Last modified on June 23rd, 2023
Creatine is one of the most popular supplements for muscle performance, muscle contraction, improving exercise performance, and fueling workouts like high-intensity resistance training.
Creatine supplementation also has implications for things like brain health and healthy aging, and as we get older, our levels tend to go down.
Taking creatine supplements is common in sports nutrition, and it’s not a banned substance, so it’s something that athletes can do as well.
Below, we go into detail about what creatine helps with in healthy people and otherwise, so you can decide whether long-term creatine supplementation could be right for your health needs.
What Are the Potential Benefits of Taking Creatine Supplements?
A few key points about taking creatine:
- Creatine is the most popular workout and fitness supplement for physical performance
- Studies indicate it helps with strength, exercise, and athletic performance and can increase muscle mass
- Creatine supplementation is widely studied and considered very safe
- There’s some evidence it may be beneficial in other ways, such as for depression and brain health
- Reduces protein breakdown
- Gives your muscles more energy
- Helps treat non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- In the beginning stages of supplementing with creatine, it may cause bloating
What Is Creatine, How Much Is Naturally in the Body, and Why Would I Supplement?
Before you can answer “should I take creatine,” you need to know what it is, how it works, and its benefits.
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic amino acid.
Creatine provides energy to cells throughout your body, specifically muscle cells. The substance naturally occurs in fish and red meat, our body makes it, and we can supplement it.
Along with people who lift weights or are athletes using it, older people often use it to increase their muscle mass.
There’s evidence creatine can help prevent skin aging, muscle and wasting diseases, improve memory and cognitive ability, and help with multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms.
Creatine facts include:
- Athletes often use it to help with high-intensity training
- Taking creatine as a supplement can increase body mass
- There’s ongoing research looking at the possible benefits of creatine for a wide range of conditions, including depression and Parkinson’s disease
- For people with muscular dystrophy, creatine can help with muscle-building
- Researchers are finding creatine can improve memory
- As a supplement, it seems to be incredibly safe at moderate doses
Three amino acids form creatine:
Around 95% of the creatine in our bodies is in skeletal muscle, and five percent is in the brain. Our creatine stores move through the blood, and parts of our body use it, especially those with high energy demands, like the brain.
What Does Creatine Do?
Creatine is used to help your muscles produce energy if you’re lifting heavy or doing high-intensity exercise.
It’s fairly common for bodybuilders to take creatine supplements to improve their strength and performance.
These supplements also support your brain health and quality of life.
Taking creatine might help you do total work or volume in your training sessions, which is a factor in long-term muscle growth. It can raise anabolic hormones, reduce protein breakdown, and lower myostatin levels. High levels of myostatin, a protein, can slow down or block new muscle growth.
The Uses and Benefits
If you’re asking yourself, should I use creatine, the following are some benefits that might convince you that it’s a worthwhile supplement.
- When you take creatine before high-intensity exercise, your muscles can produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP.) ATP is the energy source your body primarily uses for high-intensity workouts and weightlifting.
- Creatine supplements can help you do more work in a single training session, facilitating long-term muscle growth.
- When you take it as a supplement, creatine can increase cell signaling. Increased cellular signaling helps with new muscle growth and muscle repair.
- These supplements can increase the water content in your muscle cells, which helps with muscle growth when combined with physical activity like resistance training.
- Taking it in supplement form can reduce muscle breakdown and increase muscle mass.
While you may already know something about the benefits and effects of creatine supplementation on your muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance, you might be less familiar with the brain and cognitive effects.
Your brain requires a lot of ATP for optimal functionality, like your muscles. Research finds that supplementing with creatine can help with various brain and cognitive-related conditions. These include brain and memory function in older people, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and ischemic stroke.
Supplementation with creatine may benefit traumatic brain injury recovery.
It’s also helpful to consider supplementing with creatine if you’re a vegetarian. Many people on a vegetarian diet have low levels of creatine stores because they don’t get it from meat, our primary dietary source.
In one study with vegetarian participants, supplementing led to a 50% improvement in memory tests and a 20% improvement in intelligence tests.
Other benefits that researchers look at include lowering blood sugar levels, improving muscle function and quality of life in older people, and aiding in treating non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
In multiple studies, researchers have identified evidence creatine supplements can improve mental performance, especially among the elderly.
There are also a couple of different studies showing creatine can help with symptoms of depression, particularly when combined with an antidepressant prescription drug.
We talk a little more about creatine’s brain benefits below.
We link creatine with muscle growth, and it is a workout supplement so much that we tend to forget its other benefits.
Supplementing with creatine can support your brain health.
After our muscles, our brains are the highest energy consumers in our bodies. Our muscles can rest, while our brains can’t.
Enough creatine in the brain allows for optimal brain health and cognitive performance.
As we age, the creatine stores in our brains tend to decrease and supplementing can be beneficial.
For example, in one study of vegans and vegetarians, supplementing with creatine led to better cognitive challenges performance than a placebo group.
There have been studies on the benefits of creatine monohydrate on brain fog, with benefits identified.
The benefits of creatine on brain fog likely stem from the effects of more oxygen in the brain cells.
In brain injuries, creatine has also been identified as having benefits.
How Does Creatine Monohydrate Improve Performance and Atrophy?
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most popular types of these supplements with proven health benefits.
Creatine monohydrate is just creatine with a single molecule of water attached, and it usually is anywhere from 88-90% creatine by weight.
Creatine is a fuel source, and that’s how it can improve performance and reduce atrophy.
Creatine that’s phosphate bonded is the first choice of energy your body is going to seek out when you’re lifting weights or doing other anaerobic activities.
When your body tries to create the compound that powers quick contractions of your muscles, which is ATP, it borrows a phosphate molecule from phosphocreatine. Then, it combines it with ADP, another compound. Once a muscle has mostly used up its phosphocreatine stores, it will produce ATP from other sources, like fats or glucose.
Supplementing with creatine will increase your stores and the available phosphocreatine in your body. That will mean faster ATP formation. The more phosphocreatine you have, the more work you can do before you experience fatigue.
Another function of creatine is to draw water into your muscle cells so they’re more hydrated. When your muscle cells are hydrated, it increases your protein synthesis.
There are several ways creatine monohydrate has potential benefits, including allowing you to lift more weight and generate more mechanical tension. Mechanical tension is a primary driver of muscle growth and development.
Is It Safe?
One of the significant concerns you may have about taking a creatine supplement is the potential side effects.
The good news is that creatine is one of the safest and most thoroughly studied supplements. It’s considered a “likely safe” supplement at recommended, moderate doses, and at higher doses, it’s characterized as “possibly safe.”
- If you have kidney disease, you might want to avoid taking creatine. There’s some concern that creatine could impact kidney function, but this isn’t proven or backed up with any research, although it’s best to use caution.
- You should also be cautious about using creatine if you have diabetes or take any supplements for high blood pressure.
- If you’re pregnant, you should likely avoid creatine because the safety isn’t confirmed, nor is it confirmed safe during breastfeeding.
- There’s another issue you should consider before taking creatine—it can cause weight gain. This effect will primarily be water weight, which can be good if you want to add bulk or muscle mass. Of course, if your goal is to get leaner, or you’re an athlete, you may want to avoid creatine because of the potential for weight gain.
- Creatine supplements are most physically beneficial if you lift heavy weights or do sprints or similar high-intensity interval exercises.
- If you take diuretics, be cautious with creatine because it can affect water levels in your body and lead to dehydration.
The takeaway is that while creatine is mostly safe, it’s not for everyone. Creatine supplementation safety is similar to taking any other unregulated supplement.
Think carefully before using it if you take any medications, are pregnant, or have underlying health conditions. You also should make sure that if you take it, you’re balancing out your use with high-intensity exercise to prevent water weight gain. While water weight gain would be temporary from a supplement, it may not be ideal for you.
Some people worry about hair loss associated with creatine supplements, but no research backs that claim up.
Will Taking Creatine Before a Workout Give Me Energy?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to take creatine before a workout. Creatine doesn’t necessarily give you energy. Instead, it can improve your power output, so you can do more reps before you reach failure and potentially improve your gains.
Whether or not you take it before or after your workout doesn’t necessarily matter, with one exception.
If you have caffeine before a workout, you might want to avoid taking creatine simultaneously. Caffeine with creatine can reduce its effects.
In that scenario, you could take caffeine before your workout for energy and creatine afterward to enhance your glycogen replenishment and maximize both benefits.
When Is the Best Time to Take Creatine?
As mentioned above, there isn’t a best time to take creatine. It’s not stimulating, so creatine supplementation can be done anytime that works best for you.
There is some research to show that creatine uptake is improved when it’s consumed with protein and carbohydrates.
Are Supplements Recommended for Athletes?
Creatine isn’t a prohibited substance, and it may have some effects on performance, so it’s possible that an athlete could benefit from creatine supplementation.
Do You Need to Load?
Many people think you need to load creatine for it to be effective. If you load creatine at high doses for four or five days, you’ll get more rapid saturation in your muscle, improving your strength and performance faster.
Some loading protocols will last as long as seven days, and you take 20-25 grams. Then once you’re caught up, you’d drop down to a more “normal” dose of creatine.
The evidence doesn’t support the need for creatine load for positive long-term effects unless you already have very low baseline levels.
If you’ve been using less than five grams a day, you might want to do a loading phase which could help you see faster improvements in your upper body strength.
Creatine Loading and Bloating
A concern people often have about taking creatine is its potential to cause bloating. You wouldn’t typically experience bloating unless you were creatine-loading.
The creatine loading phase refers to a scenario where you take 20 to 25 grams of creatine daily for anywhere from five to seven days in a row. Then, following the loading phase, you would do a maintenance phase of 3 to 5 grams per pound of body weight. The goal of loading is to bring up your muscle stores to an optimal level and then keep them there.
In the loading phase, you’ll likely see weight gain and bloating from creatine. If you’re taking less than the doses above, that’s probably not a concern.
The reason for bloating and weight gain during creatine loading is water retention because your muscles are taking more of it in.
Again, this is a short-term issue and should be resolved after creatine loading.
You can skip the bloating and weight gain by not doing the loading phase and only following the maintenance phase. Certain creatine supplements give benefits like muscle strength without bloating or potential mild adverse effects.
The loading period rapidly increases your creatine levels to saturate your muscles with the creatine to see the benefits sooner.
What Happens If You Take Too Much?
While creatine is widely studied and considered one of the safest supplements, you can overdo it.
One of the most common side effects of too much creatine is bloating, and that’s because it leads to increased water intake into your muscles.
You could experience general stomach upset as well, as belching and diarrhea.
You only need to take enough creatine to saturate your muscle stores. If you’re going beyond the recommended dosage, you’ll excrete the excess because your body can only store so much, meaning more isn’t always better.
How Do You Choose the Best Supplement?
If you’ve answered your original question of whether or not you should take creatine and decided the answer is yes, it can be a little overwhelming. Because of how popular these supplements are and how long they’ve been studied, there are a lot of options for creatine products available.
The following are tips for choosing the best creatine supplement and what to know as you compare.
Creatine monohydrate is the most popular supplement form of creatine. If you read research studies, this is also the type typically used in those. The benefits of creatine, such as increased exercise performance, muscle size, and strength, come from creatine monohydrate.
More than 99% of creatine monohydrate also goes directly to your muscles.
Creatine monohydrate’s benefit is that along with being proven is that it’s inexpensive compared to other forms of creatine.
Buffered creatine is a unique option that doesn’t require loading to get the full benefits relatively quickly.
Buffered creatine is manufactured in a way that makes it more alkaline. That can reduce the breakdown in your stomach, meaning your muscle tissues can take in more creatine.
Basically, you get all the benefits of creatine without dealing with the inconvenience and possible bloating of loading.
Creatine Hydrochloride (HCL)
Creatine HCL is like creatine monohydrate, but it’s micronized. With micronized creatine, you can take less but get the same benefits.
You’ll consume less and, therefore, need less water, which means you’ll have fewer gastrointestinal symptoms and less bloating than monohydrate creatine.
Most people associate oral creatine supplements with powders, but liquid creatine may be superior. Liquid creatine doesn’t have a ton of research to back up its claims of efficacy yet, but people who use it say it’s superior to powders.
Liquid creatine may be better absorbed than creatine powder and might reach the muscles faster.
In general, liquid supplements tend to be very bioavailable.
Another type of oral supplement is creatine phosphate, a naturally occurring compound facilitating muscle contractions.
Also called phosphocreatine, it allows maximum energy bursts that last around five to six seconds. Phosphocreatine facilitates muscle contractions, which begins when creatine is released from the liver into the bloodstream.
The people who should consider taking oral creatine supplements or integrating creatine monohydrate supplementation into their routine include:
- Anyone who wants to build muscle mass or who participates in high-intensity activity, according to exercise physiology.
- If you want to improve your endurance performance, a supplement can raise muscle creatine levels and help you.
- Professional athletes or competitors often benefit from the positive effects of taking creatine.
- You should also consider taking creatine if you are dealing with the loss of muscle mass related to illness or aging or if you have memory or cognitive performance declines. When you do weight training, creatine supplements can be beneficial.
- If you’re a vegetarian, you should consider taking dietary supplements because most of our creatine comes from meat and fish.
The people who should probably avoid creatine include anyone with a kidney disorder, pregnant women, and individuals concerned about potential weight gain, particularly if their exercise routine wouldn’t offset it.
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