The published record on creatine as the supplement of choice for recreational and professional athletes who want to increase strength and size is long and profound. However, while creatine's popularity continues to grow among the serious lifting crowd, many athletes less interested in bulking avoid it for fear of getting too big. That's a big mistake!
Research on creatine suggests that it does much more than help you build muscle and strength. While it can help you set PRs in the gym, creatine can also have positive effects on bone mineral density, reduce oxidative stress, and even boost memory. In short, creatine has something to offer nearly everyone!
Here are six reasons creatine should be a part of your daily regimen.
1. Creatine Improves Aerobic Performance and Recovery
There are hundreds of studies highlighting creatine's ability to improve strength, power output, body composition, and training volume, but contrary to what most people think, you don't have to be a strength or power athlete to reap the benefits of this remarkable supplement. Creatine can also be beneficial for endurance athletes.
Most endurance athletes are familiar with carb loading to help top off glycogen stores before a race, but adding creatine into the diet can further enhance glycogen stores. Researchers from Louisiana State University found that when creatine was taken five days before a typical carb-loading protocol, glycogen content increased 53 percent over baseline levels.1 Because of the strong relationship between high glycogen stores and performance during prolonged exercise, creatine could be quite beneficial in endurance activities.
For endurance athletes, creatine has also been shown to reduce inflammation and cell damage following intense, prolonged exercise. A study published in Life Sciences found that athletes who supplemented with creatine five days before a 30-kilometer race had significantly lower markers of inflammation and muscle soreness following the race.2 And despite the myths about creatine, none of the runners in the study experienced any side effects such as cramping or dehydration.
Another study showed creatine can help maintain both body temperature and hydration status when exercising in hot and humid temperatures.3 All in all, creatine offers a number of benefits to endurance athletes.
2. Creatine Increases Bone Mineral Density
It's never too early to start thinking about your bone health. Worldwide, osteoporosis—or the loss in bone mineral density—causes more than 8.9 million fractures each year.4 Of particular concern, one in three women over the age of 50 will experience a fracture due to osteoporosis, as will one in five men over that threshold.5,6 Still, mortality after a hip fracture is higher in men than women, right around 20 percent.7
For years now, strength training has been recommend as a means to increase bone mineral density and prevent osteoporosis. If you're already a frequent visitor to the weights, give yourself a pat on the back. But if you're not adding creatine to your daily routine, your bones may not be reaching their full potential. When combined with a resistance-training program, creatine supplementation has been shown to lead to greater increases in bone mineral content compared to resistance training only.8
How is this possible? An increase in bone mineral content may be related to increases in muscle mass. More muscle increases the strain on your bones, providing the perfect stimulus for them to get stronger! While you may not be too concerned with your bone health now, building strong, healthy bones in your early years may help prevent osteoporosis from occurring down the road.
The takeaway? Keep lifting weights—just make sure you're adding creatine to your shaker cup!
3. Creatine Improves Glucose Metabolism
Type-2 diabetes is a chronic disease affecting more than 27 million Americans. For decades now, physical activity—along with diet and medication—have been considered the major cornerstones for fighting type 2 diabetes. And while exercise alone has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, creatine can enhance the effects of exercise and help type 2 diabetics control their blood glucose levels even better!
Research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found a significant improvement in glycemic control when participants with type 2 diabetes combined creatine supplementation with an exercise program9 These findings suggest the supplement could emerge as a valuable addition to diabetes treatment.
On top of that, creatine supplementation has been shown to increase glycogen synthesis and glucose tolerance, particularly when combined with exercise training in healthy individuals.10 Together, these findings provide rationale for the use of creatine in a therapeutic role in diabetic patients.
How exactly does the same supplement that helps to boost strength and muscle mass also improve glucose metabolism? Creatine has been shown to increase the concentration of GLUT-4, a protein that transports glucose into and out of your muscle cells. Higher concentrations of GLUT-4 mean improved insulin action and glucose disposal, as well as enhanced glycogen storage following exercise.
Incidentally, an increase in GLUT-4 expression also helps you maintain muscle mass and strength during immobilization. Yes, supplementing with creatine while you're injured can even help keep you from losing all your hard-earned gains!11,12
4. Creatine Improves Brain Performance
Creatine works on the brain in a manner very similar to the way it works in your muscles. Both use creatine phosphate (PCr) as an energy source; if not replenished, PCr levels can decrease during periods of activity. Just as your muscles get tired after 9-10 reps, your brain can fatigue during intense mental tasks, like mathematical calculations. In this sense, supplementing with creatine will not only help fuel your workouts, but also fuel your brain!
And don't think that just because you're a meat eater, you don't need to supplement. Although vegetarians and vegans will see the greatest improvements in working memory and processing speed, six weeks of creatine supplementation in meat eaters has been shown to increase creatine levels in the brain by nine percent.13 What does this translate into? More brain power!
Research has shown that even five days of creatine can significantly reduce mental fatigue and increase oxygen utilization in the brain.14 It's pretty clear: Creatine has powerful effects on enhancing and maintaining cognitive function!
5. Creatine Reduces Oxidative Stress
Endurance athletes aren't the only ones who experience oxidative damage from free radicals caused by intense training. In fact, any athlete who trains intensely will generate these byproducts. Coupled with poor recovery strategies, you're looking at some serious road blocks on your trip to Gainsville.
Free radicals can have a significant impact on muscle fatigue and protein-turnover rates, and they can slow down the rate of muscle growth. Basically, free radicals can hamper everything you're trying to avoid if your goal is to increase strength and size. What's the easiest way to prevent this? Take creatine!
Several studies have displayed creatine's antioxidant effects. One study in particular, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, showed significant reductions in DNA damage and oxidative stress following a single bout of resistance training in trained men.15 These reductions can promote better recovery and allow you to train harder for a longer period of time.
6. Creatine Can Protect Against Traumatic Brain Injury
If there's one new area creatine really shines, it's in protecting the brain from injury.
Recent experimental findings have demonstrated that creatine provides significant protection against traumatic brain injuries. While the majority of the studies in this area have been conducted in animal models, initial results are extremely promising.
Early studies conducted in animal models have shown that chronic administration of creatine lessened the extent of brain damage following trauma to their heads by as much as 36 percent in mice and 50 percent in rats. Additionally, levels of reactive oxygen species, which are responsible for increasing oxidative stress in the brain, significantly decreased.16
In a follow-up study, researchers found that the animals who were given supplemental creatine for two weeks prior to a head injury had lower levels of lactate and free fatty acids, suggesting greater protection following a traumatic brain injury.17 These results support the idea that a creatine-enriched diet can provide substantial brain protection in part by suppressing secondary brain injury, the condition responsible for brain swelling, inflammation, and death.
Creatine can even be used as a recovery treatment post-head injury. Researchers from the University Hospital of Heraklio (Greece) supplemented children and adolescents with creatine following a traumatic brain injury and found that it improved recovery time and communication, and decreased dizziness, fatigue, and the number of headaches.18,19 All of this without presenting any negative side effects from the creatine administration!
Creatine Research on the Horizon
Today, creatine is being tested on a number of neurological diseases. So far, we're finding in a growing number of studies that creatine may play a therapeutic role in age-related neurological diseases like Parkinson's, Huntington's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Alzheimer's disease.20 It appears the supplement may be able to prevent the loss of motor neurons and reduce oxidative stress while restoring cognitive performance in individuals suffering from these diseases.
The list of benefits of creatine continues to grow, much like the strongmen and bodybuilders who were the supplement's original proponents. At this point, the question isn't why should you take creatine, but why wouldn't you?
- Nelson, A. G., Arnall, D. A., Kokkonen, J., Day, R., & Evans, J. (2001). Muscle glycogen supercompensation is enhanced by prior creatine supplementation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(7), 1096-1100.
- Santos, R. V. T., Bassit, R. A., Caperuto, E. C., & Rosa, L. C. (2004). The effect of creatine supplementation upon inflammatory and muscle soreness markers after a 30km race. Life Sciences, 75(16), 1917-1924.
- Lopez, R. M., Casa, D. J., McDermott, B. P., Ganio, M. S., Armstrong, L. E., & Maresh, C. M. (2009). Does creatine supplementation hinder exercise heat tolerance or hydration status? A systematic review with meta-analyses. Journal of Athletic Training, 44(2), 215.
- Johnell, O., & Kanis, J. A. (2006). An estimate of the worldwide prevalence and disability associated with osteoporotic fractures. Osteoporosis International,17(12), 1726-1733.
- Melton, L. J., Atkinson, E. J., O'Connor, M. K., O'Fallon, W. M., & Riggs, B. L. (1998). Bone density and fracture risk in men. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 13(12), 1915-1923.
- Melton, J. L. (1995). Perspectives: how many women have osteoporosis now?. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 10(2), 175-177.
- Center, J. R., Nguyen, T. V., Schneider, D., Sambrook, P. N., & Eisman, J. A. (1999). Mortality after all major types of osteoporotic fracture in men and women: an observational study. The Lancet, 353(9156), 878-882.
- Chilibeck, P.D., Chrusch, M.J., Chad, K.E., Shawn Davison, K., & Burke, D.G. (2005). Creatine monohydrate and resistance training increase bone mineral content and density in older men. Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging, 9(5), 352-3.
- Gualano, B., de Salles Painneli, V., Roschel, H., Artioli, G. G., Junior, M. N., Lucia de Sa Pinto, A., ... & Lancha, A. H. J. (2011). Creatine in type 2 diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(5), 770-778.
- Gualano, B., Novaes, R. B., Artioli, G. G., Freire, T. O., Coelho, D. F., Scagliusi, F. B., ... & Lancha Jr, A. H. (2008). Effects of creatine supplementation on glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in sedentary healthy males undergoing aerobic training. Amino Acids, 34(2), 245-250.
- Op't Eijnde, B., Ursø, B., Richter, E. A., Greenhaff, P. L., & Hespel, P. (2001). Effect of oral creatine supplementation on human muscle GLUT4 protein content after immobilization. Diabetes, 50(1), 18-23.
- Johnston, A. P., Burke, D. G., MacNeil, L. G., & Candow, D. G. (2009). Effect of creatine supplementation during cast-induced immobilization on the preservation of muscle mass, strength, and endurance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 116-120.
- Dechent, P., Pouwels, P. J. W., Wilken, B., Hanefeld, F., & Frahm, J. (1999). Increase of total creatine in human brain after oral supplementation of creatine-monohydrate. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 277(3), R698-R704.
- Watanabe, A., Kato, N., & Kato, T. (2002). Effects of creatine on mental fatigue and cerebral hemoglobin oxygenation. Neuroscience Research, 42(4), 279-285.
- Rahimi, R. (2011). Creatine supplementation decreases oxidative DNA damage and lipid peroxidation induced by a single bout of resistance exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3448-3455.
- Sullivan, P. G., Geiger, J. D., Mattson, M. P., & Scheff, S. W. (2000). Dietary supplement creatine protects against traumatic brain injury. Annals of Neurology, 48(5), 723-729.
- Scheff, S. W., & Dhillon, H. S. (2004). Creatine-enhanced diet alters levels of lactate and free fatty acids after experimental brain injury. Neurochemical Research, 29(2), 469-479.
- Sakellaris, G., Kotsiou, M., Tamiolaki, M., Kalostos, G., Tsapaki, E., Spanaki, M., ... & Evangeliou, A. (2006). Prevention of complications related to traumatic brain injury in children and adolescents with creatine administration: an open label randomized pilot study. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 61(2), 322-329.
- Sakellaris, G., Nasis, G., Kotsiou, M., Tamiolaki, M., Charissis, G., & Evangeliou, A. (2008). Prevention of traumatic headache, dizziness and fatigue with creatine administration. A pilot study. Acta Paediatrica, 97(1), 31-34.
- Smith, R. N., Agharkar, A. S., & Gonzales, E. B. (2014). A review of creatine supplementation in age-related diseases: more than a supplement for athletes. F1000Research, 3.