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Creatine Is Trending: Here’s What You Need to Know

February 25, 2024

Want to build muscle? Recover faster after a tough workout? Boost your brain health? If you believe the hype on social media, there’s one supplement that could have all these effects and more: creatine. To drive the point home, you’ll find ads for gummies, tablets, capsules, and powders with it alongside images of hefty barbells and rippling muscles.  

Experts say creatine really can help you build muscle, but that it may not be right for everyone – and it’s not a miracle or magic pill. Read on for all you need to know about this on-trend supplement.

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What is creatine?

Like many dietary supplements, creatine comes from food. It’s made up of three amino acids (i.e., the building blocks of protein) found in red meat and seafood. The body can even make some creatine on its own. Between your liver, pancreas, and kidneys, you can produce about 1 gram per day. (For reference, supplements usually contain around 5 grams.)

What does creatine do?

In a nutshell, creatine helps your body create energy. “It works by increasing the body’s production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary source of energy within the body,” explains Reuben Chen, MD, board certified sports medicine physician, holistic pain management expert, and chief medical advisor at Sunrider International. “By increasing ATP production, creatine can improve athletic performance, increase muscle endurance, and speed up recovery after workouts.”

Your muscles aren’t the only recipients of ATP. “Since ATP is also used in other areas of the body, creatine may also help improve brain function and reduce fatigue,” Chen says. For this reason, some people use oral creatine to treat brain disorders and neuromuscular conditions.

Who can benefit from creatine?

For obvious reasons, active people are the top beneficiaries of creatine. Research shows that creatine supplements may amplify the effects of resistance training, improve the quality of high-intensity speed training, improve aerobic endurance, and contribute to greater strength. If you’re looking to build muscle or boost athletic performance, creatine may provide benefits.

Besides hard-core gym-goers, plenty of other groups may get a boost from daily creatine. If you have concerns about brain health, creatine could be a helpful addition. Some research shows that creatine supplementation may enhance cognitive function. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, creatine’s energy-enhancing properties could make for stronger bones and reduced risk of injuries to muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. 

Creatine may also benefit people taking GLP-1 medications such as Ozempic. Research shows that those medications can cause muscle loss, and creatine may be one tool in the fight to keep lean muscle.

As with any supplement, discuss it with your healthcare provider prior to use. Your provider also can advise you about what dose is appropriate for you. 

Creatine side effects

Though it has several potential upsides, a creatine supplement could produce some uncomfortable side effects. “Some people may experience gastrointestinal discomfort, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea, when taking creatine supplements,” Dr. Chen notes. Plus, this compound can cause water retention in muscle cells, leading to temporary weight gain, he adds. Fortunately, this subsides when you stop taking it.

You’ll also want to keep your water bottle close while using creatine. “Creatine can draw water into muscle cells, potentially leading to dehydration,” Dr. Chen says. This could cause muscle cramps—the opposite of helpful when you’re putting in time at the gym. 

Who shouldn’t take a creatine supplement?

“Individuals with kidney disease, liver disease, or hypertension are often contraindicated from creatine supplementation,” says registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick. Dr. Chen also urges caution for children and breastfeeding women, since there’s not much research on how it affects these groups. 

Is a creatine supplement necessary?

If you can get creatine from red meat and seafood, why not just dive into a burger or a plate of crab cakes to soak up its muscle-building power? “Creatine is naturally found in small amounts in certain foods. However, the amount of creatine found in food is typically much lower than you would get from a creatine supplement,” Dr. Chen says. “For example, a serving of cooked salmon contains about 0.4 grams of creatine. On the other hand, a typical creatine supplement serving size is around 5 grams of creatine monohydrate.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that meat and seafood aren’t good dietary choices for athletes (or anyone else). In addition to their small creatine content, they’re packed with complete protein, meaning that they supply all the essential amino acids your body needs. Plus, they offer lots of other critical nutrients. Supplements by definition are meant to enhance or add on to a healthy diet, not replace it.

Read next: 5 Anti-Inflammatory Supplements That Actually Work

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