Back view of a woman wearing a black tank top and grey leggings, seated while lifting weight on gym equipment

Creatine: One Of The Best Supplements For Women

*Disclaimer* This article is for educational purposes only. The information presented should not be taken as medical advice. Before using any new supplement, please be sure to consult with your doctor or other health care professional.

If you’ve been around the fitness world for a while, you’ve likely heard about a supplement called creatine. But you might have some questions, like:

What is it?

What does it do?

Is it beneficial?

Is it safe?

Whenever you are considering adding a new supplement to your regimen, you want to feel assured that you’re making a good decision for both your health and your wallet.

Who wants to spend money on something that might be dangerous, and/or doesn’t work?

When it comes to fitness, there are so many supplements out there to choose from. It’s smart to do your research before you start taking something that may (or may not) give you the benefits you want.

If you’ve been thinking about using creatine to up your fitness gains, keep reading to have all your questions answered!

What is creatine?

White scooper laying on its side, with white supplement powder spilled out, on a light blue background.

Creatine is a natural substance that the human body manufactures, using the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine. Only a small amount of creatine circulates in the blood. But about 95% is stored in skeletal muscle, while about 5% is stored in the heart and brain.

The liver, kidneys, and pancreas convert between 1.5-2% of the body’s creatine for daily use. The average body requires between 1 and 3 grams of creatine every day, with about half that amount made by the body. The other half has to come from the diet (or supplementation).

Food sources

Creatine is only found in significant amounts in animal products, primarily meat and fish. There are only extremely trace amounts of creatine in eggs, dairy products, and vegetables.

Fish

Cooked salmon fillets on a white plate with fresh herbs on top

Herring is actually the richest known source of dietary creatine, at 3-4.5 g/lb. Other fish are also high in creatine. Salmon is a close second, at about 2 g/lb, followed by cod and tuna at lower, but still substantial, levels.

Cooked steak on a wooden cutting board with fresh green leaves and a small white dish of herbs sitting on a white and grey marble surface

Meat

Out of all meats, pork has the most creatine at 2 g/lb. Beef has between 1-2 g/lb, and both chicken and turkey (and other poultry) come in at around 1 g/lb.

Vegetarian

Brown basket filled with eggs on a red and white checkered cloth, a glass jar of milk, and a piece of cheese on a white plate with daisies on top, sitting on top of a wooden table surface

Vegetarian foods like eggs, dairy products, and vegetables do, of course, have many other nutrients necessary for good health!

But, they just aren’t good sources of creatine.

However, (as discussed above), the body uses the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine to manufacture creatine. So, vegetarian foods plentiful in those amino acids can contribute to the body’s daily total creatine availability.

What does creatine do?

Creatine is one of several key substances the body uses to create ATP. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is hugely important because it is the only fuel that powers muscle contraction. Muscle stores of ATP are depleted very quickly (within seconds), so for muscles to be able to continue contracting, ATP must be constantly produced.

Metabolic energy systems

Plasma Ball Illustration

There are 3 different ways ATP synthesis can occur, depending on the demand placed on the muscles.

  • 1. The ATP-phosphocreatine system transfers creatine phosphate to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to create ATP. It is an anaerobic system that provides energy to muscles for up to 30 seconds, for activities requiring quick bursts of power and speed (such as HIIT and weight lifting). This is where creatine comes in!
  • 2. The Rapid Glycolysis (Lactic Acid System) works by using carbohydrates stored in muscles as glycogen for fuel. This produces lactic acid, which leads to anaerobic glycolysis. This pathway provides fuel for about 2 minutes of high-energy bursts, such as sprints or weight lifting. Under aerobic conditions, lactic acid is converted into pyruvic acid, which then creates ATP for energy.
  • 3. The Aerobic Oxidation System uses carbohydrates, fats, and small amounts of protein to make ATP. This process is called oxidative phosphorylation, which kicks in after about 3 minutes of continuous activity. This pathway continues until available fuel and oxygen run out. The body uses this aerobic system for longer, lower-intensity activities.

What is ATP, and why is it so important?

ATP is necessary for muscle contraction, but it does even more than that! It is a critical element of fuel production inside every cell of the body, and it is also a neurotransmitter (a chemical “messenger” between cells and systems).

To dig even deeper, here is an interesting discussion about ATP and its dual role as an essential cellular energy source/neurotransmitter. The article was originally published in Scientific American in Dec 2009.

What are the benefits of creatine for women?

Anonymous view of two women in sports attire sitting down on the ground after training, with orange water bottle

Over the years, the majority of studies of creatine supplementation have been on men. But, the good news is that there have also been studies with females, showing that creatine is just as beneficial for women, as it is for men!

Extensive research on creatine has proven it is an effective and safe supplement for increasing athletic strength and power. There are also benefits to taking creatine that go beyond athletic performance.

A woman’s body has lower creatine stores than a man’s (about 70-80% less). Women also typically consume much lower amounts of creatine-rich foods. Therefore, studies have suggested that creatine can have many metabolic, hormonal, and neurological benefits for women.

Let’s take a look at how creatine can help women to be happier and healthier at all life stages.

Strength, performance, & muscle mass

Creatine by itself won’t improve muscular strength. However, when paired with consistent athletic training, it can boost a woman’s ability to build lean muscle and improve strength and power.

This study found that supplementing with creatine, along with resistance training, yielded results over and above just training alone. Creatine increases ATP in the muscles, creating more energy for higher training intensity. It also provides enhanced recovery between training sessions, allowing for more frequent training, resulting in more overall training volume.

This same study also highlights the positive effects of creatine for menopausal women. Estrogen loss is a big factor in age-related decrease in muscle and bone mass. Creatine supplementation can counteract this by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and also by increasing protein synthesis, and muscle response to resistance training.

Another study on females found that compared with a placebo group, long-term creatine use resulted in an increase of up to 25% in strength and exercise capacity. It also found fat-free muscle mass was increased by 60% during the creatine supplementation period.

What is protein synthesis? In simple terms, it is the process by which the cells of our body construct protein from a variety of individual amino acids.

Read here for a super-geeky (but very interesting!) article detailing the process of protein synthesis.

How does creatine increase muscle mass?

Creatine’s ability to increase muscle mass seems to rely on several factors.

1. The first is that, as previously mentioned, creatine provides an ATP boost to muscle cells, creating more energy. This energy allows the body to perform more intense exercise, with more volume, at a greater frequency.

2. Another effect is that creatine, along with resistance training, decreases myostatin (a protein that inhibits muscle cell growth) while at the same time increasing IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor -1) in the muscles.

3. Since creatine causes water retention in muscle tissue, it results in muscle cell swelling, which is a key stimulus for cell growth. Researchers still aren’t completely sure about this yet, so it is still a hypothesis.

This article, from the Journal of Applied Physiology, states that “Creatine monohydrate (CrM) supplementation during resistance exercise training results in a greater increase in strength and fat-free mass than placebo. Whether this is solely due to an increase in intracellular water or whether there may be alterations in protein turnover is not clear at this point “, (emphasis added).

Recovery

Another one of the benefits of creatine is that it can help with exercise recovery, both during and post-workout.

During a workout, high levels of creatine in the muscles increase ATP, making energy available to fuel repeated rounds of high-intensity work. Not only does creatine assist in performing the actual activity, but ATP is quickly re-synthesized so that the muscles recover, and can move on to the next round at full power.

Post-workout, it’s very common to have muscle soreness (especially after very intense training). This is due to the inflammatory response caused by minute muscle damage (“micro-tears”). This is a good thing, though! It is how muscles become bigger and stronger when pushed slightly beyond their limit, and then rebuilt during the recovery phase.

Studies have shown that creatine can reduce post-exercise inflammation, thereby reducing muscle soreness after hard workouts.

Remember that recovery is just as important as exercise when it comes to building muscle. So, while creatine can be helpful in reducing post-exercise soreness, it is crucial to be sure you are attending to other aspects of muscle recovery.

In addition to taking creatine, your daily routine should also include:

  • making sure to get enough restful sleep
  • eating good-quality, unprocessed food
  • doing stretching and mobility exercises

Along with creatine, your daily recovery routine will maximize muscle growth and strength, and all the other benefits of regular exercise!

Nervous system health

Image of brain on blue glowing background

So far, we’ve learned about the many benefits of creatine in the fitness realm. But did you know that creatine is also being studied for its positive influence on the nervous system?

Much of the research in the past several decades has been dedicated to studying creatine’s effect on sports performance and body composition. Researchers are now focusing on the benefits of creatine supplementation on brain and nervous system health.

Creatine & the brain

Of all the organs, the brain is the most energy-demanding. In fact, one-half of the body’s glucose supply is used by the brain for fuel.

We know from our earlier discussion that the brain stores 5% of the body’s creatine (with the other 95% stored in skeletal muscles). So it is logical to think that creatine must be very important for the brain in carrying out its functions.

This article from 2017 discusses the importance of creatine to brain health and functioning. It cites data from previous studies that determined creatine supplementation increases levels of creatine storage in the brain. They do admit, however, that the optimal creatine dosage/duration for enhancing brain creatine is not yet known.

What is known is that energy for cognitive function depends on ATP synthesis, in which creatine plays an essential role. Interestingly, they found that creatine is concentrated in areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions.

Benefits

Brain function

In this article, data sourced from various studies determined that creatine supplementation has positive effects on brain function:

  • Reduced mental fatigue
  • Increased IQ test scores
  • Increased reasoning/processing abilities
  • Improved short-term memory

Mood

Research indicates that low levels of creatine in the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of mood disorders.

Studies show that women in particular can benefit from creatine supplementation for the relief of symptoms of depression and anxiety, and also to improve resilience to stress.

It is noted that while creatine supplementation can be a useful adjunct to other treatments for mood disorders (such as talk therapy and/or medication), researchers at this time don’t have enough data to suggest an exact dosage to alleviate symptoms.

In the preliminary studies, however, they did find that symptom relief was usually seen either at higher doses (20 g daily for 4 weeks), or lower doses (5 g daily for at least 8 weeks).

How to take creatine

Side view crop sportswoman sitting on floor with water bottle and resting

Now that you know the many benefits of creatine supplementation, let’s talk about how to take it.

What type to use

As we know, the supplement industry is full of marketing gimmicks! Each brand has reasons why their product is “the best”, and why you should buy it.

There are many different types of creatine (creatine monohydrate, creatine hydrochloride, creatine ethyl ester, and creatine magnesium chelate, to name a few). Supplement companies try to claim that certain types of creatine are “more effective”, but research has shown that this simply is not the case.

The truth is that creatine monohydrate is the most bioavailable, and therefore the most effective form of creatine. Not only that, it is the least expensive type of creatine supplement.

So, to cut to the chase, if you want to see benefits from using creatine, save your money and get creatine monohydrate!

Powder or capsules?

There are 2 ways of taking a creatine supplement: either in powder or capsule form. There are pros and cons to each.

Powder

  • Pros: Creatine powder is absorbed more quickly by the body, and it is much more affordable than capsules
  • Cons: The powder is difficult to dissolve in liquid, requiring frequent stirring or shaking. It isn’t as convenient as capsules (although, if you’re already taking a lot of different capsule supplements, it might be a welcome change!)

Capsules

  • Pros: Capsules can be more convenient since they don’t require any mixing. They’re also easy to bring with you to take later
  • Cons: They are more expensive, as much as 2 to 3 times the cost of powder. They take longer to be absorbed, so not as fast-acting

How to take it

There are 3 ways to take creatine, and it is really up to personal preference.

Dosage

  1. When first starting on creatine, some people like to do a “loading phase“. To load creatine, take 20 g per day for 5-7 days (5 g four times per day). Then take 5 g per day thereafter for maintenance
  2. You can skip the loading phase, and just begin taking 5 g every day from the start
  3. You can cycle on and off of creatine every few weeks

Research shows that options 1 and 2 provide the same effect of raising creatine stores in the muscles. The loading phase just does it faster. This could be appealing, but with higher doses, some people can experience gastrointestinal issues. Although not harmful, this can be uncomfortable.

Cycling on and off of creatine doesn’t seem to be better than the other methods, or necessary.

When to take it

Crop sportswoman checking time on wristwatch

There have been studies on timing, and it appears there might be a small advantage to taking creatine right after a workout. This would probably only apply to the initial saturation phase, though.

On an ongoing basis, it’s not likely to matter much what time of day you take your creatine. The best time to take it is whenever it is most convenient for you!

Side effects and safety

Since the 1990s, over 1000 studies have been done on the effects and safety of creatine. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) reviewed the medical and scientific data and concluded that it is an effective and safe nutritional supplement.

Having said that, there are some anecdotal reports of a few minor side effects that may occur in some people including:

  • Weight gain from either water retention and/or increased muscle mass. Creatine draws water into muscle cells, giving them a fuller look. It also helps to increase muscle mass, which is one of its main benefits. I personally haven’t experienced water retention, but if this is a concern, drinking plenty of water will flush the body of any excess water in the tissues. As far as muscle mass gain, women won’t become Hulk-like without taking anabolic steroids! We want to increase our muscle mass, so this is generally a benefit and not a problem.
  • Digestive upset can sometimes be a side effect of creatine, but this is usually only when taken at higher doses all at once (such as 10 g, rather than 5 g taken at different times of the day). Also, being sure to drink plenty of water when taking creatine can prevent gastrointestinal discomfort.

The previously cited ISSN report concluded that any serious side effects (such as high blood pressure, kidney damage, or liver dysfunction ) generally only occurred in those taking creatine at extremely high doses, for a long time.

At the recommended dosage most people take, there is very little (if any) risk of serious side effects.

Conclusion

Maybe you have wondered if you should consider taking creatine. Hopefully, this post has answered any questions you might have had.

As one of the most-studied fitness supplements out there, creatine is:

  • Very effective for increasing fitness gains in both men and women
  • Safe (when taken at recommended doses)
  • Inexpensive (especially compared to other less-studied supplements, with unproven track records)

Feel free to ask any questions or make a comment below.

Have you used creatine? If so, what has been your experience?

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