Creatine is a nutrient that is naturally found in red meat. It is non-essential, which means that it is created by the body, for the body, in the body. The fact that it is already created in the body is the core reason why you should cycle creatine supplementation.
Creatine and its primary role
Creatine is required for muscle contraction. Therefore, even runners, swimmers and ordinary people use creatine daily. Our bodies use creatine as and when it is needed.
The effect of creatine supplementation
When creatine is ingested in larger doses (i.e. via consumption of creatine pills, powders and liquids bought at supplement stores), it does more than just provide energy. More creatine than usual in your system will have other effects as well. You will experience more power output and muscular endurance during your workouts because your muscles will have more of this primary energy resource to use. Additional creatine also causes water retention in muscle. When creatine is no longer consumed via supplementation, the extra water leaves the muscles. Many people reduce creatine's reputation to something that just fills the muscles with water. This is because it makes the muscles look larger when they are filled with water from the creatine and then makes the muscles look smaller in comparison when the water leaves the muscle. It is true that creatine does this, but its water retention properties are beneficial to muscle growth. This is because the extra water retention in the muscles creates more space for the muscle to grow. Additionally, extra muscle size (from water retention) means that more nutrients can enter the muscle through the blood stream, and waste products are much easier removed. As explained earlier, the extra creatine that is available to muscle because of supplementation means that muscles are able to generate more power for longer periods of time.
So creatine equals higher output, recovery and size. Are there any side effects?
Firstly, creatine causes water retention in the muscles. As discussed, this is a good thing. However, this will lead to increased hydration needs as the body scrambles for water to fill its muscles. Therefore, that you need to make sure that you are drinking enough water when using creatine so that you can have the best effect. If you don't drink enough water when using creatine, there will be a water shortfall. Your body can either account for this by taking water away from the muscles (which could lead to muscle break down) or from other organs in the body (like the brain, leading to headaches. Decreased water flow can also affect the kidneys). A good rule of thumb is to make sure that you never get thirsty when using creatine. If you are thirsty, chances are that you are already in a water shortfall (especially when using creatine).
Creatine in its pure supplement form (creatine monohydrate) can also cause water retention in the gut when it is ingested. This varies from person to person, though, which is why different people react differently to different types of creatine. Some people can experience diarrhea or nausea from creatine monohydrate when others don't have any problems at all. Also, some people have better effects with creatine HCL than with creatine ethyl ester, and for some it's the other way around.
If you want to find out more about the popular forms of creatine available and their differences, read all about creatine and its different forms.
Creatine is rumored to damage kidneys; however studies on the subject have shown conflicting findings. My personal opinion is that it will not damage your kidneys, as long as you stay optimally hydrated (that means no alcohol while using creatine, up to one week after using it), and as long as you have no pre-existing kidney complications.
If you stay well hydrated and use creatine at the right doses, creatine is beneficial to muscle growth without being dangerous. It that is the case, then why cycle creatine instead of using it continually?
The reason why creatine should be cycled is because it is non-essential. Essential nutrients like protein should not be cycled because muscle cannot grow without it. Additionally, essential nutrients need to come from external sources to be used in the body. Creatine, however, is made in the body on its own. Our bodies are efficient at adapting. When creatine is supplemented for a long period of time, the body will slow down the production of its own creatine, since it is already getting so much of it elsewhere. Secondly, the body will start to build up a resistance to the extra creatine, meaning that it will take more creatine to achieve the same effect as it did previously. Thirdly, muscle can develop a dependence on the increased use of creatine over time. This will mean they will need an ever-increasing, constant flow of new creatine to maintain output and growth. People who have supplemented with creatine for too long and then stop might find decreases in size and strength before their bodies re-adapt and are able to grow again without using it.
That last bit sounds risky. Should I supplement with creatine at all or rather not take the risk?
The potential benefits of increased size, power and recovery are great, and the risk of decreased sensitivity, increased dependence and decreased production are small in comparison, if used the right way (hydration, dosage, cycling). By using creatine for up to two months, ceasing usage for one month and continuing usage again (a 2-month-on, 1-month-off cycle), you get the benefits without the risks when done correctly. STAY STRONG!