Creatine. We’ve all heard about it in some way or another. But what actually is it? Something to do with exercise, right?

Well yes! It has quite a bit to do with exercise actually! People use creatine as a supplement when they want to get more out of their workout. It’s naturally produced in small amounts within the body (endogenously), mostly in the liver and can also be found in foods like meat and fish.

Creatine is great for giving you an extra boost when you hit the gym. It’s known as a “nitrogenous organic acid” and is made up mainly of three different amino acids. Its main job within the body is to increase the levels of ATP (the body’s normal energy source) in times where lots of energy is needed (like during exercise) where normal levels of ATP levels would be insufficient.

ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate which is a molecule with three phosphate groups stuck onto it. In order for the body to use this molecule for energy, it must have these three phosphate groups. When we use lots of energy, however, the ATP gets used up and loses its phosphate groups, leaving us with ADP – adenosine diphosphate.

Now, in the body, most creatine is found as phosphocreatine. This just means it’s creatine with an extra phosphate group on. Phosphocreatine cleverly donates a phosphate group to ADP so that it then becomes ATP – ready to provide energy for working muscles again!

So when you see people guzzling down those shakes in the gym, they’re increasing their body’s capacity to make more energy, making them work for a longer period of time. It works best in high intensity exercise when you release rapid bursts of energy.

As we said before, creatine is made up of three amino acids: arginine, glycine and methionine. The first step in the two-stage process of creatine production is the combining of arginine and glycine to form guanidinoacetate. In the next step, methionine comes in and adds a methyl group (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) to make creatine. Simple! This process also involves three enzymes with really long complicated names which you really don’t have to remember!

Creatine also has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve. Its “osmotically active” which means it helps draw water into muscle cells during a workout, increasing their size and their ability to make proteins. It’s also been suggested that creatine can reduce the effects of lactic acid build up in the muscles which can be a real pain after you’ve been working hard. Lactic acid build up, as you may well know, is also the cause of a “stitch” during exercise.

Interestingly, creatine is also involved in increasing the ability of the muscles to contract. Muscle contraction requires the action of different filaments and proteins called actin and myosin. This nifty little molecule increases the amount of energy made in the mitochondria of the cell (these are like the cell’s energy factories) to be transported and used by myosin, giving more effective muscle contraction!

Very few incidents of side effects with creatine supplementation have been reported. Those that have report kidney problems and stomach upsets. Clinical trials have shown that there is no strong evidence that creatine causes adverse effects if taken correctly. Problems may occur, however, if too much is consumed (normal dose is around 20g per day depending on experience) or if creatine is taken during or immediately after exercise, or even if it’s not properly dissolved in the drink it’s mixed with. Any kidney problems experienced may be due to pre-existing conditions, suggest clinical trials.

Taking creatine as a supplement may decrease the amount that the body produces naturally, if only by a small amount. However, once supplementation on a regular basis is stopped, the endogenous supply will return to normal. Whilst studies show that creatine is safe over a short period of time, work needs to be done to see if it has any consequences in the long term.

So there you have it! Whether it’s from the diet or as a supplement, this molecular wonder may well help you get the result you want from working up a sweat in the gym!