There are certain ingredients in supplements that you’ve probably never heard of before. And then there are ones like creatine that show up again and again. But despite its popularity, most people aren’t as well-versed in creatine benefits as, say, those of vitamin D or calcium.
Creatine is largely used to help support strength- and muscle-building, but there’s also some evidence linking it to bone and brain health, among other things. Here’s what you need to know about the supplement, along with the main perks of taking it.
What is creatine?
Creatine is an amino acid that’s found naturally in your body’s muscles as well as in your brain, says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet.
Your liver, pancreas, and kidneys make about a gram of creatine a day, according to the Mayo Clinic, and you can also get it through eating seafood and meat. Creatine also comes in supplement form.
Your body stores creatine in the form of phosphocreatine in your muscles, says Jessica Cording, R.D., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “Creatine helps in general to produce energy but, most commonly, you’ll see it used to improve athletic performance and build muscle mass and muscle strength,” she says.
Again, creatine is often used to help with muscle growth and athletic performance, but there’s data that show it can help with a range of things. These are the biggest perks.
It can help build strength.
“Creatine plays a role in some of the processes in our cells that help to build muscle and strength,” Cording says. “It’s very popular in the athletic and bodybuilding community.”
Creatine promotes the formation of proteins that create new fibers in your muscles, helping to build strength, and can raise levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a hormone that helps increase your muscle mass, Cording explains.
It may help improve your athletic performance.
Most of your body’s creatine is stored in your muscles as phosphocreatine, which your body uses to produce a high-energy molecule called ATP, Cording explains. “When you have more ATP, you have more energy—and that can help with performance during activity,” she says.
While creatine may help with any form of exercise, “it seems to help best with high-intensity exercise and short duration,” Gans says.
It could help combat muscle loss.
Older adults and people with conditions like Parkinson’s disease or muscular dystrophy are at risk of sarcopenia, which is a loss of muscle mass, quantity, and function. But research has suggested that creatine, along with an exercise plan, may combat sarcopenia.
It may help prevent injury.
Taking creatine supplements could help lower your risk of dehydration and muscle cramps, along with injuries to your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and nerves, the Mayo Clinic says.
It’s linked with improved cognition.
Creatine is involved with your brain health and function, usually through ATP’s impact on the brain. Research has found that older adults who took creatine for two weeks performed better on memory and recall tests afterward. In fact, the researchers said the supplement had a “significant effect” on the test results.
It could help fight signs of aging skin.
Some research has suggested that a creatine-containing cream could help reduce skin sagging and wrinkles in men. Another study found that a cream that had creatine and folic acid can reduce appearance of wrinkles and improve sun damage.
Is creatine safe?
Creatine is generally considered safe to take. “We have had quite a bit of research on this and it’s found overall to be safe,” Cording says. Gans agrees. “Minimal, if any, side effects are noted,” she says. “Research suggests that taking up to 30 grams a day for five years may be safe in healthy individuals and, in certain populations, from infancy to the elderly.”
Worth noting: Creatine may be less effective when it’s combined with caffeine.
What to do if you’re interested in taking creatine
While you can technically just start taking a supplement, experts say it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or a dietitian first.
“Always check in with your doctor before taking a new supplement,” Cording says. “You want someone who can speak to any potential drug or nutrient interactions.”
If you’re interested in taking creatine to help improve your athletic performance, Gans recommends speaking with a professional on how best to use it. “Athletes should speak with a sports-registered dietitian or nutritionist to find out how best to incorporate it into their workout, along with diet, to optimize their performance,” she says.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.