Away from sport and exercise, other research has proven its benefits in many aspects of health and disease. This article breaks down the health benefits of creatine.
How Creatine Works
Creatine is a naturally synthesized molecule from the amino acids arginine, methionine, and glycine (1, 8).
Individuals who eat meat and fish get approximately 1 gram per day of creatine from the diet (9), and approximately 1 gram per day is synthesized by the body (9).
Given that daily intake and excretion are approximately equal, the most efficient way to increase creatine stores in the body is through dietary supplementation (1, 11).
Dietary creatine supplementation increases the phosphocreatine stores in the muscle. Initially, this was thought to just enhance performance during high-intensity, short duration activities or repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise with short rest periods, such as jumping, sprinting, and strength training (5, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15). However, these benefits have now been shown to extend into health and muscle function in several diseases.
1. Neuro – Protection
Because of the high levels of creatine in the brain and central nervous system (16), a considerable number of studies have focused on the potential neuroprotective effects of oral creatine supplementation in a variety of neurological conditions, including:
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI) ( 17, 18, 19)
- Huntington’s Disease (HD) (20, 21, 22, 23)
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Cerebral ischemia
- Parkinson’s Disease(PD)
2. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
TBI caused by accidents and contact sports is a significant contributor of cognitive impairment to individuals in the United States and Canada.
In humans, pilot data has examined both the short-term and long-term effects of creatine supplementation (18, 19). Individuals receiving 0.4 grams per kilogram of oral creatine saw significant improvement in communication, cognition, personality/behavior, and self-care as compared to individuals who did not receive creatine (18).
Interestingly, a follow-up of the same patients after 6 months found reduced incidences of dizziness, headaches, and fatigue than the control patients (19).
3. Huntington’s Disease (HD)
HD is a genetic neurological disorder that is characterized by deterioration of motor abilities and function, which ultimately becomes fatal (24).
Studies in rats have demonstrated creatine supplementation can increase length of survival and reduce brain deterioration compared to controls (20, 22].
In humans, the evidence is still emerging. A few studies have not seen many improvements in clinical symptoms of the disease (23, 25). However, a recent case found that individuals in the creatine group had significantly less brain atrophy compared to that observed in control group (26) .
It is likely that creatine needs to be supplemented at higher doses ( greater than 30 grams per day) to be effective in treating HD, so more studies are needed to prove its benefits in humans (4).
4. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
In humans, creatine supplementation had no effect on survival, motor function, or respiratory function of patients (31, 32) . These findings were not surprising as humans did not have the same genetic defect and did not receive an equivalent dose to those in the rat studies. Future research at higher doses may find benefit, however like Huntington’s disease this area needs more research.
5. Parkinson’s Disease (PD)
PD is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by tremors, rigidity, and movement and coorindation issues (33).
Human trials have shown that patients receiving creatine (10 grams per day) reduced disease progression of PD patients within 5 years of diagnosis (34) . Another study determined that creatine reduced the level of therapy needed, but did not change the clinical rating of the disease (35).
Despite these findings, other trials have been less successful (36,37) primarily because the dosage in humans did not reflect those seen in successful rodent trials, which seems to be a recurring theme as mentioned above.
Inflammation is a serious issue which experts now believe to be a key role in metabolic diseases, heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
Interestingly, creatine supplementation has been shown to downregulate receptors, adhesion molecules, and pro-inflammatory agents in certain cell types (38 ,39). As a result, it has the potential to play a role in promoting a strong immune system.
Since “oxidants” have the ability to negatively impact muscle fatigue and growth, creatine’s role as an antioxidant may help to increase lifespan, but also improve quality of life, especially in weak and malnourished individuals such as the elderly or those with a serious disease (4).
7. Muscle Disorders
Well-known for its benefit within the muscle, the use of creatine may extend from sports performance into a medical setting.
Several studies involving creatine supplementing of patients with a series of muscular disorders found that short-term supplementation promoted both strength and lean mass gains, especially when combined with an exercise or weight-lifting routine (43, 44, 44, 45).
8. Insulin Resistance
The therapeutic use of creatine supplementation in diabetic people is very promising, especially when compared to other conditions which still lack human research (46).
Research has shown creatine supplementation combined with aerobic training promoted greater improvements in glucose tolerance to a greater extent than aerobic training alone (47).
In addition, it was also shown to improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity in type-2 diabetics undergoing exercise training. Finally, supplementation can offset the decline in muscle carbohydrate transporters and receptors which occurs during immobilization of the leg (48).
All of these findings suggest that this nutritional supplement could be useful in metabolic disorders characterized by insulin resistance or poor carbohydrate control.
Diseases characterized by physical decline, muscle weakness, poor carbohydrate control and atrophy may all be benefited by creatine supplementation (46).
Based on the current research, creatine can improve muscle mass, strength, aerobic capacity, and clinical condition compared with non-supplemented patients in conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (47), congenital heart failure (48) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (49).
Creatine is not just for the weight room, track, or athletic fields. It has the potential to be a cost-effective alternative to commonly prescribed drugs and therapies in the clinical setting for a series of diseases, particularly brain- and muscular-based issues.
In summary, creatine is one of the cheapest, safest and most effective supplements on the planet.