Taking a creatine supplement is marketed as a quick and effective way for people who exercise or do sports to increase their energy levels and also to achieve a bigger, more muscular body shape. A survey commissioned by The Independent newspaper found that 44% of elite athletes were using the supplement regularly, which included 100% of rugby league players and 100% of weightlifters.
Creatine is an organic acid which is made in the liver from amino acids and can be found naturally in many common foods including beef and seafood. Approximately 95% of creatine is stored in skeletal muscles with the remainder found largely in the brain, heart and testes.
During exercise the energy for a muscle to contract is provided by ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Creatine can help in the formation of ATP, and therefore within the muscles acts as an energy source for short bursts of exercise. Creatine can also helps in the synthesis of protein, which further promotes muscle growth and development.
The body’s creatine supply is not limitless and the average human has between 3.5 and 4 grams of creatine per kilogram of muscle. During exercise if a muscle’s supply of creatine has been used the muscle must rest before it can exercise again. Studies have shown that the human muscle can store up to 5 grams of creatine per kilogram.
While research shows that increased levels of creatine have been found to decrease fatigue, reduce the time needed for recovery and improve performance, the effects are marginal for all but the most elite athletes. Creatine supplementation may be of benefit to bodybuilders and those who undertake strenuous activity, but it is unlikely that an individual would want or need to take creatine if they aren’t doing this. Supplementation has failed to provide advantages for endurance sports activities like distance running, some studies even show it worsens performance.
Creatine in muscle also attracts water and therefore causes cell volumisation which in turn can lead to an increase in body mass due to water retention. This may give an appearance or feeling of bloatedness. Although the side effects of creatine supplementation are not as severe as taking steroids, there have been a number of reported side effects including gastrointestinal upset, tendon injury, headaches, hepatic and renal dysfunction and muscle cramps. The side effects are possibly due to water being drawn into muscle cells.