Creatine: Supplement Guide
By Tyler Woodward
In this guide we will discuss what creatine is, its mechanism of action, and why you may want to consider taking a creatine supplement.
Table of Contents:
- What is Creatine
- Cellular Energy
- When & Why Should you Supplement with Creatine?
- How Much Creatine Should I Take
- When to take Creatine
What Is Creatine?:
Creatine is a type of amino acid that is produced from three other amino acids: glycine, arginine, and methionine (another type of amino acid) and is naturally produced in our body. Amino acids are to proteins like bricks are to a building. There are thousands of individual bricks in a building, each playing a role in the building’s structure and function. When hundreds of amino acids are combined together, they make up the millions of different proteins that our body is capable of producing. When we digest proteins consumed in our diet, our body breaks down these proteins into its various amino acids. There are nine “essential” amino acids that we must consume because our body cannot produce them on its own. Our body can use these nine essential amino acids to produce all the other amino acids it requires to function, like glycine or creatine.
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Just like our cars require gas, or energy, to function, so does our body and our cells. The rate at which we consume energy is known as our metabolic rate or metabolism. We can define metabolism as the sum of the chemical reactions that take place within each cell of a living organism and that provide energy for vital processes. Every reaction in our body uses energy, which we typically measure energy in joules or calories (units of measurement). A calorie is defined as the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of one molecule of water by one degree celsius.
All foods & drinks that we consume are made up of a combination of one of three macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, or fats, each of which contains a different amount of calories, or energy, per gram.
- Proteins - 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates - 4 calories per gram
- Fats - 9 calories oer gram
If you add up all of the calories that you consume on a daily basis, you will end up in either an energy surplus, deficit, or balance. This is more commonly referred to as eating in a caloric surplus, deficit, or maintenance, respectively. If you burn fewer calories than you consume (energy surplus), then your body will store this energy for later use, typically as fat or carbohydrate stores. If you burn more calories than you consume (an energy deficit), your body will need to make up for this lack of energy by pulling from its energy stores, again most typically fat or carbohydrates. Fat generally serves as our body’s energy reserve, so that if we do not consume enough energy on a given day, week ,or month (calorie/energy deficit) it is our body’s go-to energy source to pull from. Just about everyone has some level of this “fat” reserve that can be drawn from, unless you are at an extremely low body fat level like competing bodybuilders.
ATP or Adenosine triphosphate is commonly referred to as the energy “currency” in our cells and is used to fuel the majority of the cellular processes that occur in our cells. ATP is a type of nucleic acid, like DNA or RNA, and contains three phosphate groups. When energy is required in the cell ATP is converted into ADP (adenosine diphosphate), which involves the release (hydrolysis) of one of ATP’s three phosphate groups. The separation of the third phosphate group releases 34 kilojoules (kJ), or about 8 calories, of energy which is utilized to fuel other cellular processes.
Unlike our body, our cells contain very little “stored” energy or energy reserves and only have enough standing ATP for about 1-2 seconds of activity.
Once we run out of this standing ATP, our cells turn to their creatine stores to use as energy. When we digest creatine consumed in our diet our body uses ATP to convert the creatine molecule into phosphocreatine, by donating the phosphate group of the ATP onto the creatine molecule.
The phosphocreatine stores in our cells are estimated to last about 5 seconds before our anaerobic metabolism (the process of converting glucose into ATP without oxygen) kicks in, followed by our aerobic metabolism (using oxygen) about 30-60 seconds later.
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When & Why Should You Supplement With Creatine?:
By maximizing our cells’ creatine stores, we can increase the amount of energy readily available in our cells. This increase in cellular energy throughout the body results in many of the benefits associated with creatine including:
- Increased strength & power output
- Increased muscle mass
- Improved anaerobic running capacity
- Reduced fatigue
- Increased testosterone & DHT levels
- Improved memory
- Improved cognitive performance
- Protect against oxidative stress
Our body naturally produces creatine primarily in our liver and in lesser amounts in our kidney and pancreas. The majority of people do not naturally produce enough creatine to maximize their cells' creatine energy stores, which is where creatine supplements come into play. By taking a creatine supplement, we can maximize our cells' creatine energy stores.
How Much Creatine Should I Take?:
When it comes to creatine supplementation there is a point of diminishing return, where taking more creatine will not increase the desired affect/outcome. Our cells can only store so much creatine, at which point our cells are “saturated” and will not absorb any more creatine. The goal of supplementing with creatine is for our cells to reach this “saturated” point to maximize our cells' creatine energy stores.
Some people will not benefit from supplementing with creatine because they naturally produce enough creatine such that their cells are already saturated and will not absorb any additional creatine. People whose creatine levels do not increase from creatine supplementation are known as “creatine non-responders”. You can determine if creatine supplementation is working for you by having a blood sample taken. Otherwise, I just recommend using trial & error to test for yourself and see if it makes any noticeable difference in your daily life or training.
The normal recommendation for supplementing creatine is consuming about 5 grams daily, but it will vary depending on your bodyweight, muscle mass and activity level. Examine.com recommends taking .03 grams of creatine per kilogram of body weight, one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. You can also use a loading strategy to supplement creatine, which involves taking a larger amount of creatine for the first 5-7 days to saturate (maximize) your cells creatine energy stores as fast as possible and then switch to the maintenance dose of about 5 grams daily. The typical recommendation for the creatine loading phase is about 25 grams daily or Examine.com recommends .3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
How To Supplement With Creatine?:
First, I would like to note that in order to maximize your creatine energy stores, you do not actually need to supplement with creatine. Creatine is found naturally in some of the foods we eat, particularly meat. Beef contains about 2 grams of creatine per pound and chicken contains about 1.5 grams per pound. Herring is actually the animal with the most dense creatine stores and contains about 3.5-4 grams per pound.
Note - These numbers are referring to the creatine levels in uncooked meat, as a large portion of the creatine molecules will be degraded when cooked.
If you are not getting enough creatine through your diet or just want to ensure you are consuming enough creatine, then supplementing is a very viable option. There are a number of forms of creatine which are currently sold, but we will only be addressing creatine monohydrate. Creatine monohydrate is the cheapest form of creatine on the market and is highly absorbable in the body (bioavailable). Other forms of creatine like creatine HCl, buffered creatine, or creatine citrate claim to be more effectively absorbed in the body, but currently there is not much evidence to support this and it’s estimated that nearly 99% of creatine monohydrate is absorbed. While these forms may be better absorbed, in my opinion it is not worth the increased cost. I personally recommend micronized creatine monohydrate because it mixes better into water, which makes it a bit smoother to drink.
When To Take Creatine?:
Remember, the idea behind creatine supplementation is to maximize our cells' energy stores, so it does not matter when you take it. Some people prefer to take it pre-workout, others post-workout, in the morning, or even at night before bed. As long as you are consuming enough creatine daily, it should not really matter when you take it. I recommend experimenting to determine what time is best for you. . Generally, for all supplements, it is best to consume them with a meal, as it increases the amount that our body actually absorbs. There have also been some studies released recently that show that taking caffeine with creatine may lead to a decreased rate of absorption of the creatine. So if you drink caffeine, it may be beneficial to stagger your creatine and caffeine intake.
Is Creatine Safe?
Creatine is the most researched supplement in the world with over 500 studies done on the supplement and has been shown to have no adverse effects. But there are a number of side-effects that can be associated with creatine:
- Water Retention/ Bloating & Weight Gain - Creatine supplementation increases water retention within our cells which can cause us to gain weight as a result of holding more water. This is likely correlated with the increased glycogen and glucose storage in our cells that occurs with creatine supplementation. I would like to note that one of the main mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) called “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy” literally translates to “cellular swelling” and is a direct result of increased glucose storage in our cells ,which also draws extra water into our cells. Regardless, for the majority of people this will not be a very unnoticeable effect and will more likely than not just result in more “fuller” looking muscles
- Elevated Creatinine levels - When creatine is broken down in the body, it is converted into creatinine. Creatinine levels are often used to assess kidney/renal function and elevated levels of creatinine are often a sign of kidney dysfunction. When we supplement with creatine, our creatinine levels will increase because our body naturally has more creatine to “burn” so to speak, but this is unrelated to the elevated creatinine levels caused by kidney dysfunction.
- Diarrhea - Although infrequent, some people will experience diarrhea from supplementing with higher amounts of creatine (10 or more grams). If you do experience diarrhea, it is recommended to lower your dosage of creatine or stop taking it altogether. Over time, as your body adjusts to the increased creatine consumption, you may be able to increase your creatine consumption back to a normal level.
Disclaimer: We always recommend that you check with a medical professional before beginning any supplement regime, especially if you are currently taking any kidney or liver medication.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within the supplement industry. I really hope you found this article interesting and useful as a guide to creatine supplementation. If you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good
B.S. Physiology & Neurobiology
“Creatine.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 9 Feb. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-creatine/art-20347591.
Examine.com. “Creatine - Health Benefits, Dosage, Side Effects.” Examine.com, 4 Feb. 2021, examine.com/supplements/creatine/#summary.Mawer, Rudy. “Creatine 101 - What Is It and What Does It Do?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 25 Oct. 2018, www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-creatine.