You might know creatine as a white powder that bodybuilders take to bulk up, but not many people know what it is, where it comes from, or even what it does. Creatine is a substance that is naturally found in the muscles cells of the body. It has some surprising health benefits that may help you out even if you don’t want to look like a professional bodybuilder.
For example, did you know creatine may help fight against neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, lower blood sugar levels, improve muscular dystrophy, and prevent depression and diabetes? Here is everything you need to know about creatine and why you may want to consider taking it.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is an organic acid that supplies energy to cells throughout the body, especially muscle and skeletal cells. Chemically, creatine is comprised of three different amino acids: l-methionine, glycine, and l-arginine. It accounts for about 1% of total volume of human blood.
Approximately 95% of creatine can be found in human skeletal muscle while 5% is located in the brain. Every day, the body naturally produces around three grams of creatine and stores around 1.5%-2% of it in the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. It is converted to energy and transported through the blood to parts of the body with high energy demands, like the brain and skeletal muscle.
The average person requires approximately 1 to 3 grams of creatine daily, and they get about half of it from their diet. The rest is made in the body. Good sources of creatine include red meat and fish. One pound of either provides anywhere from 1 to 2 grams of creatine. Athletes and bodybuilders are notorious for taking creatine in supplement form. If you train hard, your body may need up to 10 grams of creatine a day, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In some cases, people with a health condition that prevents them from creating or synthesizing creatine may need to take up to 30 grams a day!
Supplementing with creatine helps you increase the amount of phosphocreatine that is stored in the body. Phosphocreatine is a form of energy that is utilized in your cells. It helps produce an energy molecule called ATP. The more ATP you have stored in your cells, the better your body performs during exercise. Creatine also assists with several processes in the body that may increase your muscle mass, strength and recovery when it comes to exercise, which is why a lot of athletes take it.
Health Benefits of Creatine
You don’t have to be a bodybuilder or even a fitness enthusiast to reap the benefits of creatine. Research shows that taking creatine may have anti-aging benefits and it can also improve your mood. It works by boosting your workload capacity, raising anabolic hormones, improving cell signaling, increasing cell hydration, preventing the breakdown of protein, and reducing myostatin levels. Here are some of the most impressive health benefits of creatine you probably weren’t aware of.
1. Prevents Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is the age-related decline in muscle strength, mass, and function. It tends to develop after the age of 40 and starts getting really bad by about age 75. It’s an often overlooked aging disorder that takes a backseat to osteoporosis, which is the loss of bone mass. But the loss of muscle mass that occurs with the natural aging process is also important as it can affect a person’s ability to function correctly, especially in the older generation. It’s also easier to treat earlier in life rather than waiting until it gets worse in a person’s elderly years.
Sarcopenia is more common in adults who don’t exercise much, but that doesn’t mean that people who do exercise cannot develop it. Just like osteoporosis, many factors contribute to sarcopenia, such as lack of protein or calories, inflammation, oxidative stress, loss of motor nerve cells, and decreased hormones such as testosterone, insulin-like growth factor 1, and growth hormone. But research shows that creatine may be able to help prevent sarcopenia in the elderly population by preventing muscle loss.
One study found that when combined with resistance training, older men who supplemented with creatine for seven days increased their muscle performance without adverse side effects, including on functional tests. The study authors concluded that creatine could be used as a therapeutic strategy in older adults to prevent muscle loss and increase performance in practical living tasks. Another study found that adults over the age of 65 who took 5 grams of creatine a day and were put on a resistance training program increased their functional tasks, strength, and muscle fiber area. The key here seems to be taking creatine along with an exercise program for best results.
2. Decreases Inflammation
Taking creatine may help reduce inflammation, especially after exercising, which may help assist with the recovery process and eliminate muscle soreness. One study found that runners who supplemented with 20 grams of creatine for five days before a 30-kilometer race decreased their markers of cell injury and inflammation by as much as 61%. They also reportedly had no side effects. The researchers concluded that supplementing with creatine reduced inflammation and cell damage after an exhaustive, intense race.
3. Improves Brain Function
Everyone can benefit from improved brain function. Creatine might be able to do just that. Research shows that creatine may be able to improve brain function in healthy adults. One study investigated the effects of creatine supplementation on vegetarian adults over the course of six weeks. They were given 5 grams of creatine each day. Results showed that after the subjects took the creatine, they had improved scores on intelligence and working memory tests.
One theory behind creatine’s brain enhancing properties is that it provides cellular energy to the brain cells. It may even be able to alleviate depression and protect against neurodegenerative diseases. A 2007 study found that oral supplementation of creatine may modify brain energy metabolism in depressed people. Eight subjects were given between 3 and 5 grams of creatine a day. They were then evaluated at weeks one, two, three and four on Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, Hamilton Anxiety Scale, and Clinical Global Impression tests. Results showed that all scale scores significantly improved and adverse reactions were mild. Another study found that “creatine supplementation improves bioenergetic deficits and may exert neuroprotective effects in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.”
4. Improves Athletic Performance
Creatine is best known for helping athletes bulk up and improve their athletic performance. That’s because creatine pulls water into cells, which creates greater body mass and bulkier muscles. But according to the United States National Library of Medicine, supplementing with creatine alone will not give you big muscles. A 2013 study noted that people who take creatine tend to look larger because they have more water retention.
However, using creatine may help you increase your energy while you work out, and this may have a beneficial effect on increasing your muscle size through harder exercise sessions. This theory was supported by a 2003 meta-analysis that concluded that creatine might improve your athletic performance during short bursts of powerful activity, especially with repeated bouts, such as running sprints. Additionally, a 2012 study made the following points about creatine:
- It improves the effects of resistance training on body mass and strength.
- It increases high-intensity intermittent speed training.
- It enhances endurance in aerobic activities lasting more than 150 seconds.
- It may improve power, fat-free mass, and strength, as well as daily living performance and neurological functioning.
5. May Help Reduce Blood Sugar and Prevent Diabetes
Research is not conclusive in this area, but there is some evidence to suggest that creatine may help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent diabetes from occurring. A 2001 study found that “muscle’s glycogen loading capacity is influenced by its initial levels of creatine and the accompanying alterations in cell volume.” In other words, creatine may play a role in how glucose enters cells. Another study found that when combined with aerobic training, creatine supplementation may improve glucose tolerance.
6. May Improve Muscular Dystrophy
Because creatine is helpful for increasing muscle mass and strength, it can also be used to improve muscular dystrophy. Muscular dystrophy is a group of disorders that are characterized by weakness and muscle loss. It is caused by genetic factors. A 2013 review of 14 studies concluded that people with muscular dystrophy who took creatine had an 8.5% increase in muscle strength compared to those who didn’t take any. Additional research shows that taking creatine everyday for up to 16 weeks improved muscle strength and reduced fatigue in people with muscular dystrophy.
How Does Creatine Compare To Other Protein Powders?
Creatine is not your typical protein powder, per say. In fact, it’s not really a protein powder at all. Sure, it’s made of amino acids, and it may help you bulk up and boost your overall athletic performance, but it serves a different function than most protein powders. For example, whey protein can help grow and repair your muscles, but creatine is better used as an energy source. It draws water into your muscle cells to help you bulk up, but it does not directly increase your muscle mass.
Taking creatine along with a protein powder is often best for bulking up AND increasing muscle mass. While creatine only contains three different types of amino acids, whey protein has nine, including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are considered essential since your body doesn’t make them on its own. Their job is to fuel your cells while you’re working out, so you get more from your exercise session.
While a protein powder is beneficial after exercise, creatine is best taken before your workout to help give you energy and increase your workload. A heaping teaspoon of creatine contains no calories, fats, carbohydrates, protein, or nutrients, so you don’t need to worry about using it if you are dieting or trying to count calories. Of course, if you get flavored creatine, it may contain calories or other nutrient values, so be sure to check the ingredients on the brand you are purchasing. On the other hand, one 28 gram scoop of whey protein powder contains the following:
- 170 calories
- 1 gram of fat
- 6 grams of carbohydrates
- 3 grams of fiber
- 1 gram of sugar
- 30 grams of protein
- 140 mg of sodium
How To Use It
According to BodyBuilding.com, it’s common to “load” your creatine for up to seven days to help build up the amount in your muscle cells. Then you would reduce the amount to a maintenance amount. But they recommend taking a small amount every day from the start without loading up on it. Additionally, you may want to take it with a base that contains simple sugar, such as grape juice, as this will increase its absorption by up to 60%. Experts at BodyBuilding.com warm against taking creatine with orange juice as this will cause an acidic reaction.
Until you know how creatine affects you, start by taking one to two grams about 30 minutes before your next workout. You can gradually increase the amount you use based on your results, but it’s not advised to go over 30 grams a day. Some people also take a smaller amount throughout the day.
If you’re using creatine for brain health or any reason other than to work out, try taking some first thing in the morning to give yourself a boost for the day. You can also take some before a presentation at work or school, or before eating a big meal to reduce blood sugar spikes. Most creatine supplements come in powder form so that you can mix it with your favorite beverage or even water. It also comes in pill form for convenience.