Creatine is one of the world’s most popular workout supplements, and for good reason. Using creatine has been shown to improve performance without serious side-effects, and it is easy to fit into your diet.
But what exactly is creatine, how does it work and what about those stories that it can damage your kidneys? The Top 10 Supplement Reviews team lays out the basics and sorts the facts from the fiction.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a molecule the body uses to generate muscular energy, especially during periods of intense exercise or mental activity. The key to creatine’s value is that it stores high-energy phosphates.
When you exercise your body creates muscular energy by breaking down a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) into adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Creatine then donates its phosphates to the ADP to convert it back into ATP again, in a process called recycling.
Your body makes its own creatine from amino acids and stores it, but you can add extra creatine through supplements to ensure you have as much as possible available for your workouts.
Will using creatine supplements really help?
Creatine is one of the most effective supplements for improving a range of performances measures, and has a huge body of high-quality research to support it, so it’s quite likely that you could benefit from using it.
However, everybody is different and you should always speak with your personal trainer if you are thinking about using a creatine supplement. It’s not a magic bullet, and you still need to work hard, eat a healthy diet and recover properly.
You are most likely to benefit from using creatine if you want to improve power output, but researchers have shown it also reduces fatigue and helps build lean muscle mass.
How and when to use creatine
The first thing to remember when deciding on your creatine strategy is that your body stores creatine, so you don’t really need to worry about taking it just before or after exercise to get the benefit.
Creatine normally comes as a tablet, capsule or powder, so it is easy to take and you have some options about how to use it depending on your preferences and goals.
Some users will opt for a loading strategy, which begins with taking a daily dose of around .3g per kg of body weight for a week. For the next three or four weeks you take a smaller daily dose of around .06g per kg of body weight, then have a week off. The idea is that this saturates your muscles with creatine to provide maximum benefit.
If you don’t fancy loading up, then you can reach the same creatine levels after a longer period by taking the smaller dose consistently each day.
Can creatine cause kidney damage?
The idea that using creatine can damage your kidneys has developed mainly because of a misunderstanding about a common test of kidney function, which measures a related substance called creatinine.
Creatinine is what is left over after creatine is broken down during ATP recycling. Creatinine is not toxic, but neither is it useful so the kidneys filter it out of your blood and into your urine.
This is useful for doctors, as they can measure your blood creatinine levels as a guide to whether your kidneys are functioning properly. High levels of creatinine can be caused by your kidneys not filtering properly or by the fact that you are using a creatine supplement. A high level is not harmful in itself.
However, if you already have kidney problems or a condition which can affect your kidney function then check with your doctor before using creatine supplements.
Can creatine cause cancer or hair loss?
Creatine has been around long enough that it has attracted its own body of urban myths. Apart from the false belief that it can damage your kidneys, creatine has also been blamed for causing various different types of cancer and even hair loss.
No reputable study has shown a link between creatine and cancer, including testicular cancer. In fact, creatine may even help prevent the DNA mutations which are responsible for cancer.
In terms of hair loss, one study found that using creatine might be linked to increased levels of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone. It is made from testosterone and can cause hair loss in males. However, the link was indirect and other researchers have found creatine does not increase testosterone levels.
Are there different types of creatine?
A quick scan through our creatine supplements range will show that creatine comes in many different forms, and generally speaking it is a case of personal preference.
The most obvious difference for most users will be in the form the creatine comes in, whether that’s capsules, tablets or powder. It’s the same stuff packaged differently, and people will have their preferred way of taking it.
Some people experience suffer stomach cramps if they use a type of called creatine monohydrate. That usually happens because creatine monohydrate isn’t as water soluble as some other forms of creatine; you may even notice this when you mix it and it forms clumps. If this is a problem, just switch to a more soluble version, such as creatine citrate or creatine nitrate.