Research continues on creatine, and it’s clear that it’s the single most effective bodybuilding supplement ever produced. What’s surprising is the extent of ongoing findings in the scientific literature related to new aspects of creatine use. Discovered in 1835, creatine was first used by athletes in the 1960s, when Russian and East German athletes were given creatine phosphate supplements. Mass use of creatine, however, began shortly after a seminal study published in 1992 showed that taking 20 to 30 grams of it for a few days can increase muscle content of creatine by 50 percent. Follow-up studies showed that creatine was particularly effective as an ergogenic aid for high-intensity exercise, including bodybuilding.
As creatine’s popularity rose, investigators examined the best ways to use it in terms of uptake and absorption into the body. In the late ’90s studies showed that high insulin release encouraged creatine uptake into muscle. Producing the required insulin involved downing 95 grams of simple sugar with each dose of creatine. Eventually, scientists found that insulin boosts the activity of the body’s sodium/potassium pump mechanism, which in turn powers the creatine transport protein that ferries creatine into muscle tissue. The effect of the high-carb intake with creatine was so potent that it worked for everyone, even those who previously experienced limited creatine uptake. The 95 grams of simple carbs per dose, though, presented a problem. Loading creatine for a few days could involve taking in nearly 500 extra grams of simple sugar per day. So while you might increase creatine uptake, your chances of gaining bodyfat simultaneously were also unacceptably high.
The high-sugar problem led to a search for a better method of boosting creatine uptake into muscle. A study published 10 years ago found that 50 grams of simple sugars plus 50 grams of whey protein hydrolysate produced insulin release similar to what happened when creatine was paired with the notorious 95 grams. Whey hydrolysate is a fast-acting protein that supplies amino acids known to spur insulin secretion, which explains why the newer method worked.
The newest study compared several methods of boosting creatine uptake and retention in the body.1 It featured seven young, healthy men, average age 25, who were given the following creatine combinations:
• Five grams of creatine and water
• Five grams of creatine, 95 grams of dextrose, a simple sugar
• Five grams of creatine, 14 grams of whey protein hydrolysate
• Five grams of creatine, 14 grams of whey protein hydrolysate, seven grams of leucine, seven grams of phenylalanine, 57 grams of dextrose
The solutions were administered by a naso-gastric tube, which is inserted into the nose and shunted directly into the stomach. That prevented the subjects from identifying the various combinations, which differed in texture, flavor and smell. The amino acids were added to the last combo because those particular aminos are known to aid insulin release. Combining creatine with a quick-acting protein, such as whey protein hydrolysate, along with amino acids, produced a release of insulin comparable to what you get from the 95 grams of simple sugar plus creatine. The authors suggest that combining creatine with whey protein hydrolysate and amino acids makes taking creatine more palatable—and involves fewer calories.
Another newly published creatine study focused on how combining it with weight training seems to boost muscle growth.2 The study lasted eight weeks and featured 27 young men divided into two groups, with one group training and using a placebo and the other group training the same way but taking creatine. The creatine group followed the typical creatine load protocol for the first week, followed by a maintenance dose after that. Noting prior studies that showed creatine leading to muscle gains, the authors examined the effects of creatine and weight training on myostatin and GASP-1 levels in the men. Myostatin is a protein that prevents muscle gains by blocking the activity of compounds in muscle that help increase muscle protein synthesis. When myostatin is in full cry, it inhibits the activity of muscle stem cells, or satellite cells, blunting repair and growth. GASP-1 is a protein discovered in 2003 that blocks the activity of myostatin.
The researchers found that weight training alone lowered the activity of myostatin and boosted GASP-1. In the men who took creatine, that beneficial effect was extended beyond what occurred with weight training alone, adding another anabolic effect from creatine. How creatine does that isn’t known, but the authors suggest that it could be the result of creatine’s causing cellular swelling through increased water retention in muscle, which in turn leads to anabolic activity in muscle, including increased muscle protein synthesis.
Still another new creatine study looked at the effects of creatine in preventing excessive muscle damage after exercise.3 Eight Ironman triathletes were given either a placebo or 20 grams of creatine daily for five days before a competition. An Ironman event (no relation to this magazine) consists of swimming, cycling and running and involves a level of effort that results in frequent injuries, particularly to muscle. The muscle injury is evident by increased amounts of enzymes that are leaked from injured muscle tissue, particularly creatine kinase. It’s also not unusual for people to have elevated liver enzymes after engaging in strenuous exercise.
Previous studies showed that creatine appears to lower postexercise inflammation, which translates into more effective exercise recovery. Besides the human athletes, the study featured rats exposed to electrical muscle stimulation that results in contraction-induced muscle injury. Again, some of the rats were given creatine before the electrical muscle stimulation.
Both humans and rats have fewer enzymes associated with muscle damage if they take creatine first. How creatine offers its protection isn’t known, but one theory is that it helps stabilize cell membranes, protecting muscles against excessive breakdown during intense exercise. Creatine also delays fatigue, which is linked to muscle damage. Still another way that creatine may be protective is through an antioxidant action.
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1 Pittas, G., et al. (2009). Optimization of insulin-mediated creatine retention during creatine feeding in humans. J Sports Sci. 28:67-74.
2 Saremi, A., et al. (2010). Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on serum myostatin and GASP-1. Mol Cell Endocrin. 317(1-2):25-30.
3 Bassit, R.A., et al. (2010). Effect of short-term creatine supplementation on markers of skeletal muscle damage after strenuous contractile activity. Eur J Appl Physiol. 108(5):945-55.