Creatine always seems to be a big topic of conversation in the health and fitness industry. Is it worth adding to your supplement stack? And are some of the myths true? Does creatine cause kidney damage? Does it cause dehydration? Does it lead to bloating and weight gain? This article should clear up what creatine is, what it does, and if it does, indeed, have any side effects.
First of all, we should look at what creatine is. Creatine is an amino acid which is found naturally in the body. Around 95% of creatine is found in the skeletal muscle (basically your normal muscle). Creatine is ingested by the food we eat but can also be created in the liver from a mix of other amino acids.
Before we get into the benefits and if there are any side effects, we’ll mention the different types of creatine there are on the market (yes, there’s more than one). All types of creatine pretty much do the same thing, but they differ in terms of composition, effectiveness, and solubility. The types are as follows:
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Micronized Creatine
- Creatine Ethyl Ester
- Creatine Serum
- Effervescent Creatine
- Creatine Citrate
- Tri & Di Creatine Malate
For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on creatine monohydrate and micronized creatine. The reason for this is because micronized creatine IS creatine monohydrate but has been divided to increase the surface area, increasing absorption. Creatine monohydrate is the most popular creatine and almost all studies that study creatine have been done using creatine monohydrate.
Creatine monohydrate is the most effective type of creatine and is extremely cheap. However, it’s not very soluble in water and has been found to cause irritation in some individuals stomach due to its insolubility. Some people have actually noted they don’t respond to this type of creatine. However, Micronized creatine comes to the rescue to help reduce the negatives above. Micronized creatine greatly reduced the risk of any stomach discomfort due to its larger surface area and increased absorption rate. The increased absorption rate also increases the likelihood of the benefits to non-responders.
Now onto the benefits of creatine. The way creatine works, is that it transforms a substance called ADP in the body to a substance called ATP. We won’t go into the technicalities of how this happens but ATP is the bodies energy source. After eating a meal, the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat) are oxidized (combines with oxygen) in order to produce ATP. ATP is used in our workouts for high intensity workouts, once it’s used it converts to the original substance I mentioned called ADP. Creatine helps convert the ADP back into ATP, meaning more energy for a longer, harder workout.
The above, coupled with the right diet should increase muscle mass and high intensity performance. The benefits don’t stop at increase muscle mass and high intensity performance. Creatine has also been found to enhance recovery by somehow reducing cell damage and inflammation following exhaustive exercise. So, if you were an endurance athlete and didn’t find the increased muscle mass appealing, you may find reduced cell damage and inflammation something to think about. Not only can creatine help you physically, it’s also been found to enhance brain function. It was found that subjects who took creatine rather than a placebo improved their short-term memory and were better able to problem solve under timed conditions. Creatine has also been found to improve bone healing. Researchers linked cell energy to bone development and maintenance in which creatine plays a vital role.
Through all the research conducted over the years on creatine all the benefits are listed below:
- Increases muscle size (hypertrophy)
- Increase muscle mass
- Improves strength
- Improves sprint performance
- Improves performance during high intensity
- Improves recovery following endurance activity
- Enhances brain function
- Enhances bone healing
Pretty impressive, huh?
It’s only right to talk about any side effect and dispel any myths about the product. First of all, let’s talk about probably the biggest myth of them all. There are rumours floating around that creatine causes kidney damage. The reason behind this is because the process creatine goes through in our bodies creates a by-product called creatinine. This is where the misconception starts, the kidneys produce creatinine when they are damaged or impaired. So, when taking creatine, more levels of creatinine will be in the blood. If blood tests are conducted, the rise in creatinine would make you assume there are issues with the kidneys, but this is not the case. Increased creatinine levels have also been found due to eating more animal protein and having higher levels of muscle mass, so a rise in creatinine levels doesn’t always mean damage or impairment to the kidneys.
A scientific study was conducted to argue the case of creatine safety on the kidneys whereby participants were given 20 grams of creatine every day for 5 days, followed by 5 grams a day for the rest of the trail. The trial lasted 12 weeks and the participants ate a high protein diet and performed resistance training (weight/bodyweight training). The study found no change in renal function (the process the kidneys go through to filter waste from the blood). There have been a plethora of studies conducted to prove the same results.
Next, we’ll take about creatine and hydration. There is another rumour that creatine causes dehydration. This again is not the case and no data shows that creatine causes dehydration. A study was conducted whereby 12 non-heat acclimated, physically active males were either given creatine or a placebo and conducted physical exercise. The hydration levels of each individual was tested over a period of time and there was found to be no difference between the creatine and placebo group. This study was conducted in heated conditions, making you believe that if creatine did effect hydration levels it would be even more telling in hotter conditions. Creatine actually draws water into the muscle so actually hydrates your muscle.
Finally, we’ll cover weight gain and bloating. Initially taking creatine may lead to slight weight gain due to water being pulled into the muscle like mentioned above (which again, is a good thing). The claim that all gains made when taking creatine is water weight, however, are completely untrue. Research consistently states that creatine supplementation with resistance training increases lean body mass and decreased body fat mass meaning better body composition. Increasing water intake over a long period of time can help flush out water (ironically). There has been some reported cases, although very minor, that creatine can cause bloating and stomach issues. Taking micronized monohydrate creatine does seem to lower the level of discomfort from the small portion of people who do report these issues.