You might think that creatine supplements are just the latest wellness fad to hit the gym floor, and you’d be right, but that’s only part of the story. In fact, your body produces creatine on its own, and it’s an essential compound in basically every function.

You’ve probably read about creatine’s benefits—from boosting muscle to brain health—but as important as it is, do most people really need more of it?

What is creatine?

Creatine is a substance naturally produced in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. It’s then converted into a compound called phosphocreatine, which is stored in your muscles, explains Amanda Holtzer, RD. From there, phosphocreatine helps create what’s called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the body’s preferred source of energy, says Holtzer. 

“Every single function in the body requires ATP, from opening your eyes to walking to the bathroom to typing on your computer,” she says. As for your workouts, “when you use your muscle cells, particularly during higher-intensity forms of exercise—think weight lifting [or] sprinting—you use those stores of phosphocreatine as a form of ATP.”

In addition to what the body naturally produces, you can get creatine by eating animal products and some seafood.

What are creatine supplements? 

In supplement form, creatine can be marketed in pills and drinks, but you’ll mostly find it in powder form similar to other popular health supplements like whey protein. 

You specifically want to look for products made with creatine monohydrate, which is the specific type of creatine that has been widely studied for its health and fitness benefits, says sports dietitian Jenna Stangland, RDN, a performance advisor for Momentous. Creatine monohydrate is also 100% bioavailable, which means your body can fully absorb and use it, adds Holtzer.

What are the biggest creatine benefits?

There are many purported benefits of creatine, but most of the science-backed reasons to think about your intake center around exercise: specifically, how you feel going into an activity, how you perform during it, and how you recover afterward. 

Remember, creatine is the pathway from phosphocreatine to ATP. “So, creatine is feeding into that whole energy system that every cell in the body is using to function,” says Stangland. The boost of energy creatine provides is the catalyst for many of the other advantages you might see from the supplement, since without energy you can’t perform, recover, and grow. 

Exercise performance

“The primary benefit that most people see [from taking creatine supplements] is just an increase in the effectiveness and the intensity of their workouts,” says Holtzer. That added phosphocreatine and ATP “means you’re giving your muscles this little extra boost of capability during times of stress” such as during a workout, she says. 

Practically, that means you may be able to subtly increase your reps, time, distance, or weight lifted in your next workout, says Stangland. That includes improving strength, power, and endurance, she adds. Over time, this helps you avoid a fitness plateau and continue to improve incrementally through progressive overload, explains Holtzer. 

Workout recovery

You expend energy and create micro tears in your muscle fibers during exercise. This is purposeful so that you can recover, rebuild, and regrow afterward, says Holtzer. Supplementing with creatine can help boost that recovery, as it may improve the resynthesis of ATP after exercise. Translation: “The quicker you can make energy, the faster you’re also going to be able to recover,” says Stangland.

However, creatine doesn’t take the valuable place of protein as part of your workout recovery, says Stangland. Creatine is a single amino acid, whereas whey protein has multiple amino acids, which are the building blocks your muscles need to recuperate and come back stronger, she says.  

Muscle growth

Creatine may also play a role in increasing muscle mass or improving muscular growth. Increased creatine in muscle tissues increases something called osmotic pressure, which is “basically the amount of water and pressure that lives within your cells,” explains Holtzer. This pressure causes muscles to swell, which is the catalyst for muscle repair and growth, she explains. So, to clarify, it’s both the swelling itself and the consistent muscle rehab that contribute to increased muscle growth over time.

Are creatine supplements safe?

Yes, creatine is generally safe for most healthy humans including pregnant women, says Holtzer. However, those with kidney or liver disease, or anyone with high blood pressure, should avoid adding creatine, she says. That’s because if these organs have a compromised ability to expel waste (in this case, excess creatine), you may be left with a dangerous amount of unneeded creatine in the blood. 

Side effects from creatine supplements are rare, but you may experience some muscle cramping or gastrointestinal discomfort, such as diarrhea, says Holtzer. Some people may experience a small amount of weight gain when they first begin supplementing with creatine due to the water-retention properties of the compound, but those effects should subside after a couple of weeks, says Stangland.

It’s best to check with a primary care physician before starting any new supplement, as a doctor will be able to guide you to the right dosage for your health and goals as well as discuss any contraindications.

Do you need to take a creatine supplement?

Your body produces about one gram of creatine a day, according to the Mayo Clinic. That may not seem like much, but your body doesn’t require a lot of creatine to do its job. The general recommended daily dose of supplemental creatine—through food or otherwise—is three to five grams or 0.1 gram per kilogram of body weight, says Holtzer. That translates to just six grams per day for a 150-pound person. Healthy adults who are aiming for that recommended range could consider adding creatine to their diet, says Stangland. 

Know that “most people create enough within their bodies, and whatever they’re lacking, they get through their diet,” says Holtzer. “So the supplement of creatine is not necessarily essential for all.”

Some people may still benefit from a boost of creatine, namely vegans and vegetarians or those with specific fitness goals, adds Holtzer. Plant-based eaters will still make adequate creatine naturally, but aren’t getting the additive benefits from their diet, she explains. 

Athletes, fitness enthusiasts, or anyone training for a high-intensity race or sport may also be interested in the energy and performance boost from creatine, she says. No matter if you take creatine supplements or not, you’ll want to aim for a moderate-carb, low-protein snack ahead of a workout, followed by a high-protein, moderate-carb snack or meal afterward. “Remember, you cannot out-supplement a bad diet,” says Holtzer. 

Plus, considering a creatine supplement should be just one piece of your fitness toolkit, says Stangland. “You can’t just eat creatine and hope that you wake up bigger and stronger,” she says. “You need to do the work to see the results that come with it.”

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