Whether you’re new to fitness supplements or exploring the idea of expanding beyond basic protein powder to enhance your results, creatine is probably on your radar.
Although it’s one of the most commonly used supplements by gym-goers, many don’t fully understand what it is and how it works. Learning the basics at a minimum is the best way to ensure you’re taking creatine appropriately so you can get the best results.
In this article, we’ll go over the basics of creatine, paying special attention to how it interacts with another important piece of the fitness puzzle: hormones.
What is Creatine?
When you think of creatine, you’re probably thinking about the supplement form. However, it’s actually a naturally-occurring substance that your body produces. It helps with energy production, muscle building, better focus, and improved productivity. In the gym, it helps you push a little harder.
Creatine is stored in the muscle, but these stores are not typically at maximum capacity. They actually tend to be closer to 80 percent of capacity.
That’s the main purpose of a creatine supplement. Taking this in addition to the amount produced in the body pushes the creatine stores in your muscle closer to 100%. This small amount of “extra” creatine expands the benefits of your workout.
How Does Creatine Work?
While stored in the muscle, creatine binds with a phosphate group to create creatine phosphate. Later, at the end of an energy production cycle, that phosphate is given to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). The extra phosphate group transforms this compound to become adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the fuel your body needs to create energy. Without that extra phosphate, ADP would be basically useless when it comes to energy production. As the energy cycle repeats itself, the body depletes creatine stores and therefore the phosphate needed to create ATP.
Benefits of Creatine
Supplemental creatine maximizes your creatine stores and supports energy production. During your workout, it gives you more time before you deplete your creatine stores so you have more power and stamina. It also speeds up muscle and strength building.
Many athletes use creatine monohydrate powder to boost high-intensity movements like jumping or sprinting.
Does Creatine Affect Hormones?
Yes! Although creatine plays an enormous role in energy production, its impact on certain hormones is the story behind one of its most coveted benefits, muscle and strength building.
Creatine targets two major anabolic hormones: testosterone and IGF-1.
Creatine and Testosterone
Taking a creatine supplement may increase testosterone in the body. One study that found this to be true examined a group that combined a 10-week strength training program combined with creatine with a placebo group. The group taking creatine experienced both a larger increase in testosterone and strength compared to the placebo group.
Another study suggests that creatine may only increase testosterone temporarily. However, it’s not a bad thing. This temporary boost in testosterone production may be responsible for more endurance during a workout.
What Does Testosterone Do?
Testosterone is a sex hormone that regulates sex drive, as well as certain factors of body composition such as body fat, distribution, muscle mass, and bone density.
It plays a role in muscle growth by increasing neurotransmitters, interacting with DNA nuclear receptors, and increasing growth hormones, all responsible for protein synthesis and tissue growth.
Male testosterone production starts to slow as early as thirty years old. Over time, low testosterone production may result in:
- Decreased endurance
- Decreased strength
- Mental fog
- Decreased energy
- Low libido
Creatine and IGF-1
Insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is another anabolic hormone, which means it encourages muscle growth. Taking creatine can simply help increase IGF-1 production, which helps to support muscle growth.
Creatine and Cortisol
Cortisol is a stress hormone. It’s beneficial in many ways, but in the gym, it could have the exact opposite result of what you’re hoping for. Excess cortisol is catabolic, which means it can break down muscle tissue.
Your body may produce more cortisol during high-intensity workouts because technically, they are perceived as high stress on the body.
Taking creatine may help to decrease cortisol in the body and therefore preserve muscle mass. One study found that short-term creatine supplementation (6 days in this instance) reduced cortisol concentrations in swimmers, following a sprint workout.
Is Creatine Safe?
In short, yes. Thanks to its popularity, creatine is one of the most heavily researched fitness supplements on the market. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) states in their position paper that up to 30 grams of creatine per day is safe, and can be taken consistently for up to 5 years.
If you’ve heard skepticism about the safety of creatine, it likely stemmed from products that combine creatine with some sort of additive. Extra ingredients are typically stimulants, which can pose some risks for certain people. However, creatine on its own is safe.
Also, the topic of creatine and water retention is typically misunderstood.
If you choose to add creatine to your fitness routine, be aware of some of the potential side effects. These include weight gain, water retention, and digestive discomfort. These are pretty rare, and more common in products with additives like artificial sweeteners. You can easily avoid many of these by choosing a reputable brand that limits the use of additives.
The Takeaway on Creatine and Hormones
On a hormonal level, creatine can help you build more muscle, and build it more quickly. Although more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms, creatine may influence the production of testosterone and IGF-1, which are anabolic hormones that support muscle growth. Creatine may also decrease cortisol, preventing it from inhibiting muscle growth.