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Taking Creatine To Grow Your Muscles? You Might Be Growing Your Lifespan Too

Posted on 28 July 2023

Creatine is a popular dietary supplement for enhancing muscle performance and growth. Yet research shows that creatine might do much more than that – in fact, creatine may even slow some aspects of the ageing process. Want to know how? Read on.

What is creatine?

Muscle tissue uses a lot of energy. In fact, muscle tissue accounts for about 25% of the body’s energy expenditure, and that’s when you aren’t doing any exercise at all. In biology, ‘energy’ comes in the form of chemical bonds, specifically those in a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s universal fuel source. ATP is manufactured within the tiny power plants called mitochondria. But when you’re exercising, your muscles burn through a lot of ATP – so much that the mitochondria can’t keep up. That’s why we’ve evolved a system to shore up ATP production in times of need: creatine.

Energy is stored in the bond between phosphate and the rest of the ATP molecule, but this bond is unstable. Creatine allows this energy to be stored in a more stable bond by accepting a phosphate group and becoming phosphocreatine. When needed, stored phosphate can be used to regenerate ATP. Since mitochondria already ‘did the work’ to generate this ATP, this allows a cell to expend energy at a more rapid pace than the mitochondria could sustain by themselves.

Creatine is a chemical within muscle tissue that stores ATP by proxy. ATP itself is too unstable to be stored, so the mitochondria can’t just work harder to build up a reserve of ATP while the muscles are at rest. Instead, creatine stores an essential component of the ATP molecule – phosphate. After all of the ATP in the muscle is depleted, this stored phosphate can be used to rapidly generate more ATP, allowing the muscle to continue to function at full capacity for a short time. After this phosphate is depleted, a process called anaerobic respiration is responsible for producing most of the ATP the muscle will use. Anaerobic respiration can sustain muscle activity for much longer, but is inefficient and also produces lactic acid as waste, both of which limit how well the muscle can work.

All of this makes creatine very helpful for short bursts of high-intensity exercise such as sprinting or weightlifting, but not so useful for longer duration exercise in which anaerobic respiration will occur.

How creatine supplementation helps muscle

The main way creatine supplementation helps keep muscles healthy is pretty straightforward – it increases the amount of phosphate that can be stored and allows muscles to exercise harder and for longer before becoming exhausted. Resistance training is a powerful strategy for slowing muscular ageing, and research shows that people who take creatine gain more muscle strength from resistance training than those who do resistance training alone.

Average power during bench press reps before (white) and after (black) taking placebo or creatine (left and right graphs respectively). Most of the benefits of creatine are probably due to the ability to train harder.
Effects of creatine supplementation on muscle power, endurance, and sprint performance

That’s not all, though: evidence suggests that creatine also benefits the muscle through several other mechanisms. For example, it seems to directly enhance muscle growth by boosting growth factors and protein synthesis. Don’t think you can get away with taking creatine instead of exercising, though. While these mechanisms imply that creatine could benefit the muscles of sedentary people slightly, resistance training is necessary to receive the vast majority of the benefits, and remains the most effective way of maintaining muscle strength into old age.

Other benefits of creatine

While most people take creatine to enhance their muscle performance, research suggests that creatine supplementation can have much wider benefits for health and longevity:

Creatine can enhance bone density. Again, this is mostly related to resistance training, but may also be related to direct effects of creatine on the  activity of osteoblasts and osteoclasts – the cells that deposit and remove bone tissue.

Creatine can enhance cognitive performance in healthy individuals. More research is still needed to understand the nature of these benefits and their mechanisms. While 90% of creatine in the body is found within muscle tissue, the brain is another very active organ that uses creatine to boost ATP production in times of need. There are probably other mechanisms involved as well.

Creatine may protect your mitochondria from damage. Mitochondrial dysfunction is one of the hallmarks of ageing – a progressive decline in mitochondrial health that leads to poor ATP production, DNA damage, inflammation and more. There’s some early evidence from animal models that creatine may protect mitochondria, though it’s not clear exactly how.

Creatine may lower various molecular markers of ageing, such as inflammatory molecules, markers of whole-body protein breakdown, and lipofuscin, an ‘ageing pigment’ that clogs up your cells’ waste disposal machinery. It’s still not clear how many of these benefits are dependent on resistance training.

Creatine is a very safe supplement that is likely to benefit you if you are doing resistance training, and might even help you if you aren’t (though you really should be). While the strongest evidence for creatine’s benefits relate to its benefits on physical performance, there’s mounting evidence that the effects of creatine extend beyond muscle tissue, perhaps even influencing some of the fundamental ageing processes themselves. We still need much more human research to figure out exactly what’s going on with this supplement, though. 

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    Title image by howtogym, Upslash

    Creatine supplementation and aging musculoskeletal health

    Creatine Supplementation and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism for Building Muscle Mass- Review of the Potential Mechanisms of Action

    Creatine supplementation and aging musculoskeletal health

    Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials

    Role of Creatine Supplementation in Conditions Involving Mitochondrial Dysfunction: A Narrative Review

    Effectiveness of Creatine Supplementation on Aging Muscle and Bone: Focus on Falls Prevention and Inflammation

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