Creatine Monohydrate is a nutritional supplement used to increase the quantities of creatine and high-energy phosphate within muscle tissues. Creatine is created by our bodies, and can also be ingested through eating meat and fish. Creatine phosphate is one of our immediate sources of energy, along with ATP (our energy currency). Creatine replenishes ATP; therefore the more creatine we have in our muscles, the more we can lift / the better we can exert strength and power over a short period of time.
Creatine, as a nutritional supplement, is usually taken in the form of either a powder (often flavoured) or a tablet, and is generally taken with water, or a carbohydrate-dense liquid (this can help it to be delivered to the muscles more quickly, and therefore absorbed by the body more efficiently).
Now to answer some common questions about creatine:
1) Is creatine supplementation beneficial?
Most nutritional supplements on the market, though advertised as 'amazing', or being a 'secret to success', have pretty much no evidence to support these claims. Creatine, however, is one of the few products which has been proven to be effective as a dietary supplement (whey/casein protein are another).
Studies have shown creatine supplementation to be effective, allowing the body to produce energy more rapidly. Creatine is particularly beneficial for strength and hypertrophy resistance training, as it can help to maintain a high training intensity, with saturated creatine stores making it possible to maintain training intensity for longer. Studies have shown that long-term, oral creatine supplementation improves the effect of resistance training on maximal muscle strength, body fat-free mass, and ones ability to execute high intensity intermittent exercise.
Furthermore, from the journals of strength and conditioning, an article Effects of Creatine Supplementation and Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Weightlifting Performance, showed that recently, athletes are not necessarily using creatine as a sports performance booster, rather as a training aid to increase the intensity of resistance training workouts. Although the results of the study varied between individuals (gender and whether the athlete was trained or untrained), on average ones weightlifting performance increased by 14% when ingesting creatine supplements alongside resistance training. This study adds more evidence to the suggestion that there is an improvement in one's muscle strength and weightlifting performance when resistance training is combined with creatine supplements.
In short, yes, creatine supplementation is beneficial; not only for athletic performance, but also in aiding longer term body composition changes.
2) Who should be supplementing creatine?
The different types of people who could benefit from supplementing creatine are varied and diverse. Studies have shown benefits to supplementing creatine in: vegetarians / vegans, older people, untrained athletes, high-performance athletes, men and women.
While creatine is somewhat associated more with the male population, this has nothing to do with efficacy or suitability for women. There is a misconception that creatine can make you 'big and bulky', but this is mostly due to water retention (which is only 0.5-3% of you body mass), and is more of a short-term, acute effect than a long-term change. In fact, there's more evidence to suggest creatine is helpful with maximising lean and fat-free mass.
The reason why vegetarians/vegans may benefit from creatine supplementation is that dietary creatine is found in meat and animal products. As a result, they are likely to be ingesting less creatine on a daily basis, which would lead to lower amounts of creatine stored in their body.
As well as vegetarians, older people could benefit from taking creatine to help increase not only their strength, but also their mobility, flexion and aid them with daily tasks. From the Oxford Journals article “Creatine supplementation enhances isometric strength and body composition improvements following strength exercise training in older adults” they conducted studies on men and women who were aged 65+. The results of the study showed that resistance training with creatine supplementation can increase muscle strength and functional capacity in older adults.
From current evidence, creatine could provide benefits to many different groups of people, but we would say it is not necessary for the vast majority. If you are trying to maximise your strength and hypertrophy, it may be something you would like to supplement in your diet.
3) Is Creatine dangerous?
There have been concerns in the past that creatine can be dangerous to supplement: specifically that it can cause damage to the heart, liver or kidneys.
What we need to remember is that creatine itself is a naturally occurring substance within the body, so it is not inherently dangerous for us as humans. The current body of evidence suggests that creatine does not cause any harmful side effects in healthy individuals, especially when kept within recommended daily doses. Studies using extremely high levels of creatine also have not shown any harmful side effects to any human organs.
The most common assertion is that creatine is bad for your kidneys - where this comes from (I believe), is the negative health effects that creatine can have on individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions. Therefore, if you already have kidney problems, it would be advisable to check with your doctor before taking creatine. However, the current research suggests that creatine is not dangerous for individuals suffering from kidney problems not characterized by edema and tissue-swelling.
The current weight of evidence tells us that creatine is not dangerous or harmful for supplementation by the general population, but as always, remember that it is a supplement to your diet, and not one of the more significant aspects of your nutrition.