, which can sometimes look and feel like bloating.
Not so much of a side effect is the absence of any effect in some people. If you’ve taken creatine for at least 28 days and saw no difference in your performance, chances are creatine is not for you. This non-responding is possible if your levels of creatine are already high.
Most of the myths connected with creatine had emerged because of studies of poor quality. Here are some of them with a short explanation of how they’ve appeared.
The myth that creatine affects kidney function came from a case study, not documented in the literature, of a bodybuilder who was dehydrated during his prep time for the competition and took creatine at the same time. He faced kidney failure.
Even though this case caused a belief that creatine can affect kidney health, randomized controlled studies have shown no effect of creatine supplements on kidney function7Gualano B., de Salles Painelli V., Roschel H., et al. (2011, May). Creatine Supplementation Does Not Impair Kidney Function in Type 2 Diabetic Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Clinical Trial. European Journal of Applied Physiology. DOI:10.1007/s00421-010-1676-3.
On the other hand, we should mention that studies on people with kidney diseases are lacking. So, to stay on the safe side, if you have problems with kidneys, you might want to consult your doctor before taking creatine.
The myth that taking creatine can lead to hair loss has appeared after one 2009 study, which researched the levels of DHT hormone in college rugby players8Van der Merwe J., Brooks N. E., Myburgh K. H. (2009, September). Three Weeks of Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation Affects the Dihydrotestosterone to Testosterone Ratio in College-Aged Rugby Players. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: Official Journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine. DOI:10.1097/JSM.0b013e3181b8b52f. The thing is, high levels of DHT can accelerate hair loss. Scientists have presumed that by elevating the DHT hormone level, creatine may stimulate hair loss.
What’s wrong with this study? There were only 20 human subjects in this research. Another problem is that it has never been replicated. Scientists also presume that elevated levels of DHT can accelerate baldness only if you have a predisposition to alopecia.
If you have a family history of baldness, you might consider this possible side effect of creatine, but keep in mind that the evidence is not conclusive.
Summing up: Creatine is well studied, and it shows no detrimental effects9Poortmans J. R., Francaux M. (1999, August). Long-Term Oral Creatine Supplementation Does Not Impair Renal Function in Healthy Athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. DOI:10.1097/00005768-199908000-00005 on healthy people and people with health conditions. Possible side effects are primarily linked to the overdose of creatine 10Bender A., Samtleben W., Elstner M., et al. (2008, March). Long-Term Creatine Supplementation Is Safe in Aged Patients with Parkinson’s Disease. Nutrition Research. DOI:10.1016/j.nutres.2008.01.001. There are responders and non-responders to creatine, and if you’re a no-responder, you might see no benefits from taking this supplement.
There are two popular protocols to start taking creatine.
Creatine load. First, several days (five to seven) is a time for “creatine loading” when you take 20 to 25 grams of creatine a day. After that, you can decrease your dosage to 3 to 5 grams a day. Such a load is necessary to saturate muscles with creatine and get all its benefits faster11Preen D., Dawson B., Goodman C., et al. (2003, March). Creatine Supplementation: A Comparison of Loading and Maintenance Protocols on Creatine Uptake by Human Skeletal Muscle. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. DOI:10.1123/ijsnem.13.1.97.
No loading phase. Taking the maintenance level of creatine without the load is also efficient. However, you might need up to 28 days to saturate muscles with creatine and see its benefits.
Even though there is a debate about when it’s better to take creatine, some studies show that the best option is to take creatine close to exercise, no matter pre or post-workout12Cribb P. J., Hayes A. (2006, November). Effects of Supplement Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. DOI:10.1249/01.mss.0000233790.08788.3e. However, keep in mind that it is wiser to have your creatine distributed evenly throughout the day if you’re in your load phase.
As randomized control trials demonstrate no significant difference between taking creatine before or after a workout13Candow D. G., Vogt E., Johannsmeyer S., et al. (2015, July). Strategic Creatine Supplementation and Resistance Training in Healthy Older Adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. DOI:10.1139/apnm-2014-0498, one of the working strategies is splitting your daily creatine dose into two portions and taking one before exercise and the other after your gym session. A case study on nineteen bodybuilders showed that taking creatine immediately after a workout can be more beneficial for body composition and muscle strength than a pre-workout supplementation14Antonio J., Ciccone V. (2013, August). The Effects of Pre Versus Post Workout Supplementation of Creatine Monohydrate on Body Composition and Strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. DOI:10.1186/1550-2783-10-36.
Some nutritionists recommend taking creatine during exercise days and during rest days to maintain high levels of creatine in your muscles.
According to some studies like the one published in Physical Activity and Nutrition15Kreider R., Jung Y. P. (2011, May). Creatine Supplementation in Exercise, Sport, and Medicine. Physical Activity and Nutrition. DOI:10.5717/jenb.2011.15.2.53, muscle creatine levels increase when this supplement is taken with carbohydrates.
The Journal of Sports Sciences proves this theory16Pittas G., Hazell M. D., Simpson E. J., et al. (2010, January). Optimization of Insulin-Mediated Creatine Retention during Creatine Feeding in Humans. Journal of Sports Sciences. DOI:10.1080/02640410903390071, stating that there might be a 60% increase in muscle creatine if you take your supplements with 93 grams of carbs or 47 grams of carbs and 50 grams of protein. As these are almost 400 calories, our recommendation would be to take creatine with your post-workout meal. Remember that you will have to control the number of calories you consume to see results in body composition.
Summing up: The most beneficial way to take creatine might be to have it with your post-workout shake or post-workout meal right after your gym session. However, if it’s not comfortable for you, don’t hesitate to get your creatine with water immediately after a workout.
Weight gain is quite possible while taking creatine as its primary goal is to help in muscle gain. Along with this, creatine stimulates water retention in muscles which increases their volume.
One research has shown that people taking creatine for 28 days17Powers M. E., Arnold B. L., Weltman A. L., et al. (2003, January-March). Creatine Supplementation Increases Total Body Water Without Altering Fluid Distribution. ournal of Athletic Training. PMID:12937471, including the loading phase, gain up to 1.3 kilos because of water retention and muscle growth.
Remember that weight gain doesn’t equal fat gain. Moreover, you can’t gain fat or muscle if you’re not in a calorie surplus.
What you eat and how you exercise always have a more considerable impact on losing or gaining weight than supplements!
The two most popular supplements are creatine and caffeine, and some athletes wonder, should you combine them? One 1996 study about creatine and caffeine has shown that taking creatine plus caffeine does not increase force during exercise18Vandenberghe K., Gillis N., van Leemputte M., et al. (1996, February). Caffeine Counteracts the Ergogenic Action of Muscle Creatine Loading. Journal of Applied Physiology. DOI:10.1152/jappl.19188.8.131.522. Moreover, creatine plus caffeine has the same effect on cardio and sprint exercises as creatine alone.
The problem with the study was that there were only nine subjects, it has never been replicated, and with the focus group that small, we can’t say that this study provides reliable data.
All in all, there is no need to combine caffeine and creatine, as they don’t work in synergy.
For the loading phase, you will need 20 to 25 grams of creatine per day. If you decided to skip loading, you could start with 3 to 5 grams of creatine. The exact number depends on your weight.
The best way to have it is after your workout, with a post-workout meal or shake. If you have powder creatine, you can also mix it with water and drink half of it before and half of it after a workout.
It depends on your goals, but there is no reason to stop taking creatine as long as you lift weights. On the other hand, as creatine can lead to bloating, you might want to stop taking creatine during your cut phases. Taking creatine supplements might also boost your body recomposition or reverse dieting progress.
It can make you gain weight as creatine retains water in muscles and stimulates muscle growth. However, you won’t gain fat or muscle mass if you eat your maintenance level of calories or are in a calorie deficit.
Not really. Creatine works as a booster for your muscle strength and muscle growth. If you don’t lift weights or perform some sprint exercises, you won’t benefit from this supplement.
Article updated: July 12, 2022
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