Creatine is a natural compound produced in your body from amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
You can also consume creatine from a couple of different sources. It’s found naturally in animal proteins, especially beef and fish. It’s also sold as a dietary supplement, offering a convenient and inexpensive way to increase your intake.
As one of the most studied supplements, creatine has been shown to provide several benefits for sports performance and health. However, its use has generated several concerns.
This article discusses the benefits and potential drawbacks of taking a creatine supplement and explains how to take it safely.
Benefits of creatine
Creatine is one of the most popular and effective supplements for enhancing exercise performance.
It has also been studied for its other potential health benefits, such as healthy aging and improved brain function.
Creatine may increase muscle size and strength
Taking a creatine supplement gives your muscles extra fuel, allowing you to exercise harder for longer.
This extra energy has been shown to increase muscle size, strength, and power. It may also reduce muscle fatigue and enhance recovery.
For example, taking this supplement has increased strength, power, and sprint performance by 5–15%.
Creatine is most effective for high-intensity and repetitive sports and activities, such as bodybuilding, combat sports, powerlifting, track and field events, soccer, football, hockey, and track or swim sprints.
Creatine may fight muscle loss in older adults
Creatine may help slow sarcopenia, the progressive loss of muscle strength and function that often occurs naturally with aging.
The condition is estimated to affect 5–13% of community-dwelling adults aged 60 years and older. It has been linked to physical disability, poor quality of life, and an increased risk of death.
Several studies in older adults have found that taking this supplement with weight lifting may benefit muscle health.
A review of studies found that taking creatine supplements helped older adults build more muscle mass.
In the review, participants took creatine supplements and resistance-trained 2–3 times weekly for 7–52 weeks. As a result, they gained 3 pounds (1.4 kg) more lean muscle mass than those who were only weight trained.
Another review in aging adults found similar results, observing that taking creatine may help boost the effects of resistance training compared with doing resistance training alone.
Creatine may improve brain function
Taking a creatine supplement has been shown to increase creatine levels in the brain by 5–15%, which may improve brain functioning. This is thought to occur through increased oxygen delivery and energy supply to the brain.
A review of 6 studies involving 281 healthy people looked at the effects of taking creatine supplements on particular aspects of brain function.
It found that taking 5–20 grams daily for 5 days to 6 weeks may improve short-term memory and intelligence or reasoning.
Some people have suggested that taking these supplements may slow cognitive decline linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. However, research in humans has failed to find any benefits.
Summary: Aside from its benefits for exercise performance, creatine may help older adults maintain their brain health and retain and build muscle mass.
Safety and concerns for creatine
Creatine is the safest and most well-studied supplement. However, there are a couple of concerns surrounding its use.
Suggested read: Creatine: A complete guide to creatine
First, it may cause bloating in high doses. Second, some claim that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but this claim is not backed by scientific evidence.
Is creatine bad for your kidneys?
Creatine’s strong safety profile is commonly overshadowed by media reports claiming it harms your kidneys — a claim without scientific research to back it up.
Studies involving people of different ages have found that taking creatine supplements did not harm kidney health. The studies used 5–40 grams per day for 5 days to 5 years.
The misconception that taking creatine supplements damages your kidneys likely exists because creatine is known to increase creatinine levels above the normal range. Creatinine is a poor marker of kidney damage.
Taking creatine has even been shown to be safe in people consuming high-protein diets, which have also been wrongly linked to kidney damage.
A study in people with type 2 diabetes — which can damage kidneys — found that taking 5 grams of creatine daily for 12 weeks did not impair kidney function.
However, because studies are limited, people with impaired kidney function or kidney disease should always check with their healthcare provider before taking creatine supplements.
Creatine may cause bloating
The most common complaint of taking a creatine supplement is stomach discomfort due to bloating.
This feeling of being bloated, or having a distended stomach, most often occurs when you first start taking this supplement during the creatine-loading phase.
This loading phase entails taking this supplement briefly to saturate your muscle stores. A typical regimen would involve taking 20–25 grams for 5–7 consecutive days.
During the loading phase, creatine also pulls water into your muscle cells, resulting in weight gain. This may cause bloating.
Suggested read: Creatine: Safety, side effects, and what you should know
This bloating does not affect everyone. However, you can take precautions to avoid it by keeping your dose to 10 grams or less per single serving.
Furthermore, you can always split your doses equally throughout the day to avoid taking too much at one time.
The supplement is also linked to other stomach complaints, such as diarrhea and general upset. As with bloating, you can reduce your risk of developing these symptoms by limiting your doses to 10 grams or less.
Summary: Studies have found that taking a creatine supplement does not harm kidney function in healthy people. Creatine may cause bloating or stomach discomfort if you take too much at once.
How to take creatine
Creatine supplements usually come in powder form. You can drink it by mixing the powder with water or juice. Take it whenever it’s convenient for you — timing isn’t important.
There are two dosing regimens you can follow when taking creatine.
The first option, called creatine loading, involves taking 20–25 grams split into 4–5 equal doses over 5–7 days. After you’ve finished the loading phase, take 3–5 grams per day to maintain your muscle stores of the compound.
The second option is to skip the loading phase and start with the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams daily.
Both options are equally effective, but following the loading protocol will allow you to experience the supplement’s benefits four times faster.
While there are several types on the market, creatine monohydrate is your best option. Other types include buffered creatine, creatine hydrochloride, and creatine nitrate.
Creatine monohydrate is the best-studied and most effective form of this supplement.
Summary: You can take a loading dose of creatine followed by a maintenance dose or take the maintenance dose. Both strategies are equally effective.
Creatine is a popular sports nutrition supplement that can enhance exercise performance and recovery.
It has also been shown to promote healthy muscle aging and improve brain function.
This supplement’s most commonly reported side effects are bloating and stomach discomfort. Limiting your dose to 10 grams or less in a single serving can prevent these side effects.
Taking creatine supplements is otherwise safe and healthy for most people.