Creatine is a compound that is found exclusively in animal products. As such those on a vegan diet have the option of either going without it, or they can get it via supplements.
Fortunately our bodies do naturally produce Creatine so going without it is not a total disaster. However evidence does suggest that the body isn’t capable of producing quite enough on it’s own. This means those on a vegan/vegetarian diet are likely running at a deficit.
Read on to find out what this means in terms of performance & health, what the evidence says, if there are any health risks, and to find the best supplements for vegans.
What does the body use Creatine for? Is it essential?
Creatine is a compound created naturally by all vertebrates. It is ubiquitous in the human body and actually makes up around 1% of the total volume our blood. It’s used by parts of the body that require high energy demands, such as skeletal muscle and the brain. That’s right, the brain. Which means it’s important to all of us – not just bulging body builders looking for that extra pound of muscle.
To quickly summarise the role Creatine plays in the body, it helps in the production/recycling of ATP; which you can think of as the gasoline that powers our cells. Cells are found in both muscle tissue and the brain (duh!) which is why it’s important to both . If you’re interested you can read more on Wikipedia.
As mentioned previously, the human body produces most of the Creatine it needs naturally through a process called synthesis. In total the body needs around 1-3g per day for normal function. Half of this is synthesised naturally and the rest needs to come from the diet.
Does this mean all vegans are suffering from creatine deficiency?
Yes, mostly. And it’s not just vegans. Since creatine is found exclusively in meat, Vegetarians are also likely to be deficient.
As mentioned previously though, the body does produce it’s own creatine. Just not enough of it. As such the levels are likely to be on the low end of normal, rather than at some hazardous level.
What happens when the body has low Creatine levels?
Since Creatine has a positive impact on ATP levels – which are known to improve cognition – it’s reasonable to assume that low levels may result in reduced cognition/brain function as well as athletic performance. Additionally there are various conditions associated with Creatine deficiency, such as:
Additionally there are various conditions associated with Creatine deficiency, such as:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Muscular atrophy
The list could go on, but that’s probably alarming enough already. It’s important to reiterate here that the body does produce it’s own Creatine. And since the majority of vegans appear to be healthy enough, it’s likely that for most of us, the body produces enough to avoid these issues. If you are suffering from any of the above though, supplementation seems worthy of investigation.
It’s worth noting that similar levels of Creatine have been observed in the brain of both Vegetarians and Omnivores. Possibly suggesting that when Creatine levels are low, the brain takes priority and that only muscle tissue will be running at a significant deficit – which is presumably favourable to the alternative.
To summarise, running at a deficit appears to be associated with a range of negative conditions. It does seem likely that the onset of these conditions would require a significant deficit however. Since the body can synthesise it’s own Creatine, this is probably uncommon.
Those running a minor deficit are more likely to encounter minor/vague health issues – such as mild depression, reduced athletic performance or minor cognitive impairment. For those people, or for vegans/vegetarians suffering any vague/detrimental symptoms, supplementing creatine certainly seems worth consideration.
Are there any direct benefits to ensuring healthy levels of Creatine?
Looking at the evidence it appears the answer is yes. In order of what seems to be most significant:
- Better brain function – there are studies in which a positive impact on working memory and intelligence were observed.
- Alleviating depression/anxiety – “Treatment with creatine supplementation combined with exercise significantly decreased depressive behaviors” (goto study).
- Combating frailty in the elderly – “creatine supplementation appears to mediate other physiological and molecular responses in the skeletal muscle that could be advantageous to older individuals” (goto study).
- Minor improvements in Fibromyalgia – “Creatine supplementation … improved lower- and upper-body muscle function, with minor changes in other fibromyalgia features” (goto study).
- Increased muscle mass – 43 out of 67 studies showed that creatine supplementation led to increased lean and/or body mass in young and middle-aged adults (goto study).
So, the evidence does appear to suggest that there are health benefits to getting enough dietary Creatine. For vegans however, getting it from external sources does mean Supplementation which comes with it’s own set of potential side effects and risks.
Are there any risks to using supplements?
The main problem with supplements (of all forms) is the lack of regulation/scrutiny. More specifically, supplements are rarely subjected to the same kind of scrutiny that medicine is. This is due to the fact that a lot of countries classify supplements as foods.
As such, the claims made by supplement manufacturers go untested. In some cases the products contain very little/none of the active ingredient, in other cases they contain such high concentrations that they are harmful to the body & more worrying is the allegation that some contain heavy metals.
With all of this in mind, our advice is to avoid supplements wherever possible. Unfortunately, for vegans, avoiding Creatine is as bad an option as taking it. It’s a case of picking your poison.
The main saving grace of Creatine is the sheer amount of studies it’s been subject to over the years. There are both long and short term studies which seem to indicate that it’s generally not harmful. If you do choose to go ahead with supplementation, we suggest:
- Buying Creatine monohydrate (CM) – as it’s the most studied, meaning it’s efficacy and safety are better known.
- Buying high purity Creatine.
- Avoiding mixed products – stick to Creatine monohydrate exclusively, unless you’re familiar with the mixer.
If you’re looking for specific product recommendations, stay tuned. We’ve added some to the end of the article.
How should I take Creatine? Is there anything to be aware of?
If you do choose to use Creatine, you should be aware that are some (seemingly unsubstantiated) claims that it has an adverse affect on health. And while unsubstantiated, we do believe it’s important to know all of the facts so that you can make an informed decision.
Before we get started with all of that though, I feel it important to mention this study, carried out by leading researchers, which concludes that even long term, regular use has no adverse affects.
What’s more, the subjects of Creatine studies are commonly taking around 5g per day, with occasional days of heavy use (upto 15g). To get the health benefits of Creatine we only suggest supplementing 1-3g per day. And if 5g per day appears to be safe, then it seems logical to assume that taking less would be safer still.
Hopefully knowing that allows you to read the coming paragraphs with a balanced mind.
There are claims that Creatine can lead to dehydration, which appears to be asserted with little evidence. It is true that Creatine encourages the body to store more water into muscle cells however, so there may be some truth to this. As a precaution, we don’t recommended taking Creatine late at night or at times when water is not available. Instead, take it early in the day and ensure you get enough water throughout.
It appears to be a common complaint that creatine causes muscle cramps. Having reviewed a number of these complaints, it seems the complainant is taking large doses so perhaps that is the cause. There certainly appears to be no science indicating an issue with muscle cramping & I can attest that I’ve had no issues with my own personal usage. It’s possible that this comes down to each individual though.
Let’s start with this: research suggests that Creatine does not negatively impact kidney function. This has been shown in many studies over a long period of time (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
You should know however, that Creatine is known to raise levels of Creatinine in the blood. And Creatinine is a bio-marker often used to detect kidney issues. To the untrained eye this might lead to the conclusion that Creatine does in fact lead to kidney issues. As with all things related to the body though, it’s rarely that simple.
In essence, this can be boiled down to two things:
- When trying to identify kidney issues, doctors are not necessarily worried about the volume of Creatinine in the blood (within reason), but rather the rate at which the kidneys are filtering it.
- The level of Creatinine in the blood is proportionate to the amount of Creatine in the body.
In other words, it’s possible that the kidneys are filtering out the expected levels of Creatinine, but because there’s more of it, levels in the blood are still elevated.
With that said, airing on the side of caution is always recommended. If you begin supplementation, be sure to check with your doctor first & be sure to have blood taken after an initial period of a month or two. If you have kidney issues already, avoid using the supplement or at least consult a doctor beforehand.
- Don’t take too much – around 1-3g per day should be fine. Remember that you body produces it’s own. You only need to add a little extra to the diet.
- Take regular breaks – try to supplement daily for two weeks and then have a break for a week. Or maybe take it every other day, rather than daily. Again, this is simply airing on the side of caution.
- Don’t take it late at night – try to supplement throughout the day so that you can stay hydrated.
- Supplement before a workout – Creatine is known to give an energy boost, so if you workout, take it beforehand.
- Focus on purity – when purchasing Creatine. Look for 100%.
Is all Creatine vegan?
No, not all Creatine is vegan. There are two methods of production, the first is extraction from animal products and the second is lab based.
As a vegan, you’ll obviously want to look for lab produced Creatine – which most of it is. Unfortunately, not all products will be plainly labelled so you’ll have to do a bit of research.
Try to look for products that are plainly labelled as Vegan friendly. Where that fails look for products labelled with the phrase ‘synthetic’. This generally means it’s been produced in a lab.
Creatine is essential to our body. It’s used by the brain and by muscle tissue as an energy source. Unfortunately, the vegan diet is devoid of Creatine and although the body produces it’s own, without dietary input, one will be running at a deficit.
Creatine is widely used, and although there’s a lot of controversy, there is very little evidence backing up any claims it has an adverse affect on the body. In fact, there is a lot of evidence suggesting it positively affects the body.
Even so, it’s best to be cautious whenever taking supplements & although we advise taking Creatine, we advise doing so with care.