Creatine is a supplement that is used by many athletes and has been shown to be effective in increasing endurance, muscle mass and strength in countless studies (1).
But while creatine has been shown to be useful for enhancing physical performance, it might not just be athletes and bodybuilders who can benefit from it. More and more, studies have been showing that creatine can benefit everyone and might in fact be useful as a ‘general’ health supplement rather than something solely used to enhance the effects of a training routine in the gym.
How Creatine Works
To understand how creatine may be able to boost health in a range of ways, it can help to first look at how creatine works.
To understand this, you in turn need to understand how our cells get energy. Simply put, energy in our body comes from a substance called ‘ATP’ or ‘Adenosine Triphosphate’. This is a nucleoside triphosphate, meaning that it’s made of three phosphates. These are held together by powerful bonds that contain a huge amount of energy. Our cells then access this energy by breaking those bonds, which results in one ADP and one AMP (adenosine diphosphate and monophosphate respectively).
Our muscles have a certain amount of ATP readily available and thus this is used up first when we exert ourselves. This is known as the ‘phosphagen system’. It’s not until we start exerting ourselves further that we are forced to use the aerobic system and the anaerobic system.
In other words then, our body’s ability to use the ATP stored in our muscles is what enables us to perform, fast and explosive movements before we start panting and drawing energy from elsewhere.
So where does creatine come in?
Basically, creatine is a substance that allows us to recycle our ADP and AMP back into ATP. Our muscles can only store a very small amount, but this small amount allows us to get an extra second or two of exertion before we run out of stored ATP and have to turn to other, slower, energy sources.
Creatine is produced naturally in the body and can be found in foods like beef and chicken. By taking extra in supplement form though, we are able to greatly increase the amount available to our muscles and thereby boost strength, endurance, energy and more.
Creatine for Muscle and Strength
When we lift weights, we rely on the phosphagen system in order to produce that short-term burst of energy. This is why you don’t start panting when curling weights. Thus, by supplementing with creatine you can increase the number of repetitions you can perform with a heavy weight and thus increase your hypertrophy (muscle growth) over time (2).
What’s more though, using creatine can also encourage your muscles to store more water. This results in a more muscular appearance and weight gain that many men find aesthetically pleasing.
Creatine for Brain Function
So what does this all have to do with the rest of your health? Why should your Grandma be taking creatine?
The point to remember is that all of your body ‘runs’ on energy (ATP) and that increasing creatine can thus provide many of our bodily functions with extra energy. Take brain function for instance, which has been shown to improve in a number of exciting studies.
In one study, participants were given either 5 grams of creatine a day or a placebo. Vegetarians were chosen for the study as they would have gotten smaller amounts of creatine naturally from their diet (5 grams of creatine is a roughly ‘normal’ daily dosage and is equivalent to around 2kg of meat daily).
Subjects were then asked to repeat increasingly long sequences of random numbers in reverse in a bid to measure intelligence. Additionally, a system referred to as ‘Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices’ was used to assess the participants’ IQs.
In both cases, performance improved significantly more quickly among those using creatine (4).
In short, by increasing the energy available to the brain, creatine appears to enhance IQ and memory. If you’ve ever felt as though your brain was too ‘lazy’ while doing math, then creatine might be the solution.
What’s more, creatine has been shown to boost the effectiveness of SSRIs and to be generally antidepressive and mood elevating (5). It also appears to help prevent against age-related cognitive decline.
It is also possible that creatine may help to protect against cell damage. The reason for this, is that by binding to the cell membrane and adding water retention, it could help to protect those membranes from damage. No study has proven that creatine can be protective against cancer, but it has been suggested by experts.
The energy benefits of creatine are also of potential interest to non-athletes. Being able to exert yourself for longer and to produce more strength is something that can be useful in a wide range of tasks, from cleaning the house to performing at work. Increasing energy also makes us simply feel better and this is likely how it can help to improve mood as well.
As creatine is relatively a very affordable supplement and is generally considered to be mostly side-effect free and safe; there is very little reason not to take it. Instead of buying those multivitamins that likely don’t do anything, consider getting yourself some creatine!