It’s a popular supplement among gym-goers and athletes, but what is creatine? If you’re considering adding it to your routine, it’s important to understand a few key points: is it safe and effective? And, if you’re following a plant-based diet, is creatine vegan? We look at the evidence.April 28, 2022 5:18 pm September 13, 2021 9:17 am
What is creatine?
Creatine is an organic compound (officially speaking, it’s a nitrogenous amine).(1) We make it in our own bodies.
The liver and kidneys are mainly responsible for making creatine, although the pancreas contributes to a lesser extent. However, most of the body’s stores of creatine (about 95%) are in the skeletal muscles. The remaining 5% goes to the brain, liver, kidneys and (in men) the testes.(2)
We make about a gram of creatine per day. But we also get it from our diet. Humans predominantly get their dietary creatine from meat, and vegetarians tend to have lower levels of it.(2) Thus, it may be of particular interest to vegetarians and vegans as a supplement, assuming that their supplemental creatine is vegan. (More on that below!).
Why are people interested in creatine as a supplement?
Interest in creatine boomed in the 1990s, when athletes and gym-goers started taking it as a supplement to boost their workouts. It is most closely linked with resistance training.
It became incredibly popular. In one 1999 study, 48% of male athletes said they were taking or had previously taken a creatine supplement.(1)
Studies have shown that creatine supplementation helps improve performance with short, high intensity sports such as strength training, weightlifting and cycling.(1)
While it is still a very popular supplement, it has been somewhat displaced by whey protein. More recent surveys of American high school students found that this type of protein powder has been more popular than creatine in recent years.(2)
How does creatine work?
The reason creatine is so useful in exercise comes down to how you create and use energy in your muscles.
Strap in for some heavy science – it’s important, we promise!(1)
As we know, creatine is made in your liver and kidneys and is then transported to your muscles, where it hangs out until needed.
When your muscle cell requires energy (for example, if you’re exercising), it makes use of a compound called ATP. This stands for adenosine 5-triphosphate. It’s a complex molecule which we won’t get into now, but suffice to say that it has a phosphate group stuck onto it.
During a process called hydrolysis, one of ATP’s phosphate groups breaks off, releasing energy. Great! Now your cell can use that energy for its processes. The ATP, minus one phosphate group, becomes ADP (adenosine diphosphate).
So where does creatine come in? Well, as you may have guessed, it’s all to do with phosphorus.
Once inside your cells, creatine is the willing recipient of the phosphate lost by ATP. It has been ‘phosphorylated’ (had a phosphoryl group stuck onto it) to make a different compound called phosphocreatine.
But the great thing about creatine is that it can hand its phosphate back to ADP to make more ATP. This process is called the ‘phosphocreatine shuffle’.
That means more energy for your cell to use, and is the reason why it’s thought to improve performance in exercise.
Does creatine work for all types of exercise?
Creatine is mostly associated with short, sharp bursts of exercise, as mentioned above. This is because your body soon moves on to other methods of providing your cells with energy.
If you jump straight into some strenuous exercise, your cells only have a small reserve of ATP which they can draw on for energy.
When that runs out, they can make use of the phosphocreatine shuffle to produce more ATP and carry on doing the same thing.
However, nothing lasts forever. The phosphocreatine shuffle is only your cell’s main way of producing energy for about the first ten seconds of intense exercise.
After that your cells move onto a process called anaerobic gycolysis. This is when your body converts glucose (sugar from your food) into lactate, providing more of that precious ATP. This phase lasts from about 10 seconds to two minutes of maximum effort.(2)
After that, you’ll move on to aerobic respiration. This is the type your cells will be using if you head out for a 5K run or go swimming for half an hour. It happens when glucose and oxygen react to produce CO2 and water.
So, how does creatine help you? Well, having more reserves of creatine in your muscles means that the phosphocreatine shuttle stage can last longer. While it’s less important for longer types of exercise, if you do short sharp bursts (such as lifting a heavy weight), it could theoretically improve your performance.
What’s the evidence that creatine works?
The good news is: there’s quite a bit of evidence for creatine helping with certain types of exercise.
For instance, one study looked at 19 healthy men who did resistance training, dividing them into two groups. The first took creatine, the second took a placebo.
They then all followed a 12 week regimen of heavy resistance training. Those who took creatine built more muscle and were able to bench press more at the end of the training period.(3)
Scientists think that this is because those who took creatine were able to rapidly regenerate ATP in their cells in the breaks between resistance sets. That meant they were able to work out at a higher intensity throughout the training programme.(1)
Meanwhile a review undertaken by the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that 70% of the studies they reviewed reported improved exercise performance with creatine. Furthermore, the average improvement in performance ranged from 10-15%.(4)
There’s also evidence that creatine can help with other types of short bursts of exercise, such as swimming or running sprints.(4)
"In one 1999 study, 48% of male athletes said they were taking or had previously taken a creatine supplement."
Other interesting uses for creatine
If you’re researching creatine, chances are you’re interested in it for its workout-boosting effects. However, scientists are also looking at it as a potential treatment for some rather unexpected diseases.
For example, it may have a beneficial effect in treating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.(2)
It may also help with intelligence test performance and memory in adults. However, this only appears to be true for those who have depleted natural stores of creatine (the study was conducted with vegetarian subjects).(5)
The ‘loading protocol’
Scientists have identified that the fastest way to get more creatine into your muscle stores is to do a ‘loading phase’, followed by regular supplementation.
As a result, that’s what a lot of companies suggest you do. In fact, the term ‘loading phase’ is thrown around a lot when discussing creatine.
Essentially, it means that you will take a lot of it for a period of a few days, before reducing the dose down to a steady, long-term amount which you’ll take daily.
During the loading phase, you’d be looking at a daily dose of 0.3g of creatine per kilo of your body weight. For a 70kg person, that would be 21g a day for at least three, but sometimes up to seven days.
After this period, you’d go down to a more manageable 3-5g per day to keep your stores topped up.(4)
It is possible to go with a smaller dose of creatine over a longer period, but there is less scientific evidence to support that this increases your muscular creatine stores.
How to take creatine
The most popular and easily available way to take creatine is in powder form. You would use it much as you would a protein powder.
For example, you could mix a scoop of powder with water or into a smoothie or shake.
Creatine is also widely available in capsule form.
Different types of creatine
One thing which causes confusion for potential creatine users is that not all available supplements are exactly the same.
The most researched form of creatine is called creatine monohydrate. However, there are lots of other versions on the market, such as creatine salts, creatine complexes, creatine ethyl ester and creatine dipeptides.
These are often marketed as the same or ‘better’ than creatine monohydrate. However, there is no peer-reviewed evidence to suggest they perform better. In many cases, it appears they actually have less of an impact.(6)
Moreover, most of the safety evaluations on creatine have been done with creatine monohydrate.
Is creatine vegan?
If you follow a plant-based diet, your stores of creatine may be depleted. Yet, the main dietary source is meat! So, is creatine vegan – and can you use a synthetic creatine supplement?
The broad answer is: yes, you can.
Most creatine supplements are synthesized in a lab from sarcosine (an amino acid) and cyanamide (an organic compound). They are not made from animal products.(7)
That said, it’s always worth checking the label of your chosen supplier to be absolutely sure. If taking capsules, you should also check that the capsule casing itself is also vegan. While it’s likely the creatine is vegan, many of the casings still contain gelatine.
Is creatine safe?
The scientific literature available at the moment suggests that creatine monohydrate is a safe supplement. In fact, the International Society of Sports Nutrition released a position statement on it, giving it their support.
They state that creatine is ‘the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.” Further, they say that not only is it safe, but it may actually be beneficial in preventing injury (when used correctly).(4)
Meanwhile, a separate review of creatine’s efficacy and safety stated that while creatine may be useful in certain sports, it is not helpful in endurance activities.
Furthermore, the authors made the point that commercially available creatine is not produced to pharmaceutical quality. Consumers should be aware of the potential for impurities or a different dosage than that stated on the label.(8)
Any downsides or side effects?
Some people do report side effects from using creatine. In many cases, the symptoms are hotly disputed.
For instance, some of the most common complaints associated with creatine are water retention, weight gain, dehydration, musculoskeletal injury and an upset stomach.
Aside from weight gain, which it says is ‘clinically significant’, the remaining reported side effects are all disputed by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. They say that there’s no evidence that people who take creatine are at a greater risk of experiencing these symptoms.(4) In their eyes, creatine has got a bad rap from the mainstream media, which has circulated myths which aren’t grounded in scientific evidence.
Other papers have questioned some of the methodology which has supported creatine’s safety record. For example, a lot of the studies featured ‘real world’ environments involving athletes or gym-goers. These are much harder to control and monitor than lab tests.(8)
Two reports of kidney damage have also surfaced. However, the International Society of Sports Nutrition once again claims this is unfounded.(6)
An independent paper suggests that athletes should be warned about potential side effects such as water retention, the potential negative effects on the liver and kidneys, and the unknown effects of long-term use on the kidneys.(1)
What are the natural alternatives?
If the thought of a synthetically made creatine capsule or powder doesn’t appeal, you wouldn’t be alone.
For example, if you’re trying to follow a healthy diet based around unprocessed whole foods, it’s tricky to see where a creatine tablet might fit in.
There are some natural ingredients which may help you on your exercise journey if creatine doesn’t feel right.
One of the best ways to support your workout is to make sure you are getting enough protein, which helps you build muscle mass. There are plenty of plant-based foods which are high in protein, such as lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, beans, quinoa and tofu.
If you need an extra helping hand, or like the convenience of a protein powder, why not try our all natural Organic Hemp Seed Protein Powder? Made from nothing but crushed hemp seeds, it contains an impressive 8g of protein per serving.
Alternatively, if you’re interested in improving your endurance, you might like to check out our information on cordyceps mushroom. Scientists are investigating this special adaptogen for its ability to improve performance in athletes. Our Organic Cordyceps Powder is grown in carefully controlled conditions to make sure it’s high in nutrients such as beta-glucans and cordycepin.
All of these are natural ways you can improve your workout without the need for a capsule.
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