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If you’re into sports (especially weight lifting), then you’ve probably already heard about a supplement called creatine.
Creatine has been widely accepted as one of the most effective supplements to increase muscle mass, improve performance, and gain strength. In fact, its popularity has made it the best-selling supplement in the bodybuilding world.
But is it safe?
Research into creatine’s safety and efficacy spans 25 years. The majority of the results show that supplementation with creatine to enhance performance in sports and for use in the treatment of several diseases is generally safe.
However, as with any dietary supplement, creatine has side effects. Some of them are mild, while some may pose danger to your health if not addressed immediately.
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Today, we’re sharing with you a definitive list of creatine pros and cons. Hopefully this information will help you make an informed decision on whether creatine is good or bad for you.
Pros of Creatine
1. Protects the brain from neurogenerative diseases.
A study reports the potential benefit of using creatine to protect patients’ brains against neurogenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease mainly impacts memory and cognition, strongly affecting one's ability to recognize people, places, and things they once knew well. Parkinson’s, on the other hand, impacts movement control in the brain, leading to tremors and slowed movements. Advanced Parkinson’s disease may involve dementia as well, presenting symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s.
Creatine supplementation shows promise in addressing the underlying causes of these diseases—especially when given in the early stages. This is largely because creatine is an energy enhancer, and energy loss from dysfunction in the brain is a big factor in neurodegenerative diseases.
Creatine also protects the neurons in the brain that produce dopamine, which is a missing transmitter in neurodegenerative diseases. Creatine improves patients' moods, helps patients take smaller doses of medications, and reduces the medications' side effects.
2. Helps maintain healthy levels of blood sugar.
A study reveals that creatine is helpful in maintaining healthy blood-sugar levels, which prevents diabetes. Researchers have found that people who take creatine have an increase in the protein that transports glucose in and out of cells, which may be related to improved glycemic control.
Using creatine supplements can also trigger changes in your blood sugar by altering your body’s responses to the presence of insulin in your bloodstream, which can in turn reduce your blood sugar levels. Without signals from the circulating insulin in your blood, your cells won’t allow glucose to pass through them freely.
If this happens, your cells can starve and glucose will compound in your bloodstream. Without sufficient amounts of insulin to combat this buildup, diabetes may occur or worsen. Because of this, creatine can be beneficial to people suffering from diabetes or hypoglycemia.
3. Supports and enhances brain function.
Creatine is an important neuroprotectant, meaning it can help increase the survival of nerve cells against environmental hazards. Supplementing with creatine replenishes lost creatine stores in the brain, which usually happens from lack of sleep or stress.
As previously mentioned, creatine plays a role in the creation of energy, which is also helpful in your brain. Your brain cells use ATP energy to communicate with each other, and, without creatine, they are unable to perform this essential function.
When you supplement with creatine, the levels of energy in your brain are increased, which can not only reduce fatigue, but also improve memory processes. Additionally, this increase in energy metabolism encourages brain cell regeneration, which can help reduce symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases.
Creatine is also thought to help the brain endure trauma associated with the production of reactive oxygen species. These small molecules can damage cell structures, and include oxygen ions, free radicals, and peroxides. Their damage to cell structures may possibly create a foundation for many neurodegenerative disorders.
4. Increases muscle mass.
Creatine boosts the body’s ability to build muscle, providing significant gain compared with solely doing resistance training. Creatine is among the few legal supplements that can increase muscle mass when it is used along with exercise. Additionally, out of the few legal substances that can do this, creatine is not only the most effective, but also has gained the most scientific support.
One study that looked at participants over an eight-week period showed that supplementing with creatine increased muscle mass when used alongside an exercise regimen. Specifically, strength was increased on the bench press, and participants had a reduction in myostatin, which is a protein that hinders the growth of muscle cells.
Creatine can benefit beginners and advanced weight lifters alike. One study that looked at advanced athletes found that supplementing with creatine added 5.7 lbs of muscle mass, allowing athletes to add 24 lbs to their bicep curl and 70 lbs to their leg press when doing just one rep. Also, a review of over 150 studies found an average increase of 2.2% in lean body mass and a 3.2% decrease in body fat in people supplementing with creatine.
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5. Improves strength and endurance.
A meta-analysis reveals the results of different studies, showing that taking creatine improves the weight-lifting abilities of young men who do resistance training. Creatine increases levels of phosphocreatine, which in turn increases the production of ATP energy. ATP energy is the main source of fuel for high-intensity workouts, which leads to an increase in strength and power.
One study that looked at athletes over a period of four weeks found that people had an average of 17% improvement in cycling sprints, an 18-pound increase in one rep of bench presses, and a 20% greater work load when using a lower amount of weight when taking creatine supplements. Clearly, creatine improves several aspects of both strength and endurance. The average increase is thought to be around 5%.
6. Boosts resistance to fatigue.
Creatine has been shown to help resist the effects of fatigue from exercise or other athletic activities. One of the most comprehensive studies on creatine and fatigue resistance followed patients over the course of six months who had suffered a brain injury. Of these patients, those who supplemented with creatine realized a 50% reduction in vertigo when compared to those who did not take creatine.
Also, while 10% of the patients who took creatine felt fatigued during this study or reported to have low energy, 80% of the patients in the control group experienced these symptoms. Creatine may also reduce fatigue in the case of sleep deprivation, exercise-induced fatigue, and heat-related fatigue.
7. Boosts performance during high-intensity training.
A study has shown that supplementing with creatine during high-intensity interval training can help improve performance. Creatine increases the body's production of phosphocreatine, which is an essential element in the production of energy. Phosphocreatine is also essential in improving athletic performance in exercises of different intensities at different times, such as high-intensity interval training.
In fact, researchers believe that creatine is among the most effective supplements when used for high-intensity exercise. Over 70% of studies have shown a strong positive correlation between creatine supplementation and improved performance in high-intensity exercise, while the other 30% still showed a small positive effect, meaning no negative effects have ever been discovered.
8. Aids in muscle repair after injury.
A study suggests that creatine is helpful in repairing damaged muscle due to athletic activities. Using creatine supplements can both increase the level of a glucose transport protein that is found in striated muscle and prevent reductions of this protein while muscles are repairing themselves following an injury. This means that using creatine during rehab after an injury can improve the ability for muscle tissues to efficiently create energy and prevent fatigue.
While the size and strength of one's muscles can deplete during periods of immobilization, supplementing with creatine can hasten recovery in both of these factors that contribute to one's strength during a period of rehabilitation following an injury. In turn, this reduces the amount of time that an injury may keep you away from your exercise regimen.
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9. Potential as treatment for depression.
Although further research is still needed, initial reports from a study suggests that creatine can help treat depression. In this study, 52 women between the ages of 19 and 65 who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder were randomly assigned to take either creatine or a placebo in addition to the antidepressant Lexapro.
The results of this study showed that in comparison to taking a placebo, those who took creatine in addition to their antidepressant had an improved mood as measured by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. These improvements were still evident after four and eight weeks following the study.
10. Boosts mental performance.
In a University of Sydney study, supplementing with creatine for six weeks has been shown to improve the research participants’ mental performance. Specifically, this study showed the strong potential for creatine to improve memory and intelligence. The researchers found that the participants who took creatine showed improved working memory, less mental fatigue, and an increase in intelligence.
Research is continuing to be performed on creatine’s ability to boost mental performance and productivity. However, it has been shown that the amount of creatine you need in order to get these mental benefits surpasses what you could possible get from your diet, meaning you would need to take a supplement.
Cons of Creatine
11. Causes abdominal bloating.
During the loading phase or the early part of their supplementation regimen, some creatine users have experienced bloating. During the loading phase, people typically take 20–25 grams of creatine every day for about one week. After the loading phase, the maintenance dose is 3–5 grams each day in order to maintain your optimal muscle stores.
During the loading phase, your body increases in both muscle mass and water absorption, which often leads to bloating. This phase can also lead to a significant gain in body water composition. On average, people gain one to two percent of body weight during this initial phase, including the water weight.
This increase in body water and bloating due to taking creatine is short-term and resolves itself in a few weeks. If you want to try to avoid the bloating, you may choose to skip the loading phase and just start with the maintenance dose of three to five grams each day.
12. Causes diarrhea.
Some users have experienced diarrhea while taking a 10-gram single dose of creatine per day. Creatine stays in your intestines if your body is unable to fully digest it. This supplement typically draws water from various areas of your body, which then soaks into your muscle tissue. This means that when creatine is sitting in your intestines, it will continue to draw water, but that water will accumulate in your intestines.
This influx of water in your intestines impacts your normal digestion process. Having an excess amount of water in your intestines then leads to diarrhea. To try to avoid diarrhea when taking creatine, try to only take a maximum of three to five grams each day, as taking too much at one time may lead to diarrhea. Also, spread your doses out during the day rather than taking it all at once. Finally, make sure you are drinking a lot of water when you are supplementing with creatine.
13. Worsens kidney disease.
Creatine can worsen kidney disease if one already has it, or can result in kidney disease in people with diabetes. People with these conditions should avoid taking creatine. In order to store the creatine your body makes naturally as well as the supplements you ingest, your muscles, brain, and other tissues transform the creatine into phosphocreatine. Then, when your body recycles ATP, it creates a byproduct of creatinine.
Your kidneys naturally excrete creatinine, so if your kidney function is compromised, the amount of creatinine clearance declines. The levels of creatinine in your blood are the most commonly used indicator of your kidney health, so if the levels of creatinine are high, it means your kidneys are suffering.
14. Causes weight gain.
Creatine promotes weight gain by retaining water in the muscles. Although weight gain is ideal in bodybuilding, athletes of other sports (such as martial arts) might not welcome this side effect. The amount of body weight you may gain depends upon your unique genetics and the amount of creatine that you're consuming through your regular diet in addition to supplementation.
While this weight gain can be due to muscle mass gain, the extra pounds are also from water weight. Because creatine helps create the energy that your muscles need in order to work, when you take these supplements, the amount of creatine increases in your muscle cells, which draws water in with it. This can lead to an increase in muscle mass and water weight, both of which cause weight gain.
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15. Interacts with certain drugs and can have dangerous effects.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen interact with creatine and increase the risk of kidney damage. Because of this, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start supplementing with creatine if you are on any medications that affect your liver or kidney function.
Because some medications are hard on your kidneys and creatine can also make your kidneys work a little overtime, it is best not to combine the two. When you take creatine along with an NSAID, you are increasing your potential for developing kidney damage.
16. Has been associated with irregular heartbeats.
Arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, has been recorded in one person to have been caused by creatine supplementation. Heart palpitations are not necessarily dangerous unless you have another underlying medical condition. Because creatine increases the intensity and duration of exercise that you can perform, your heart has to beat faster to keep up with your increase in activity and the amount of creatine that is being absorbed by your muscles.
An irregular heartbeat when using creatine may result from dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance that can co-occur with creatine supplementation. If creatine affects your heart and causes irregular heartbeats, you may want to consider eliminating these supplements in order to reduce the symptoms.
17. Cause lightheadedness.
Lightheadedness is one side effect of creatine. There are accounts of creatine users who felt dizzy or were lightheaded during workouts. This is not extremely common, but some people may experience this.
Fainting and becoming dizzy are also possible, and if you feel these effects, you should stop exercising until they go away. But keep in mind that light-headedness can also result from working out too hard, therefore reducing the amount of oxygen that gets sent to the brain. This means that experiencing light-headedness after taking creatine may not always be directly related to taking the supplement.
18. Has been linked to testicular cancer.
Men who supplement with creatine have an increased risk of getting testicular cancer. The natural components in creatine may act similar to artificial hormones, and some creatine supplements may also contain impurities or some inactive ingredients that are not listed on the product label.
Additionally, other creatine supplements may have added ingredients, such as androgenic steroids, which have been shown to cause testicular cancer in rats. Along with other muscle-building supplements, the FDA has raised concern over their long-term impact on the growth of cancer cells.
19. May cause dehydration.
Creatine draws water from other parts of the body and stores it in the muscles. While the amount of water that is taken from your cells is minimal, it can still be a factor in dehydration.
This concern is largely due to the fact that, when you take creatine, your muscles retain water. Also, muscle cramps are a common side effect of taking creatine, and muscle cramping often happens when your body is not absorbing enough water. Remember to consume enough water to prevent dehydration by sipping it constantly throughout the day.
20. Risk of ingesting contaminants.
Purchasing creatine from non-reputable sources puts you at risk of getting an impure product containing chemical additives and other contaminants. There aren't any manufacturing standards or regulations in place for a lot of herbal compounds on the market, and some creatine supplements have been found to have toxic metals or other drugs in them.
Your creatine supplements should be purchased from a reputable source that you trust in order to minimize the risk of contamination. Creatine is not evaluated by the FDA for its safety, effectiveness, or purity. All of the risks of this supplement may not be fully known.
21. Easily accessible for teens.
Although creatine is considered safe for use by almost anyone, medical groups discourage teenagers from using it as a dietary supplement for the potential risks it poses to non-adults. However, teenagers can easily buy creatine. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Sports Medicine agree that those who are younger than 18 should not use creatine to gain an athletic advantage.
Not only can long-term use damage the liver, it can also impact organs and their ability to handle toxins. This means that if a child (who will naturally still be developing) begins to use creatine, it may lead to dysfunction and impact how the organs may work in the future.
When you are considering using creatine, look to your doctor for professional advice. You may also want to talk to a specialist who is trained in using health supplements.
If you decide to take creatine, make sure to use it as directed by your doctor or other health care professional. Make sure to not take more creatine than what is recommended, as doing so may lead to harmful effects on your heart, kidneys, and liver.
Creatine supplementation may be more effective when taken alongside a carbohydrate-heavy meal. But remember, your muscle tissues can only hold a limited amount of creatine.
This means that if you use more of this supplement than needed, it will not lead to an increase in effects. If you choose to take creatine, make sure to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, heat stroke, or an imbalance of electrolytes during your workouts.