Creatine is one of the most popular sports supplements on the market.
It’s primarily used to increase muscle size, strength, and power. It may also have other health benefits related to aging and brain function.
However, as the mantra goes, more is not necessarily better.
This article details creatine’s health benefits, side effects, and dosage information.
What is creatine?
Your body naturally produces creatine in your kidneys, liver, and pancreas. It’s made from three amino acids — glycine, arginine, and methionine.
On average, you make 1–2 grams of creatine daily, which is stored primarily in your skeletal muscles.
The compound is also found in food, predominantly animal products like beef, chicken, pork, and fish. A typical omnivorous diet provides 1–2 grams of creatine per day.
Compared to people who include meat in their diets, vegetarians have lower levels of the compound stored in their skeletal muscles.
Aside from being naturally found in many foods, creatine is available in supplement form.
Although several forms of these supplements are available, creatine monohydrate is the most well-studied, effective, and inexpensive form.
Summary: Creatine is naturally made by your body and can be obtained through your diet from animal products. Creatine monohydrate is the best supplement form.
Benefits of creatine
Creatine is widely recognized for its ability to enhance athletic performance.
However, research has recently suggested that the potential benefits of these supplements may expand beyond athletic performance to encourage healthy aging and benefit brain health.
Creatine replenishes your body’s stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — a molecule that stores energy and fuels your cells — to provide energy to your muscles.
This increased available energy has been shown to boost muscle size, strength, and power.
Studies have shown that creatine supplements can increase markers of athletic performance, including muscle power and strength, by 5–15%.
Research suggests that taking creatine supplements may help keep your muscles and bones healthy as you age.
One 10-week study showed that men aged 59–77 who were supplemented with 5 mg/pound (10 mg/kg) of creatine and 14 mg/pound (30 mg/kg) of protein significantly grew upper body muscle mass and reduced bone breakdown, compared to those who took a placebo.
What’s more, a review of studies in 405 older adults found greater improvements in muscle mass and strength in those who supplemented with 5–22 grams of creatine combined with resistance training compared to those who did resistance training alone.
Creatine supplements have been shown to increase creatine levels in the brain by nearly 10%, which may promote brain health.
It’s thought that taking these supplements enhances brain function by improving the energy supply to the brain and providing cellular protection.
In one study, people supplemented with 8 grams of creatine per day for five days reduced mental fatigue during mathematical calculations compared to those taking a placebo.
Similarly, a review of 6 studies found that doses of 5–20 grams of the compound may improve short-term memory and intelligence in healthy people.
Suggested read: 10 health and performance benefits of creatine
Summary: The health benefits of creatine may expand beyond athletic performance into other categories, including healthy aging and brain health.
Dosing strategies for creatine
Creatine powder is typically mixed with water or juice and taken before or after workouts.
You can supplement with creatine in one of two ways.
1. Creatine loading
The standard way to take the supplement is through what’s known as creatine loading.
Creatine loading involves taking 20–25 grams of creatine, split into 4–5 equal doses for 5–7 days.
Following loading, 3–5 grams (14 mg/pound or 30 mg/kg) per day is necessary to maintain your muscle stores of creatine.
The purpose of loading is to saturate your muscle cells with creatine quicker to experience its benefits sooner. To experience the effects of creatine, your muscles must be fully saturated with it, typically taking 5–7 days of loading.
2. Maintenance dose
Skipping the loading phase and taking the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams daily is the other way to supplement with creatine.
This method is just as effective as creatine loading, but it takes much longer — typically 28 days — to experience the same benefits.
Compared to the loading method, taking the maintenance dose over a longer time may be more convenient since it involves just one dose per day rather than 4–5 daily doses.
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Summary: You can supplement with creatine in two ways. You can follow a loading protocol followed by a maintenance dose or skip the loading phase and take the maintenance dose for longer.
Is creatine safe?
Creatine is a safe, well-studied supplement.
Studies have shown no detrimental health effects of taking creatine supplements in doses up to 4–20 grams daily for ten months to 5 years.
That said, it’s commonly thought that taking these supplements may harm kidney health.
However, in a study in people with type 2 diabetes, a condition that may impair kidney function, supplementing with 5 grams of creatine per day for 12 weeks did not harm kidney health.
Nonetheless, long-term studies on people with kidney disease are lacking. People with impaired kidney function or those taking medications should check with their healthcare provider before supplementing with creatine to ensure safety.
While creatine is considered a safe supplement, consider that you may experience side effects related to overconsumption.
Summary: Creatine has a strong safety profile and is unlikely to cause side effects when used in recommended amounts.
Side effects of taking too much creatine
Despite the strong safety profile of creatine, taking larger than recommended doses isn’t necessary and may result in minor side effects.
Creatine loading can significantly gain body weight due to increased muscle mass and water intake into your muscles. While harmless, this increase in body weight may cause bloating.
For example, one study found that taking creatine supplements for 28 days, which also included a loading phase, increased participants’ body weights by 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg), on average. This weight gain accounted for both muscle growth and water retention.
While not everyone experiences bloating when taking the supplements, you may be able to reduce it by skipping the loading phase and taking the maintenance dose of 3–5 grams per day instead.
Taking too much creatine at one time can result in stomach discomfort.
For example, in one study, athletes supplemented with 10 grams of creatine in a single serving experienced diarrhea, stomach upset, and belching. Those who supplemented with a 2–5-gram single dose did not report the same side effects.
Following the loading protocol, you can avoid these side effects by taking 20–25 grams of creatine split into 4–5 equal doses throughout the day.
Taking too much creatine is futile
Taking too much creatine at one time can result in stomach discomfort and bloating, and it’s a waste of money.
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After your muscles are thoroughly saturated with creatine, taking 3–5 grams (14 mg/pound or 30 mg/kg) daily is recommended to maintain optimal muscle stores.
Because this amount is enough to keep your muscle stores of creatine saturated, taking more than the recommended maintenance dose will cause you to excrete the excess creatine through your urine, as your body can only store so much.
Summary: Although creatine is one of the safest sports supplements available, taking too much is wasteful and may cause bloating and stomach discomfort.
Creatine is a popular sports supplement that’s taken primarily for its ability to improve athletic performance.
Studies have also investigated creatine for other potential health benefits related to aging and brain function.
While taking creatine supplements poses little risk, taking too much, especially during the loading phase, is unnecessary and may cause side effects like bloating and stomach discomfort.