Although originally studied and manufactured as a sports supplement, creatine is great for enhancing not just physical activity performance, but so much more. Whether it’s getting stronger, improving your brain function, enhancing your digestion, or focusing on your mental health, creatine might be just what you need. In fact, these are just a few of the benefits we’ve discovered about this buzz-worthy nutrient.
After being discovered by French scientist Chevreul in 1832, studies on creatine and how it works in the body have peaked the curiosity of many. In 1912 it was shown that taking creatine orally could result in higher creatine levels in the muscle tissue – but this was only the beginning.
Since the early 1990s creatine has been available to the general public for use in supplementation. This was after it became popular when athletes at the 1990 Barcelona Olympic Games shared how they believed creatine enhanced their performance (1). It is now available at any supplement store and has even become more widely available in some grocery chains.
Over the past 150 years, hundreds of experiments have been done with creatine to research it’s potential benefits. Because creatine is one of the most widely used and heavily studied supplements, there is a substantial amount of information available.
Of course, that’s a lot of information to wade through.
Where does one start? Doing the research on your own would be a bit daunting so we’ve done it for you. In this article, we are going to take this wide breadth and depth of information and break it down for you into digestible bits of information. We’re going to answer all of your questions about creatine. Not only that, but we are also sharing new information regarding the latest and greatest studies done on creatine.
So what is creatine, and what does it do? Why should you take creatine? When should you take creatine? Will it make you gain weight? You’ve got questions – we’ve got answers for you.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a compound naturally occurring in the body. It is synthesized in our kidneys, liver, and pancreas from the amino acids methionine, glycine, and arginine. Once synthesized it is then converted into phosophocreatine, which is then stored in muscle tissue (2).
There are also food sources of creatine. These sources include meat, eggs, and fish. However, shellfish is not considered a good source of creatine. Because this amino acid is stored in muscle tissue, meat eaters tend to have higher levels of creatine in their bodies than their vegetarian/vegan counterparts (3).
What does creatine do?
Creatine’s purpose really comes down to energy production. Creatine is vital to the production of ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP is involved in energy transfer within the cell (4). To put it simply, more creatine = more intracelluar energy. An increase in creatine availability leads to an increase in ATP, which in turn benefits the body in a variety of ways. Don’t worry – we’re going to cover all that shortly.
Why take creatine?
Are you convinced that creatine is only good for fitness performance? While that is still true, there are so many other reasons that you might want to start taking creatine.
We’re about to dive into the 15 reasons why you should be talking about creatine. In this section, we cover all the ways in which creatine supplementation can be beneficial – and there’s a lot to take in – so buckle in!
1 – Increase Athletic Performance
Athletes have been using creatine for decades to help give them a leg-up on the competition. Creatine has been shown to better performance across a variable different types of exercise including endurance, resistance training, high intermittent resistance training, and aerobic endurance (5).
How can it do this? As mentioned, creatine assists your body in the production of ATP. It just so happens that ATP is energy used during exercise (6). It has been shown that increasing ATP translates to an increase in strength across various athletic activities (7) – those studied being sprinting, rugby, and weight training. So whatever your activity of choice it’s likely that creatine could offer a boost in performance for you.
2 – Helps Build Muscle
Not only can creatine increase athletic performance and endurance, but it can also help with muscle building by promoting protein synthesis. One study examined the effect that creatine supplementation had on a group of men and women on an 8-week heavy resistance training program. This group included novices, intermediates, some of which were vegetarians. Compared to the control group, the experimental group (those taking the creatine) were found to have a significant increase of lean muscle mass.
Interestingly, it was the vegetarians who supplemented with creatine that appeared to have the highest increase in muscle mass. It is believed that creatine in combination with resistance training increases your muscle insulin like growth factor (IGF-1). In increase in IGF-1 supports protein synthesis, which translates to an increase in lean muscle mass (8). If bigger muscles is your goal, creatine can help with that.
3 – Potential to Fight Neurological Diseases
Did you know that creatine is also found in high concentrations in your brain? High levels of creatine in the brain have been correlated with better neuropsychological function. Because supplemental creatine can also increase brain levels of creatine, supplementing with creatine can help improve cognitive function, which can be impaired in aging (9). This is one way in which older individuals could benefit from creatine specifically.
When it comes to neurological diseases specifically, it has been found that creatine may help slow the progression of Huntington’s disease. One study looked at a population with a predisposition (50% risk based on family history and genetic markers) to Huntington’s disease. The researchers supplemented an experimental group with a high dose of 30 grams per day of creatine. At both 6 and 18 months, that experimental group was shown to have less brain atrophy than those in the control group (9). This supports the idea that when taken in the early stages, creatine has the potential to slow neurological disease progression (9).
Creatine supplementation could also be beneficial against other neurological issues, such as traumatic brain injury. Participants who were supplemented with creatine following their traumatic brain injury incident spent lest time in the hospital. Upon follow up, they also reported less side effects including dizziness and headaches (9).
4 – Helps in Balancing Blood Sugar Levels
This is a good point for those who have a sweet tooth: creatine has the potential to help manage blood sugar levels. In a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, creatine in combination with exercise helped regulate blood sugar levels among participants with type-2 diabetes. This result was found without altering the subjects’ diet (10).
5 – May Help Reduce Mental Fatigue
As you now know, creatine plays a huge part in energy production. But did you know it can also help increase mental energy? One double-blind study showed that creatine was successful in improving mental energy while the subjects performed a math problem (11). Increasing mental energy is a truly valuable benefit – and sounds like something busy moms might be able to get on board with!
That being said, implications of this may be huge for specific populations. Mental fatigue is a common issue among those with chronic fatigue syndrome (12), so creatine is a promising area of study in terms of treatment. At present time, there is no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome – so areas of treatment are well worth investigating to mitigate symptoms.
6 – Boosts Memory
The implications of the effects that supplemental creatine has on the brain are far reaching. One study examined 45 subjects and tested their blood plasma and red blood cell creatine levels. The researchers found that supplementing with creatine for six weeks was shown to have a significant positive effect on intelligence and working memory.
This was confirmed upon resetting blood plasma and red blood cell creatine levels. This study supports previous research papers that concluded brain creatine levels correlate positively with memory recognition (13).
7 – Promotes Skin Health
Is creatine the secret to healthy looking skin? Creatine, applied topically in conjunction with folate, has been shown to help with collagen metabolism. Collagen production is a vital building block for connective tissue, and a very important factor in healthy, youthful looking skin (14).
Creatine also supports the production of sebum, which also helps keep skin supple and healthy-looking (7). It might not be able to actually turn back the clock, but hey – at least it can help us look like we did.
8 – Supports Hearing
Are you worried that listening to your headphones on full blast might be coming back to haunt you? Creatine has the potential to help. It has been suggested that creatine can help with noise induced hearing loss, which is exactly what it sounds like: hearing difficulties as a result of exposure to loud sounds. Creatine supplementation can help with both temporary and permanent noise induced hearing loss. This is because it helps out those tiny hairs in your ear that are crucial to hearing (15). Rock lovers rejoice.
9 – Antioxidant Effects
Yes, you ready that correctly! Evidence is building that suggests creatine has a mild antioxidant effect. Oxidants have been shown to negatively impact muscle growth (16). Moreover, free radicals can damage virtually any cell in your body, but creatine can help with this(17)
One study completed on rats showed an increase in liver antioxidant enzymes when creatine supplementation was combined with exercise (18). This adds legitimacy to using creatine as an over-all health supportive supplement. This further supports the idea that creatine isn’t just for athletes anymore – it’s for everybody.
10 – Relief of Depression Symptoms
The role of creatine in increased energy production has implications in so many different areas, mental health included. Neurotransmitter function could be dependent on the cellular energy, an energy system which has a direct relationship with creatine availability. Animal studies indicate an anti-depressant like effect in female rats when supplementing with creatine daily. Humans with treatment-resistant depression have also shown improvements in mood after 4 weeks of supplementing with creatine every day.
New trails are currently underway to text the effectiveness of supplementing creatine with subjects who completed previous trials with anti-depressant drugs without any relief of symptoms (19).
11 – Improvement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms
We’ve discussed the benefits of creatine for depression, but what about other mental health disorders? Some subjects with PTSD also found an improvement in symptoms when supplementing with creatine; this was especially prevalent in those who also suffered from depression. Minimal studies have been done regarding other disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder, so more research still needs to be done on these subjects (20).
12 – Supports Reproductive Health
In many ways this is a newly budding area of research involving creatine. It has been previously shown that creatine phosphate facilities in sperm motility and velocity, providing power to sperm the sperm to help them swim (21). This means that creatine is crucial to sperm motion. But this isn’t the only way creatine can help with fertility.
It has also been suggested that creatine may reduce mortality in high risk pregnancies. Metabolic activity is exceptionally high in pregnancy, and being that creatine supports metabolic activity it is a clear next step to examine how creatine may affect a fetus during pregnancy. It is thought that creatine supplementation, especially in the third trimester, may help reduce oxidative stress and modulate receptors. More research is still being encouraged in this area (22).
13 – Reduces Inflammation
Using inflammation and muscle soreness markers, one study tested runners for the benefits of creatine on inflammation. After observing significant reduction in those markers in the participants who supplemented with creatine, the authors concluded that supplementing with creatine reduces both inflammation and cell damage. These results were achieved after supplementing four doses of 5 grams each day over five days (23).
Another study looked at the relationship between creatine and endothelial cells, which are the cells that line blood vessels. Under the conditions of this experiment, creatine was shown to reduce endothelial permeability, which can in turn reduce endothelial cell-mediated inflammation (24).
Lastly, another study done on animals showed that creatine fed animals had less inflammation than the control group animals (25). These results implicate that inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, auto-immune disorders, and irritable bowel syndrome could be greatly impacted in a positive way using creatine supplementation.
14 – Helps with Digestion
Do you love food? Us too. That brings us to just another reason to be a fan of creatine. It is really important in meeting the energy demands brought upon the body during digestion. Absorption and secretion are two huge factors in digestion, and high concentrations of creatine are required for these kinds of activities. One example of how this works for secretion: creatine supports the energy demand pumping stomach acid.
Another example: the tips of the villi (absorptive, finger-like projections) in our small intestines rely highly on cell division to function due to their high die-off rate. This process also relies on energy provided by creatine. People who have trouble synthesizing their own creatine often experience gastrointestinal issues including vomiting and acid reflux (7).
15 – Effects Immune Function
Creatine has an effect on the immune system – but not in the way you might think. Creatine actually has the capacity to be immunosuppressive (26). While for most not the benefit we would typically be looking for, this could be important for certain groups. Specifically, this could have positive implications for those dealing with autoimmune disorders including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, graves disease, and Guillian-Barre syndrome (27).
Because these disorders cause the immune system to over-react, immunosuppression can be beneficial to manage symptoms of these disorders. Taking large doses of creatine offers this benefit with very few side-effects. Creatine is also much more affordable than the currently prescribed immunosuppressant drugs (28).
A few honourable mentions regarding creatine:
- Creatine also supports photo-reception in the eyes which are dependent on ATP to function (7).
- Creatine is useful in wound healing and may help with wound recovery (7).
- Because creatine is muscle-building supportive and also has anti-inflammatory, it has been postulated that creatine could also benefit the cardiovascular system (29).
Your Frequently Asked Questions about Creatine – Answered
What is the best kind of creatine to take?
If you wanted to naturally up your intake of creatine, keep in mind that it would take one to two pounds of dietary meat per day to equal 3-5 grams, which is why so many people decide to use a supplement (7).
There are quite a few different types of creatine on the market including creatine monohydrate, creatine ethyl ester, creatine hydrochloride, creatine nitrate, buffered creatine, liquid creatine, creatine krealkalyn, and creatine magnesium chelate (30). Many of these forms have very little to no research to support their efficacy. Liquid forms of creatine have actually been found to be less effective than it’s powder counterparts. Creatine krealkalyn was tested and compared against creatine monohydrate and was not found to be any more beneficial (7).
It is widely accepted by experts that creatine monohydrate the superior form. That is because creatine monohydrate is the most economically friendly and scientifically backed. Micronized creatine monohydrate is also a viable option, as it is actually just a more broken-down form of creatine monohydrate, which some people find easier to digest (31).
What is the proper dose of creatine to take?
On average, you lose about 2-3 grams of creatine in your body each day due to spontaneous degradation, in which creatine is changed into creatinine and excreted through urine. Athlete or not, it is important for this to be replaced. In order to actually increase the amount of creatine in your body, you would need to replace this amount and also add more (7).
That’s because the key to experiencing the benefits of supplementation appears to be in saturation. This is why most experts support a dose of 5 grams per day. This dose suggestion is reiterated by most manufacturers who also suggest a 5 gram dose of their product per day.
Some experts also suggest that a loading phase is necessary. A loading phase is an initial phase in which creatine is taken in a higher dose of 20-25 grams per day for about a week. This is to saturate the muscle tissues with creatine faster. This is expensive and hard on digestion, but it saves time so is often practiced in experimental settings (7). Because creatine does promote water retention, it is important to increase water intake while supplementing with creatine.
An area of interest has been what to take creatine with. One study showed that anything that spikes insulin can help with creatine uptake (32). A high amount of carbohydrates can spike insulin, so often people will mix their creatine in a high-carbohydrate beverage to enhance the uptake if creatine. However, some experts are still skeptical. The results that were shown proved only an increase in muscle saturation of creatine but did show if the addition of carbohydrates and increased creatine muscle saturation translates to better performance than creatine alone. It also has not been explained how the spiking insulin to promote creatine uptake would effect the other roles of creatine in the body (7).
Wondering when to take creatine?
According to the research, there is no clear answer on when the best time to take creatine is. It is more about reaching a certain level of saturation within the muscle stores and keeping it there consistently.
It seems that timing is actually not too important when taking creatine, as long as you are consistent with taking the same dose every day. The best idea is to supplement with creatine at whatever works best with your schedule and lifestyle (7). For example, you could mix creatine with your other supplements, such as a pre workout mix or a post workout protein shake. You could also simply mix it with water and take it anytime at your convenience.
Is creatine a steroid?
Creatine has absolutely no relation to steroids. Creatine is in no way a steroid.
Is creatine safe?
Creatine has been proven to be absolutely safe to supplement with. Although some people take creatine for a few months and then take a break before starting up again (referred to as creatine cycling) there is no evidence to support a benefit of cycling off creatine (31). No evidence exists that creatine supplementation may be harmful long-term (33).
Although no serious side effects have ever been reported regarding supplementing with creatine, very few studies exist examining the effects of creatine on children and adolescents (33).
Are there any side effects of taking creatine?
Although commonly believed, it is actually a misconception that creatine supplementation causes hair loss. One study suggested this, but experts find their reasoning illogical because hair loss is often a genetically inherited trait. Insomnia has been self-reported, but no evidence has been shown to support a relationship between insomnia and supplementation (7).
Other concerns have been related to kidney health. One case study including a person with only one kidney showed no negative effects on the kidney from supplementing with creatine. This belief stems from high levels of creatinine in the kidneys, which is typically a marker of poor kidney health. This one marker is not always adequate when observing kidney health. Again, there is no evidence consistent with the idea that creatine supplementation is hard on your kidneys (7).
Some individuals do have trouble digesting creatine monohydrate, in which case it is advisable to split up the 5 g scoop into two 2.5 gram doses per day. If you experience diarrhea or stomach cramping, this way of supplementing creatine is probably more appropriate for you (34).
Other than digestive issues, no side effects have been ever been established from taking creatine.
Will I lose lean muscle mass when I go off of creatine?
This is another common misconception about creatine. There is no “rebound effect” to going off of creatine. This means that you will not lose the muscle gained while on creatine simply by ceasing supplementation (31). So there is no need to worry about losing all your hard work.
Does creatine work for everyone?
Actually, not everyone experiences benefits from supplementing with creatine for one very specific reason: about 20-30% of people are “non-responders” to creatine. This means that their muscle creatine stores are not significantly increased in comparison to other participants in the same study group. Researchers have not yet figured out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon (7).
Because it is widely available, cheap, and easy to take, and more people tend to be responders than non-responders, creatine is likely still worth trying.
How does creatine effect women specifically?
Does creatine effect men and women differently? Believe it or not – yes. Before you jump to any conclusions, allow us to explain. This effect isn’t necessarily that women are any more or less receptive to creatine supplementation in general, but sex-differentiated results have been recorded.
Creatine has been thought to help women with energy demands related to certain phases of the female reproductive cycle, such as pregnancy and menopause. Of course, men would not experience the benefit of this due to biology alone (35). That’s a win for us women!
What about when it comes to mood? One experiment used both male and female rats to test how creatine would affect depressive behaviors. While the female rats supplemented with 4% creatine were shown to have less depressive symptoms then the female rats who were not given any dietary creatine. This result was not seen among the male rats. In fact, almost the opposite was observed: male rats in the higher-creatine experimental group were observed as more immobile than the male rats not supplemented with creatine at all.
These findings suggest that creatine supplementation could affect the sertogenic (serotonin-related) activity of males and females differently. Simply put, females could experience a greater relief of depressive symptoms from supplementing with creatine than men (36). These findings have been recreated in further animal studies (37).
When it comes to building muscle, creatine has been shown to be just as useful in increasing muscle mass in women as in men. This notion was supported by research done on elderly females who supplemented with creatine and also participated in resistance training (38).
As with men, creatine was also beneficial for improving athletic task performance with women specifically. This was illustrated by a study testing agility and sprinting performance in female soccer players (39). Together, this evidence also supports the idea that creatine is a valuable supplement for women both young and old.
Some women worry about bloating as a side effect of taking creatine. Although gastro-intestinal issues have been reported, bloating is not a common side-effect of creatine. Again, digestion issues related to creatine can be mitigated by splitting the dose (7). Although bloating while taking creatine is a common worry, it appears there isn’t too much to be worried about.
Does creatine make you gain weight? – Yes and no. Creatine will not make you gain weight in the sense that your body fat increases. However, it is common for creatine to promote water retention, as creatine pulls more water into the cells of your body (7). This may translate to a higher number on the scale, but does not encompass the whole picture.
Women worried about water retention should remember that the water retention is usually temporary. The retention is also mostly concentrated in skeletal muscle areas. This could actually result in your muscle bodies looking fuller.
What’s the takeaway on creatine?
We know that digesting all of this information on creatine can be a lofty task. To really summarize all of this information on creatine, such as creatine supplementation benefits as well as creatine FAQ’s:
- Creatine is one of the most well-studied, safe, and scientifically backed supplements.
- Creatine monohydrate is equal or superior to all other forms of creatine, and is also the most affordable
- The only side effect (supported more anecdotally than with research) seems to be gastrointestinal issues, which are easily mitigated by splitting the suggests 5 gram per day dose in half.
- Studies have been done supporting creatine supplementation in a wide array of areas including athletic performance, muscle building, combating mental fatigue, boosting memory, promoting healthy skin, working as an antioxidant, balancing some mental health disorders, reducing inflammation, promoting healthy digestion, and suppressing the immune system which can be beneficial under very specific conditions.
- Creatine is associated with a long list of benefits and very minimal to no risk.
- Vegans and vegetarians are likely to have an even more pronounced benefit to supplementing with creatine than meat eaters. Women experience the same benefit from creatine as men but may experience more benefit when it comes to reproductive cycle health and relief of depressive symptoms.
- About 20-30% of the population are non-responders to creatine. However since there are little to no negative side effects of supplementing with creatine, it may be worth trying to see if it is right for you.
Where is the research on creatine headed?
With the research on creatine ever expanding, it is likely than even more benefits of taking creatine as a supplement will be revealed. More studies are being called for regarding neurologically impaired or stressed individuals (40). Treatment of autoimmune disorders is another area researchers are interested in moving forward on (41).
There are so many reasons to give creatine supplementation a shot – whether to improve athletic performance, reduce symptoms of depression, support brain function, or help with any number of other body system functions. It’s safe and easy to use. It’s also a simple way to get a leg up on the competition in the gym, or simply support your overall health. Whatever your health goal, supplementing with creatine could be worth a shot.