Creatine and Caffeine…The Forbidden Combination?
The creatine and caffeine issue has been discussed pretty extensively in both the athletic and scientific communities. However, most people don't even know why such a debate exists. What exactly is the concern? Well let's talk a little history.
The creatine and caffeine debate started about four years ago when one single scientific study concluded that "caffeine counteracts the effects of a creatine loaded muscle" (1). This statement was shocking because the purpose of the study was to see if the two agents could work together to increase exercise performance, not to see if they would interfere with each other. Researchers and athletes have long known that caffeine and creatine independently improve performance so a combination would be the next logical step.
Creatine works on the phosphocreatine and ATP systems while possibly buffering exercise produced hydrogen protons (acid), while caffeine demonstrates a powerful stimulation for the release of epinephrine. So theoretically, one could take both to gain more of a performance edge. But this study showed that maybe they don't work together. Even further, it showed that maybe they interfere with each other. So if this is the case and caffeine does counteract the effect of a creatine loaded muscle then there is no debate. The answer is to avoid consuming beverages that contain caffeine if you want your money spent on creatine to work for you.
But as usually is the case, things are not so simple. Although some individuals avoid this combination like the plague, we don't think this is necessary. So while you're here, go ahead and grab a cup of coffee. Then add your desired amount of crystals - creatine, not sugar; if you haven't already had your dose for the day. Based on further scientific data and scrutiny, you just might not have to give either one up.
A Study's Only As Good As It's Design
When looking back at the previously mentioned study, some glaring problems are evident. And these problems explain our disbelief of the conclusions. First, the study utilized a crossover design. In a crossover design, one group of lifters first takes creatine and then switches over to placebo a few weeks later. The other group first takes placebo then switches over to creatine a few weeks later. During each treatment performance tests are done. This design is a great one in most cases because researchers don't have to compare two different groups of guys, one group of lifters on creatine vs one group of different lifters on placebo. In this design, the researchers can compare the same athletes (on creatine) to themselves (on placebo) a few weeks later.
Although this is typically a great study design, when a supplement has lasting effects, a long period has to separate the time between treatments. If not, the effects of creatine will still be around when the subjects are on placebo. And that's the problem with this study. In this design, the researchers only allowed 3 weeks between creatine/caffeine and placebo. We know that this is too short of a time between treatments to allow the study participant to "return to normal". Subsequent studies have shown repeatedly that the washout period for creatine supplementation is a minimum of four weeks, it may be even be longer. So one of the take-home messages of this article is that creatine, once loaded into the muscle, takes about 4-6 weeks or more to be eliminated (2). If this is the case, we hope you realize the fact that since performance tests were conducted, the treatments could have affected both testing periods. This is a great way to ensure that the data from a study is meaningless.
Another important factor to consider in all of this is diet. Creatine containing foods, like steak and fish, may provide enough creatine to effectively maintain your initial loading. What we mean here is that after you load up for a week, you may be able to maintain a creatine-loaded state with diet alone. Many of you have heard of "maintenance doses" of creatine that usually consist of around 5 grams per day. These may be unnecessary. Since the combination of a typical non-vegetarian diet and your natural production of creatine provides about 2 grams of creatine per day, you only need an additional 2 or 3 grams per day from food to stay loaded. The research shows that diets high in red meat (1.5 or 2 lbs per day) can provide this (2).But just to be safe, we typically recommend "reloading" every few months however as you may gradually lose that super-loaded state over time.
Getting back to the science of the creatine and caffeine thing, if subjects remain loaded by dietary means, a crossover study may never give good results. Another example of this is evident in another creatine and caffeine study in scientific literature (3). This crossover study also showed no performance differences between groups that took creatine and caffeine together and those on placebo. But again, the washout problem rears its ugly head. This study only utilized a one-week washout period between the subject cross-over. We cannot really gain any information from this study in terms of creatine and caffeine interactions. This short washout again may have allowed the subjects to be creatine loaded throughout the testing even when they were performing as the placebo group.
Although the two studies seem to run counter to our advice to load your coffee up with creatine powder, I hope that you can see that a study is only as good as it's design. In addition, our argument gains some support from the following. In both studies, the loading of muscle with creatine was not hindered by caffeine ingestion. So if the muscle is loaded with creatine, then it should be able to perform like other creatine-loaded muscles or simply put, better. The only limiting factor then in these studies is the design.
One argument that other side proposes to justify their conclusions is that perhaps the coffee caused diuresis (water loss) and that inhibited the performance gain. Since it is well-know that dehydrated muscles perform very poorly and have lower protein synthetic rates than normally hydrated muscle, some have argued that maybe the coffee negated the effects of creatine due to dehydration (4). Since there is no data on this, it is merely speculation. But the most practical answer is as follows. Ask yourself if you find yourself being constantly dehydrated when you consume coffee. If the answer is no, then you know that you are ok on this front.
Although the debate seems pretty even at this point, the real clincher for our side is this. In many prior studies showing that creatine does increase performance and muscle mass, creatine was administered with…you guessed it…good old coffee or tea. Since creatine is very hard to dissolve in regular room temperature beverages, researchers had been giving creatine in warm coffee and tea to ensure dissolution of the powder and to mask the taste. Also this dissolution makes taking creatine orally easier on subjects and their digestive systems. Since there was a demonstrated effect of creatine in these studies, the coffee must not have hindered the effects of the creatine.
Although, we are pretty convinced that coffee will probably not lead to a huge reduction in the effectiveness of creatine supplementation, we have decided to go ahead and do a definitive study. In collaboration with our lab mates and lab director at the University of Western Ontario, we plan to look at the effects of creatine, creatine plus caffeine, creatine plus coffee, and placebo. This study should, uhm, dissolve this debate once and for all. Until then, we won't be kicking Mr Coffee or Mr Creatine out of our lives just yet.