Creatine Part 1 – Creatine Explained and Creatine Supplement Benefits
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Creatine is one of the most studied supplements. It’s popular for athletes, weightlifters, and has numerous health benefits. Yet, there is still confusion and questions about who creatine is for and how to use it.
In this two-part series on creatine, we will walk through everything you need to know about creatine, creatine supplements, and how to use them. Keep reading this article to learn more about:
- Exactly what creatine is
- How creatine affects the body
- Your body’s need for creatine replenishment
- The vast body of research on benefits
- Who creatine supplementation is for
- Types of creatine supplements
Then, in Part 2, you’ll learn more about the creatine-HMB supplement combination, and we’ll go through the most asked questions and misconceptions about creatine supplements.
Let’s get started!
Creatine is a nitrogen-containing compound considered a non-protein amino acid, that naturally occurs in animals and humans.
The amino acids arginine and glycine undergo a series of chemical reactions to make creatine. The liver and kidneys make the majority of creatine, and then it is transported to the skeletal muscles, where it supports metabolism.
The central role of creatine is to facilitate the recycling of ATP.
Let’s back up for a moment. Remember back to biology class, where you learned about the Krebs Cycle or Citric Acid Cycle? This cycle is the process by which cells take calories from food and turn them into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, that we use for energy.
When we break down ATP, a phosphate molecule breaks off, and energy is released. That phosphate binds to creatine to form phosphocreatine, a compound that stores the phosphorus for future use. This process allows for the regeneration and recycling of ATP in cells to create energy.
You don’t need to understand all the chemistry behind how creatine works; the bottom line is that creatine is fundamental to energy production in cells. The more phosphocreatine there is, the more ATP can be generated.
Ninety-five percent of creatine is found in the body’s skeletal muscles. This distribution makes sense, given how much energy is required for movement. But creatine also plays a critical role in the brain, heart, and reproductive organs.
As creatine is used, it breaks down into creatinine and is excreted in the urine. Because of this breakdown and loss, creatine needs to be replenished in the muscles and organs.
Most people need to replenish around 1 to 3 grams of creatine daily. The body can make about half of this need each day.
Making creatine is energy intensive and involves a process called methylation, which requires protein, folate, and vitamin B12 in the diet.
We also obtain creatine directly from the diet, primarily from meat and seafood.
For various reasons, including genetics, exercise intensity, a vegetarian diet, disease, or other factors, some may need more creatine than body can make or obtain from the diet.
Over 500 studies report on the benefits of creatine powder added to the diet as a supplement. You may have heard of using creatine for muscle growth, but there are also many other reasons why creatine is good for you.
Oral supplementation of creatine increases creatine levels in the body by 20 to 40%!
Supplementation takes the burden off the body to make more creatine, so that those resources can be used for other metabolic needs.
Let’s look at some of the health benefits of creatine supplements:
- Improved muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance. The main reason that people supplement with creatine is for athletic support. In addition to increasing strength, muscle mass, and endurance, creatine may:
- Increase muscle recovery
- Prevent injuries
- Improve rehabilitation from injuries
- Increase tolerance for intense training
One reason that creatine may have all these benefits is that it affects hormones. Creatine supplementation increases insulin-like growth factor 1, IGF-1, which promotes lean body mass.
When comparing exercise or strength training alone to training plus creatine supplement use, those who use creatine in addition to strength training build more muscle and get stronger.
- Improved neuromuscular health. The brain, nervous system, and muscles all require a lot of energy from ATP. Creatine may be used clinically to improve body weight and strength in those with neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.
- Improved blood sugar balance. Creatine supplementation increases GLUT4 receptors, which allow glucose to move into cells and is important for fueling movement and exercise. Creatine may also be supportive for those with insulin resistance and diabetes.
- Improved heart health. The heart muscle is another place where you’ll find high concentrations of creatine in the body. Creatine is required for energy production that supports heart contractions. Improvements in heart health may be seen with creatine supplementation in healthy people. Creatine may have an application in those with heart failure.
- Reproductive support. Reproduction and pregnancy have high energy demands suggesting creatine benefits for women. Creatine is found in the ovaries, follicular fluid, uterus, and placenta, playing a vital role in female reproductive health. In addition, research suggests that creatinine excretion increases during pregnancy, which may mean pregnant people need more creatine.
Creatine is also found in the testes and necessary for male reproductive health.
At this time, creatine supplementation isn’t advised during pregnancy; however, using nutrition to support the body’s creatine production and to supply creatine is safe and beneficial.
Important note: This information is for educational purposes only. Please work with your doctor regarding all supplements if you take medication, have a medical condition, or are pregnant or nursing.
Who Should Take Creatine
Now that we understand why creatine is important let’s talk about who would benefit from creatine supplementation.
- Athletes and people who exercise. We often look at the creatine benefits for men and think about bodybuilders. Still, creatine is the most effective supplement for improving strength and lean body mass in all populations, including those who strength train, those who endurance train, and people engaging in moderate activity.
- Those with low creatine levels. Some people have genetic changes that affect the production or transport of creatine, causing lower than normal levels in the muscles, brain, heart, and other vital tissues. This population may benefit from ongoing creatine supplementation.
- Vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians and vegans have lower creatine stores in their muscles compared to meat eaters. This population may have a hard time eating the nutrients required to produce creatine (such as vitamin B12) and may not be eating enough creatine itself to replenish stores. Needs will further increase with exercise and training.
- Sedentary and older adults. A sedentary lifestyle and aging can lead to a decrease in muscle mass and an unfavorable change in body composition. Creatine may help improve muscle strength, especially when combined with lifestyle change.
Types of Creatine
The most well-studied and effective form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. This supplement helps increase creatine levels in the tissue, which leads to increased lean body mass and other health benefits. When looking for a creatine supplement, you want creatine monohydrate to be the main ingredient.
A second helpful form of creatine is called magnesium creatine chelate. In this form, creatine is bound to magnesium. Magnesium is a vital mineral that supports ATP production and metabolic health. It also plays hundreds of other roles in the body. Many of us are deficient in this vital nutrient and would benefit from more.
Most creatine supplements you’ll find are creatine alone, but Twenty2 Nutrition Creatine Complex combines creatine monohydrate and magnesium creatine chelate with HMB.
HMB, or Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, is another supplement that targets muscle health and strength. It’s a game-changer for athletes and the perfect addition to creatine for enhanced benefits.
In the second part of this series on creatine, we’ll dive deeper into HMB and learn about what it is, the benefits, and how to combine it with creatine. We will also answer all your burning questions about creatine, including the best practices for supplementation, dosages, safety, and more. Part 2 coming Sunday to explain all the nuts and bolts of how to use creatine supplements effectively.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.