If you like to shop for popular dietary supplements such as collagen powder or protein, you’ve likely spotted another popular supp when shopping: creatine. You can take this as a powder or liquid (usually in a shake)/. This is a popular supplement in the bodybuilding community because it bulks up muscle and allows you to work out harder and longer.
While creatine is safe — after all, it’s one of the most highly researched supplements according to an article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in July 2012 — it is not regulated by the FDA and claims by the manufacturer don’t have to be substantiated. That being said, the FDA has the power to pull any product found to be not safe.
Here’s what to know before taking it.
What is Creatine? Must I Take a Supplement?
Creatine, an organic acid made naturally by our bodies, can also be found in certain foods — red meat and seafood, for example.
We store creatine in the muscles to gain fast access to it for high-intensity exercises such as sprinting and powerlifting.
In regards to creatine supplements, you can ingest it in many ways, but they’re not created equal. There is a lot of debate as to which type is absorbed the best.
When it comes to formulations, creatine monohydrate supplements have been deemed safe by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. It’s also touted as being the most effective available.
How Much Creatine Do I Actually Need?
If you don’t plan to lift heavy weights, do high-intensity workouts, or eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, your body will make enough creatine on its own and you don’t need to supplement. Because it’s naturally contained in animal-based products, your body is able to produce plenty of creatine, provided you stick to a well-balanced diet which includes enough animal-based products. Protein sources such as chicken, beef, pork, and fish allow your body to produce as much creatine as it needs. It will depend on the source, but a three-ounce serving of meat has about 0.4 grams (g) of creatine.
If you are looking to get bigger, stronger muscles, you can use creatine supplements but you will need to have a “loading period.” This is when you greatly increase creatine intake for several days or weeks. This primes your muscles to boost how much creatine they can hold. During this loading period, you would take five 5 grams of creatine 4x a day. After that loading period, you would decrease how much creatine you take and then bring it down to a “maintenance” level of three to five grams per day, which is recommended by the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Don’t go overboard with your creatine intake thinking you’ll experience super muscle growth. The max creatine amount your body can hold will depend on how much muscle mass you have. If you’ve got more muscle, your body is able to store more creatine. Muscles can hold between two and three grams of creatine per kg of muscle mass. How much creatine your body uses will depend on how much muscle mass you have.
Studies say it’s safe to stay within the three to five g per day range, although higher levels have been studied with no adverse effects. There’s really not enough evidence to take a look at long-term safety. If you want to increase your creatine consumption, talk with your doctor or dietitian to review your health history and talk about goals.
Why Take Creatine Supplements?
Most people take creatine supplements to reach bodybuilding goals. That’s because fast, short, movements utilize a different energy system than one of aerobic exercise. Basically, the higher creatine stores that are built up, the more energy you get until you feel tired.
Creatine helps your body make more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a molecule that acts as your body’s main energy source. Research points out that your body can only store enough ATP for eight to 10 seconds of intense exercise. After that, your body must produce new ATP for your body to continue to work.
If you exercise at max intensity, your body is unable to produce the amount of ATP it needs to sustain that exercise. That’s why creatine supplements can be so helpful. They increase your stores of phosphocreatine in order to make new ATP as you perform high-intensity exercise. Phosphocreatine is an organic compound of phosphoric acid and creatine and it’s stored in the muscle tissue.
This is good for bodybuilders, as creatine supplements increase muscle fiber growth of 2 to 3x more than if you were to train without it. They also double your muscle’s body mass and the max weight you can bench press in one repetition, according to one study.
Other studies show that creatine is the most beneficial supplement available when you want to add muscle mass out of the six supplements they considered.
But not just bodybuilders can benefit from creatine supplements. Active vegans and vegetarians can also get an energy boost from these supplements because they don’t get creatine from their diet. Kids with rare creatine-metabolizing syndromes also witness improvements in symptoms when taking creatine supplements.
Are Creatine Supplements Safe?
Creatine is safe when taken in the proper amounts. It’s not a banned substance by the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the International Olympic Committee. While it doesn’t help everyone who takes it, it doesn’t hurt either.
Athletes who want a competitive edge can benefit from creatine, but if you’re using it to supplement your normal workout routine, it’s unlikely that you need it.
That said, any supplement you use should be carefully researched. Always talk with your doctor about using it too, as there are possible health risks or side effects to be aware of prior to taking creatine. Those include nausea, muscle cramping, diarrhea, dizziness, heat intolerance, gastrointestinal pain, dehydration, water retention, weight gain, and fever.
Weight gain is the most common side effect. That’s because creatine makes your body retain water by drawing fluid into the cells with a process called osmosis. This doesn’t necessarily mean you gain weight as fat, but it does mean you can experience increased edema, another term for water weight. Because muscle is actually denser than fat, building muscle may increase overall body weight.
It’s thought that creatine may cause kidney damage, so if you have a history of kidney disease or a medical condition such as diabetes that boosts your risk of kidney problems, don’t take this supplement. Mixing creatine with nephrotoxic drugs — which could damage the kidneys — such as NSAIDs (like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) drugs or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) and Aleve (naproxen sodium), should not be done, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
You should also know that taking creatine supplements with caffeine could decrease efficacy.
What Are the Health Benefits of Creatine?
Creatine is about more than just muscle growth and gains. Research has been done regarding the link between creatine and brain health. Elderly, vegans and vegetarians who take creatine could increase their reasoning ability and be able to think abstractly.
However, more research must be done to determine if those with normal creatine levels could experience the same cognitive benefits when taking supplements.
Creatine could also keep your skin from aging. In one study, the application of cream with creatine in it, used every day for six weeks, led to reduced skin sagging and wrinkles in males. Another study showed that a cream with creatine as well as folic acid reduced the appearance of sun damage and wrinkles.
Creatine may also lessen symptoms in those with heart disease, or at least slow down the progression of the condition thanks to increased blood flow as well as improvements in physical endurance and muscle strength. There’s just not enough evidence out there yet to say this with any confidence.
If you want to boost your muscle strength and mass, or you want to exercise harder for longer periods of time, you could add creatine to your dietary routine. But if you are only doing light weights at not very intense intervals, you can get enough creatine from protein-rich animal foods.
What are the advantages of taking creatine supplements?
Creatine supplements help your body make more energy so you don’t get as tired as quickly when engaging in high-intensity exercise. Creatine helps increase muscle strength and mass.
How can I take creatine?
Creatine supplements typically come in powders or capsules.
Are there side effects?
Creatine could result in muscle cramping, diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, gastrointestinal pain, dehydration, water retention, weight gain, heat intolerance, and fever.
How much creatine does a person need?
Your body creates one to two grams of creatine each day. To build up muscle, you will need to take 20 grams of creatine a day for a short time, then a daily dose of three to five grams.
Can creatine lead to hair loss?
Some research shows that creatine could worsen hair loss through increased levels of androgen in the blood, which is a male hormone that could contribute to hair loss. There is little evidence that measures hair loss in people who consume creatine supplements.
Does creatine lead to weight gain?
Yes. That’s because creatine draws water into the cells, leading to water weight or weight from increased muscle — not fat.