Scientific Nutrition Update 41: Creatine

Creatine is a popular supplement used by athletes and weightlifters to improve their athletic performance.  It has been shown to be effective in improving strength and sprint performance and may also improve your intelligence.

Script (I ad-lib and go off script, listen to the podcast for the real version):

For today’s episode I am going to talk about the popular supplement creatine monohydrate.  Creatine is a common supplement used by athletes to in theory improve their athletic performance.  So let’s take a look at the effects of this, and analyze their evidence.

First let’s take a look at the effect of creatine on strength.  There have been several studies that have suggested that creatine supplementation does seem to consistently increase in strength.  There is some debate about the size of this effect, but overall it seems to show up consistently in multiple studies. Some studies report gains of approximately 20%, compared to approximately 10% for placebo.  This seems like a pretty big increase, although the increase does vary between untrained and trained individuals with a smaller change for trained individuals. Creatine seems to have pretty strong support for increases in strength.  

There is also some evidence of it being able to improve sprint performance.  In a series of 6 seconds sprints creatine monohydrate was able to significantly increase the total power generated.  However, there does not seem to be any significant evidence of creatine increasing endurance. It seems as though the benefit seems to primarily come from shorter periods of energy expenditure like weightlifting and sprinting.  

Creatine may also help with muscular recovery.  In a study that looked at muscular strength after eccentric damage creatine monohydrate supplementation was able to significantly increase the post damage strength.  This effect may be just another example of the increase in muscular strength though, because the supplementation of creatine was after the damage was induced, and so I am not convinced that we are actually seeing any recovery aid here.  

There is even limited evidence that creatine may help with intelligence.  Now obviously intelligence is difficult to measure, and there are many factors that affect it, but there is some interesting evidence.  There was a study in vegetarian subjects that showed a significant increase in cognitive performance after six weeks of supplementation with creatine.  However, it is difficult to generalize based on vegetarians because there diet is naturally low in creatine. There was another study that was not just looking at vegetarians that tested a variety of cognitive skills.  The only significant change they found was IQ where the supplement group the creatine group did significantly increase their IQ’s. This suggests that it could possibly help with intelligence, but I would be very hesitant to conclude that without significantly more evidence.  

So how does this work? Well the short version is that creatine is an important component of several of your body’s energy systems and as such supplementing it can in theory help improve the functioning of those systems.  This seems borne out by the evidence that seems to show improved athletic performance.

So how do you take it? Well I’m not certified to tell you how you should take it but if it was me I would take 5g per day.  There are people who obsess over loading and deloading it, but it seems to be relatively well tolerated and as such I would not worry about that.  Also the loading period is going to end up with a lot of the creatine being pissed out. I tend to prefer my supplements to stay in my body, so I would just personally stick to 5g per day.  I would also ensure I was very careful to make sure I was staying hydrated, because if I let myself get too dehydrated it could technically increase my kidney load.

In conclusion there is evidence for an increase in muscular strength and sprint performance, along with some limited evidence that it increases intelligence.  It also seems to be quite safe and well tolerated. Creatine is a supplement that I personally would feel safe using. If you learned something new in this podcast please consider sharing it with a friend.  Thank you for tuning in.

Bibliography (I may not directly address these studies in the episode but I looked at them and thought they might be valuable):

 

Becque MD, Lochmann JD, Melrose DR. 2000. Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32(3):654-8.

Brose A, Parise G, Tarnopolsky MA. 2003. Creatine supplementation enhances isometric strength and body composition improvements following strength exercise training in older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 58(1):B19.

Burke DG, Chilibeck PD, Davidson KS, Candow DG, Farthing J, Smith-Palmer T. 2001. The effect of whey protein supplementation with and without creatine monohydrate combined with resistance training on lean tissue mass and muscle strength. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 11(3):349.

Caroline Rae, Alison L. Digney, Sally R. McEwan, Timothy C. Bates. 2003. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: A double–blind, placebo–controlled, cross–over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 270(1529):2147-50.

Cooke MB, Rybalka E, Williams AD, Cribb PJ, Hayes A. 2009. Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 6:13.

Earnest CP, Snell PG, Rodriguez R, Almada AL, Mitchell TL. 1995. The effect of creatine monohydrate ingestion on anaerobic power indices, muscular strength and body composition. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 153(2):207-9.

Kreider RB, Ferreira M, Wilson M, Grindstaff P, Plisk S, Reinardy J, Cantler E, Almada AL. 1998. Effects of creatine supplementation on body composition, strength, and sprint performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 30(1):73-82.

Ling J, Kritikos M, Tiplady B. 2009. Cognitive effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation. Behavioural Pharmacology 20(8):673-9.

Rawson ES and Volek JS. 2003. Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17(4):822-31.

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