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Creatine: Is It Worth it?

Creatine: Is It Worth it?

Supplements are a huge part of the fitness world. Many people use them as a way to help them reach their fitness goals. Like taking pre-workout to have a sweaty training session or using protein powder to help up your protein intake. Everyone can use a little support, and supplements do just that. 

There's one that doesn't get as much attention as the others, but it has some pretty impressive benefits that make people question whether if it's actually worth taking, or is it all too good to be true? That supplement is creatine. Creatine supplementation is one that is popular amongst bodybuilders and weightlifters for its muscle-building benefits, mostly it's abilities to supposedly add a couple of lbs of muscle.

You've probably overheard someone at the gym talking about the benefits of creatine, or maybe a buddy told you about it. Whatever the case is before you even think about experimenting with it and putting it in your body, learn about the benefits and risks. That way you can make the best decision for you, and not just one based on speculation. So, here's everything you need to know about what creatine is, it's benefits, and risk, so you can decide if it's worth it for you.

What Is Creatine?

Creatine is an acid substance that our bodies naturally make and is found in the muscle cells. Our bodies make it by eating certain foods, mostly seafood, and red meat. It then produces it from the amino acids glycine and arginine and stores it in the muscle cells so we have quick access to it for fast and high-intensity movements (think sprinting and powerlifting).

Although creatine is naturally made by your body, there are supplements that have been made to make getting enough of it more efficient. You need around 2-4 grams of creatine a day. The amount of creatine your body makes depends on the type of protein source but in general, a 3 ounce serving of meat will have about 0.4 grams of creatine. So a person eating a healthy balanced diet should get enough of it. [1] Those who eat a plant-based diet (vegetarian, vegan), are strength training, weightlifting, or doing any type of intense training could benefit from supplementing with creatine monohydrate. So instead of worrying about whether they're getting enough protein in their diet, they can opt for creatine monohydrate in powder, liquid, or pill form.

How does it work?

The use of creatine supplements is to help attain certain fitness goals, typically lifters looking to increase muscle strength. Weightlifting and powerlifting workout routines are highly intense and sometimes require short fast movements. This type of training uses different energy systems than aerobic exercises. The key energy store for it is called adenosine triphosphate or ATP for short.

Creatine helps your body produce more ATP, but there's one catch... Research shows that your body only stores enough ATP for 8-10 seconds of high-intensity exercise. [2] Your body needs to produce new ATP for you to continue training, but unfortunately, with high-intensity training, your body just can't keep up! This is when creatine supplements do their best work - They make their way into your muscles to help your body refuel their ATP supply faster. This is why many lifters love to boast about creatine because it helps them get an extra 1-2 reps in most exercises. Creatine also neutralizes the acids made in your muscles during exercise. This makes it so you can be back in action real quick, and get more lifts in.

Benefits

Aside from helping improve athletic performance during intense training sessions, here are some other benefits creatine has to offer...

  • Sustained energy:

As mentioned earlier, creatine helps refuel ATP to prevent fatigue from coming in hot and destroying your chances of pushing for a few extra reps and sets. Taking creatine makes sure that you don't fatigue quickly so you can push harder. Essentially it acts like extra energy when you need it the most. This is why you might see some pre-workouts with creatine in them.

  • Increased strength:

This goes back to sustained energy. The extra boost creatine gives you allows you to lift heavier thus increase in strength. A review of 22 studies shows that people who use creatine had an approximately 10% increase in strength compared to those that don't. [3] 

  • Promotes muscle growth:

Creatine increases the water content in your muscle cells, this triggers genes that are responsible for adding muscle size. It also improves your nitrogen balance (helps transform protein into muscle)  and helps reduce protein breakdown which reduces muscle breakdown and can help increase total muscle mass. [4]

  • Cardio performance boost:

Creatine doesn't only improve resistance training performance, it also helps with cardio performance. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is a popular form of cardio that involves short explosive bursts of energy for the exercises being performed. It involves a lot of jumping, sprints, and high-impact exercises. Creatine can help give an energy boost to improve speed and with faster recovery so you can give each exercise your all.

  • May maintain and improve brain health:

This is one of the newest, and exciting, benefits of creatine. There's more research to be done in regards to this, but recent studies show that creatine can help maintain brain health by fighting against neuron death. It does this by supplying energy to help protect cells so they can live longer. One particular study conducted on people with low creatine (elderly, vegans, vegetarians), suggested that supplementing with creatine helped them with their ability to reason and think abstractly. [5]

Is creatine safe to take?

Creatine might sound like the answer to all your weightlifting problems, but just hold on for a moment... It's time to weigh out the risks. One of the biggest aspects of creatine that everyone talks about is that it can cause damage to the kidneys and cause a mess of kidney problems. Although this is true, it concerns mostly those who have a history of kidney disease or other kidney-related conditions like diabetes. Other than that, creatine supplements are generally safe to consume when taken properly. But as with any dietary supplements, discuss with your doctor beforehand to ensure that creatine is safe for you. 

Here are a few other possible side effects of creatine supplementation:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Stomach cramping
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Water retention which leads to weight gain
  • Gastrointestinal pain

Another thing to keep in mind is, avoid combining it with nephrotoxic drugs (drugs that can damage the kidneys). That includes ibuprofen like Advil or Motrin and naproxen sodium like Aleve.

So now ask yourself, is creatine worth taking?

It really depends on your lifestyle and type of training you do! Just keep in mind that although the benefits sound great, it won't automatically have you adding a plate onto your favorite lifts. In fact, researchers have seen that many people have no reaction to creatine supplements at all. This can happen because some people naturally have more creatine in their muscles. A good way to determine how much creatine your body is making is by looking at your diet. You need around 2-4g every day, this is equivalent to 200-300g of beef. So if you're eating enough protein from meat and fish then your creatine needs should be taken care of, if you feel like that's not the case then consult this with your doctor. 

If you've discussed with your doctor, done your research, and feel like the creatine is the move for you then give it a shot! Just be wary about the type of creatine you take, not all supplements are created equal. There are different forms of creatine but look for creatine monohydrate. Other supplements just have a lot of filler that you don't necessarily need. Also, opt for pure creatine powder instead of buying a protein powder or pre-workout with it mixed in to get the full benefits of creatine. Plus, it's easier to mix in water or your favorite sports beverages.

Once you find the right creatine for you, test it out! The best way to test your body’s creatine levels is to try it out for 5-10 days. You’ll know it’s working if your lifts go up and if you experience some weight gain. But don’t be worried about the extra pounds, it’s just water weight that your body needs to keep your muscles hydrated as they grow! 

The bottom line is, creatine is safe to consume, but typically if you eat a healthy and balanced diet then you should be consuming enough. There is plenty of creatine research that reflects it can help with increasing muscle size and strength, but there is still more research to be done about the long term effects of creatine use. If you want to make sure you don't overconsume, keep your dosage to about 3 grams of creatine. And as with any supplements, discuss with your doctor first before trying creatine to see whether it's right for you!