Super supplements – Exploring the myths around Creatine

Once in a while, a supplement comes along and creates a huge amount of excitement and controversy in equal proportion. There has been so much written around Creatine. Everyone seems to want to use it, but many people are unaware of how it actually works. There have been safety concerns around Creatine in the past – mainly due to poor journalism and poor understanding of the scientific data. So, let’s examine Creatine, what exactly is it? How should we use it best? We will also address any concerns and see how it can be utilized to enhance recovery in Exercise and Sport.

What is Creatine?

The science answer is that Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid made up of three amino acids – methionine, glycine and arginine. These are bonded to make up Creatine. But to put it into terms that we can relate to – it is something we produce, and all vertebrates produce to help facilitate energy in the muscle. More specifically it actually helps recycle  adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to ATP. ATP forms part of our energy pathways. The first 0-10 seconds of any exercise uses ATP – so it is designed for explosive muscle contraction. It is a protective mechanism linked to our Amygdala response which makes us react to a situation before our brain has time to figure out exactly what is going on.

Is it “natural”?

If something is “natural” – it does not mean it is safe or good. Apple seeds contain cyanide and potatoes contain arsenic, but they are both highly toxic when consumed in high doses. Creatine is naturally occurring in all animals and found in its highest doses in game animals. So that certainly does make it “natural”. Although refined, it is naturally occurring and when taken as recommended by health professionals, can be very beneficial.

How does it work in the body?

Our body utilizes different energy pathways depending on the intensity and duration of exercise. These systems work together or overlap in ensuring our muscles and brain keep going. When one system is exhausted, the other takes over. As mentioned above, Creatine helps the body replenish the unit of energy in the muscle. This forms a part of the ATP-pCr Sytem (pCr stands for phosphor-creatine). When we do any high intensity exercise, the muscle is depleted of energy and we must replace that. If we exercise a lot, this can take days. When we consume Creatine, we are helping the body replenish those stores much faster. It should be noted that Creatine bonds molecules of water in the muscle. You will gain a few kilos when you take it but this is essentially water. The muscle looks fuller.

Should I use it and if so, how much and how often?

It must be said that Creatine does not suit everyone. Your kidneys have to work harder in synthesizing the Creatine into ATP, so anyone who has renal or kidney issues should avoid it. It is then stored in the muscle, brain and other tissues. Some people find it hard on the stomach as well. It really is a personal thing, but the research indicates that it is safe.

There is usually a recommended “Loading Phase” which involves taking a higher dose 3-5 times per day. This is followed by a “Maintenance Phase” which involves taking a lower dose for a number of weeks. Typically, this would be 20 g per day for 5 days for the loading and then 5 grams per load in the maintenance.

My recommendation would not be to take such a large amount in 5 days. I would stagger it out a little more. Some people find that 10 grams is sufficient, or you could load 10 g for 10 days which is less severe. Then go with 5 grams per day after.

I would “cycle” on creatine which means giving your body a break after 6 weeks. It tends to work much better if you cycle on and off it. If you feel any ill effects, then just stop taking it.

Are there any safety concerns?

I base my opinions on science and “credible” research findings. I don’t rely upon opinion or guesswork. The Australian Institute of Sport have a classification system for all supplements and ergogenic aids.

“The ABCD Classification system ranks sports foods and supplement ingredients into four groups based on scientific evidence and other practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe, legal and effective in improving sports performance.”

Creatine is classified in Group A which means it is “supported for use in specific situations in Sport using evidence-based protocols. It has been deemed by a panel of experts as safe.

Take Home

When you feel you may have reached a limit in training, then I would try it. There is a lot of science behind and it has been shown to work. It is particularly relevant for athletes involved in sports where explosive power is important. Anything involving lifting, sprinting or explosive bouts of exercise will benefit from its use. Be safe and use it as directed by professionals.

BCCA’s Branch Chain Amino Acids

I continue to work with elite and professional athletes and I am always reading research on various products, supplements and ergogenic aids. The goal is to always to enhance and support performance, delay fatigue and optimize recovery. Over the years, there have been many supplements which have come and gone. Branch Chain Amino Acids is one that has been around for a while now. Some people are for and some against it. Let’s examine how it works and if it works! Can BCAA help you gain those pounds of muscle or give you the competitive edge?

What are BCAA’s?

BCAA’s are made up of three different amino acids, namely Valine, Leucine and isoleucione. These amino acids are known as “essential” amino acids which means that the body is unable to make them and so we must get them from our food.

What is important to realise is that these three amino acids make up about one third of muscle proteins.

What do they do?

In short, the theory is that BCAA’s help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise. The longer answer goes a little more like this: When we exercise, our body needs to find fuel for that exercise and sometimes this is difficult. Thus, when no energy is readily available, a process called “gluconeogenesis” occurs. This occurs especially during more intense exercise. Muscle tissue is sacrificed. BCAAs’ are converted into two other amino acids -glutamine and alanine which are released during exercise. They can be used as energy within the muscle. This is really handy because it means you don’t have to get the energy from food which needs to pass through the digestive system first. That is why they are primarily used during “fasted cardio” sessions.

A Look at the Scientific Literature

Taking 4g BCAA during and after exercise can reduce muscle breakdown (McLaren et al, 1994). They may help preserve muscle in athletes on a low carbohydrate diet (Williams, 1998), and taken before resistance training, reduce delayed onset of muscle soreness (Nosaka et al, 2006). A study by researchers in Florida found that taking BCAAs before and during prolonged endurance exercise reduced muscle damage (Greer et al 2007)

What can we ascertain from this kind of research? One of the most valuable things we can learn is that they appear to be very effective in maintaining muscle mass if you are on a calorie restricted diet. Especially for people who are on a “cutting phase” or those who are looking to burn fat

BCAAs Work in many ways

They act in a few different ways in helping performance, aiding recovery and improving aesthetics as well. As stated above, they can be used as energy within the muscle which has the effect of reducing muscle breakdown or damage. They have also been shown to help stimulate muscle growth and repair. BCAAS also reduce serotonin production in the brain so, this keeps the sympathetic nervous system active longer which essentially means we can train harder for longer.

Because BCAA’s don’t need to pass through first pass metabolism (that means don’t need to be broken down by digestion and then absorbed), they are readily available for our muscles. That is why taking them separately from a whey protein is the fastest way to get them into your system

Are they safe and Who should take them?

I’m not going to go into any detail in regard to safety because there is overwhelming evidence to state they are very safe. I would recommend taking BCCA’s for certain groups of people within the world of training. Anyone who is training in the morning or doing “fasted” training should be taking them prior to exercise. Anyone who is partaking in High Intensity exercise should also consider taking them. And finally, anyone who is on a calorie restrictive diet will find them useful in controlling appetite and maintaining muscle mass

How Much and When Should I take them?

Take 5-6 g before or during exercise. For those wishing to gain muscle then I would recommend about 25g during the day. This means having them before during and after exercise. Follow the guidelines of the particular product and do not exceed the dose.

Take Home

The parting message is that they can be a very useful aid with many different goals in mind. Definitely one to have in your locker and one that I have recommended for many of my own clients.