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 relatively 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.
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.
Taking a creatine supplement provides your muscles with extra fuel, allowing you to exercise harder for longer.
For example, taking this supplement has been shown to increase strength, power, and sprint performance by 5–15% (3).
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 (4, 5).
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 age 60 years and older. It has been linked to physical disability, poor quality of life, and an increased risk of death (6, 7, 8).
A review of studies found that taking creatine supplements helped older adults build more muscle mass (12).
In the review, participants took creatine supplements and resistance-trained 2–3 times per week for 7–52 weeks. As a result, they gained 3 pounds (1.4 kg) more lean muscle mass than those who only weight trained (12).
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 (13).
Taking a creatine supplement has been shown to increase levels of creatine 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 (14, 15).
A review of 6 studies involving 281 healthy people looked at the effects of taking creatine supplements on particular aspects of brain function (16).
It found that taking 5–20 grams daily for a period of 5 days to 6 weeks may improve short-term memory and intelligence or reasoning (16).
Some people have suggested that taking these supplements may slow cognitive decline linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. However, research in humans has failed to find any benefits (17, 18).
In addition to its benefits for exercise performance, creatine may help older adults maintain their brain health and retain and build muscle mass.
Creatine is the safest and most well-studied supplement. However, there are a couple of concerns surrounding its use.
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.
Creatine’s strong safety profile is commonly overshadowed by media reports claiming that it harms your kidneys — a claim that currently has no scientific research to back it up.
In fact, studies involving a variety of people of different ages have found that taking creatine supplements did not harm kidney health. The studies used doses ranging from 5–40 grams per day for periods of 5 days to 5 years (18, 19, 20, 21).
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 (22).
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 (25).
However, because studies are limited, people with impaired kidney function or kidney disease should always check with their healthcare provider before taking creatine supplements.
The most common complaint associated with 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 a large amount of this supplement over a short period of time 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 tends to pull water into your muscle cells, resulting in weight gain. This may cause bloating (26).
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 (27).
Furthermore, you can always split your doses equally throughout the day to avoid taking too much at one time.
The supplement has also been 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 (27).
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 one time.
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 (28).
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 (29).
While there are several types on the market, creatine monohydrate is your best option. Other types you’ll see include buffered creatine, creatine hydrochloride, and creatine nitrate.
Creatine monohydrate is the best-studied and most effective form of this supplement (4).
You can take a loading dose of creatine followed by a maintenance dose, or just 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.
The most commonly reported side effects of taking this supplement are bloating and stomach discomfort. You can prevent these side effects by limiting your dose to 10 grams or less in a single serving.
Taking creatine supplements is otherwise safe and healthy for most people.