Creatine is one of the most popular dietary supplements on the market.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts often use it to improve muscle size, strength, power, and performance.
Though creatine has a strong safety profile, some users experience bloating in the beginning stages of supplementing with it — also known as the loading phase.
This article explains what causes creatine bloating and the steps to avoid it.
What is creatine?
Amino acids are compounds required for essential functions — including building your muscles. Creatine is a substance that your body produces naturally from the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine.
On average, your liver, kidneys, and pancreas make 1–2 grams daily, stored mostly in skeletal muscles.
It can also come from animal-based foods — primarily meats and fish — and supplements.
Creatine is best known for enhancing exercise performance by providing energy to your muscles. Still, it has also been studied for its role in other health benefits, such as promoting healthy aging and brain function.
However, to experience potential benefits, you would need to consume large amounts of meat and fish to obtain enough creatine, making supplements a more efficient and cost-effective way to increase levels.
How it works
Creatine replenishes adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which carries energy in your body’s cells.
With high-intensity, short-duration activities like weight lifting or sprinting, your body uses what’s known as the creatine phosphate system.
This system rapidly replenishes your body’s ATP stores by using creatine to provide energy to your muscles.
But because your natural stores are limited, they’re quickly used up during high-intensity activity.
Supplementing with creatine increases its concentration in your muscles — providing more energy to power ATP.
This can translate to improvements in the overall quality of training. For example, research shows that supplementing with 20 grams of creatine daily for 5–7 days can lead to a 5–15% increase in strength and athletic performance.
As a result, it’s a popular supplement among athletes and workout enthusiasts.
Summary: Your body naturally produces creatine from amino acids. Creatine replenishes your body’s ATP stores to provide energy to your muscles.
Creatine loading phase and bloating
Creatine bloating is a phenomenon that most often occurs during the loading phase when supplementing with creatine.
The loading phase consists of taking 20–25 grams of creatine for 5–7 consecutive days.
Following the loading phase, a maintenance dose of 3–5 grams or 0.01 grams per pound (0.03 grams per kg) of body weight per day thereafter is necessary to maintain optimal muscle stores.
However, during the loading phase, body weight tends to increase due to an increase in both muscle mass and water intake into your muscles, which may cause bloating.
Many studies find that the loading phase can result in a significant gain in total body water.
For example, a study of 13 athletes observed that supplementing with 0.01 grams per pound (0.3 grams per kg) of body weight per day for 7 days led to a significant increase in total body water of 2.3 pounds (1 kg).
On average, you may expect to gain 1–2% of body mass during the loading phase — partially water weight.
Still, increases in total body water due to supplementing with creatine is short-term and typically resolves a few weeks after the loading phase.
Suggested read: Creatine: A complete guide to creatine
While not everyone experiences bloating, you may be able to limit or avoid it by skipping the loading phase altogether and taking the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams per day.
When to take creatine
The purpose of the loading phase is to saturate your muscles with creatine so you can experience its benefits sooner.
This is because the supplement has no immediate effect on exercise performance. Only once your muscles are fully saturated do you experience a difference.
The time it takes to notice full benefits typically takes 5–7 days of loading.
Therefore, the time you take creatine — whether around workouts, in the morning, or at night — isn’t important as long as you remember to take it daily.
You can skip the loading phase and take the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams daily.
Doing so may help limit bloating often associated with the high doses taken during the loading phase.
This is just as effective as loading, but it will take longer for you to experience benefits — typically 3–4 weeks instead of only 1 week with loading.
Studies show that supplementing with low doses over longer periods effectively improves athletic performance and muscle power output without causing the rapid weight gain linked to loading.
A study of 19 male athletes demonstrated that supplementing with 0.01 grams per pound (0.03 grams per kg) of body weight per day for 14 days significantly increased muscle power output compared to a placebo.
What’s more, the athletes showed no significant increase in body weight.
Summary: Taking the maintenance dose of creatine instead of loading may help you avoid rapid fluid gain and bloating.
The best creatine supplement form
You may wonder which is best with the many forms of creatine available. The best-studied and most effective form is creatine monohydrate.
Suggested read: Creatine: Safety, side effects, and what you should know
Marketers of other forms — such as buffered creatine (Kre-Alkalyn), creatine hydrochloride (HCL), or creatine nitrate — claim they’re better absorbed and more efficiently used by your body than creatine monohydrate.
Yet, research shows that the absorption rate of creatine monohydrate is nearly 100%.
Since other forms are marketed as superior to creatine monohydrate, they are much more expensive.
Creatine monohydrate is likely the most economical and effective form on the market.
You can find creatine monohydrate as a powder, either alone or in pre-workouts, which are products you take before your workouts that contain other energizing ingredients like caffeine.
Though creatine monohydrate is often included as an ingredient in pre-workout products, it’s best to buy creatine as a single product so that you can dose it accordingly — especially if you plan on loading.
Mix the powder with water or juice using a spoon to stir. For easier mixing, you can use creatine monohydrate in micronized form.
Micronized creatine is smaller than normal and mixes better with liquids so you won’t have clumps in the bottom of your drink.
Summary: Despite the several forms of creatine on the market, creatine monohydrate is the best-studied and most effective form.
Creatine safety and precautions
Creatine is remarkably safe as a supplement.
Though its strong safety profile has been skewed by media reports claiming that creatine harms your kidneys and causes dehydration, evidence to support these claims is lacking.
Studies involving various people have found no harmful effects on kidney health in doses ranging from 5–20 grams per day for 10 months up to 5 years.
Creatine has also not been shown to cause dehydration or increase its risk — another common misconception — even when used by people exercising in the heat.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the supplement’s short- or long-term use is safe and poses little to no health risk in otherwise healthy people.
Still, people with impaired kidney function or those taking medications should check with their healthcare provider before beginning a creatine routine to ensure safety.
Summary: Creatine has a strong safety profile. It’s been studied in a range of people in high doses for years without any health risks.
Creatine is a popular supplement used to improve exercise and athletic performance.
Creatine bloating may occur during the loading phase — when you take 20–25 grams of creatine for 5–7 days — due to increased muscle mass and water intake into your muscles.
It may be avoided by skipping the loading phase and taking the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams daily.
Of the many available forms, creatine monohydrate is the best-studied, safest, and most effective.