What Is Creatine and Should You Take It? The Benefits and Risks, from a Nutritionist
When you hear the word “creatine,” you probably imagine a gym full of bodybuilders scooping the chalky powder into water bottles, trying to bulk up by lifting Hulk-level weights. It's well established that creatine supplementation is proven to help increase gains in strength, muscle mass, and athletic performance. But you might be surprised to discover that creatine has other major health benefits, including positive effects on brain health.
A growing body of research shows creatine can enhance cognition, improve memory, and even help treat mental disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Creatine also has neuroprotective effects that can help treat Huntington’s disease and traumatic brain injuries, according to a recent study published in March 2022.
Some people worry that creatine causes adverse side effects such as kidney stones, liver damage, weight gain, or bloating, but research has not backed up these concerns. The FDA warns about using anabolic steroids but has found that creatine is safe when used alone, not with steroids. The Mayo Clinic suggests that creatine is safe for use for up to 5 years.
So should you take creatine and reap the mental and physical benefits? Or are there risks along with benefits to consider? Read on to discover if creatine is a good option for you.
What is creatine?
Creatine is one of your body’s natural energy sources. It’s an amino acid produced by your liver, pancreas, and kidneys and is found throughout your body, including the brain. It’s one of the safest and most researched supplements, with many studies supporting its safety and efficacy for long-term use.
There have been clinical trials lasting up to five years that show no adverse health effects on participants including one published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Research on creatine’s benefits has made it one of the most popular supplements used by athletes to boost athletic performance, albeit mainly for exercise requiring quick bursts of energy, like weightlifting or sprinting.
What if you’re not an athlete or don’t care about building muscle? The latest research shows its ability to enhance brain function, improve short-term memory, and help treat common brain disorders. Older adults appear to experience more benefits from creatine supplementation since they are the most likely to suffer from short-term memory loss. Creatine appears to improve reasoning in healthy individuals but its effect on other cognitive domains remains unclear, the study authors concluded.
How does creatine improve brain health?
How creatine works on brain function is similar to how it improves muscle function, by supplying energy to cells. Creatine helps the body to deliver more energy to the brain, enhancing cognitive function and memory.
The way energy operates in your body is by sending molecules to the cells for ready use. These energy bundles are called Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). A study published in the peer-reviewed journal The Royal Society found the brain needs a significant amount of ATP when performing cognitively challenging tasks. Creatine helps deliver it.
Research has also demonstrated that older adults who supplement creatine have improved brain function, including enhanced memory and better moods. The study showed creatine can help protect older adults against neurological diseases and age-related deterioration.
Brittany Lubeck, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert, tells The Beet, “Creatine supplementation can enhance cognition, especially in people with creatine deficits in their brains. These deficits are caused by anything from sleep deprivation to Alzheimer’s disease and depression.”
Which foods contain creatine?
Getting creatine from the diet isn’t a viable option for vegans and vegetarians since most sources are derived from animal protein. “The best food sources of creatine come from animals, making getting enough difficult for vegans,” says Lubeck. Fortunately, there are plenty of creatine supplements on the market that are vegan-friendly. Lubeck recommends supplementation as the best way for vegans and vegetarians to get enough creatine.
Only half of your body's creatine is produced naturally; the other half comes from diet. The best food sources of creatine are red meat and seafood, but even these contain marginal amounts of creatine.
“It may also be beneficial for vegans to eat plenty of food sources containing the amino acids glycine, methionine, and arginine that are needed to make creatine in your body,” explains Lubeck. “Vegans can find glycine in seeds, peanuts, and legumes, methionine in tofu, nuts, and beans, and arginine in whole grains, nuts, and seeds.”
How much creatine should you take?
“There’s no recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for creatine. Non-vegans can get plenty of creatine each day by eating animal products, and our bodies make about one to two grams of creatine each day,” says Dietitian Lubeck. She adds that the recommended dose is about three to five grams (or 0.1 grams per kilogram of body weight) per day, depending on your size and activity level.
Pro Tip: Avoid having caffeine within one hour before and two hours after taking creatine since numerous studies have shown caffeine reduces creatine’s efficacy. So if you’re an athlete and take a pre-workout concoction that combines creatine and caffeine, consider taking creatine separately after your workout.
Bottom Line: Whole foods can provide your body with sufficient amino acids to make creatine on its own.
Supplementing creatine will provide that extra boost to help protect your brain health and raise the bar on cognitive function, which is extremely important as we age. So maybe reserve judgment until you try creatine and see how it works for you.
As with any other supplement, always choose high-quality products that follow good manufacturing practices and are third-party tested. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking creatine supplements, regardless of your activity level, age, or health status.
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Heath & Nutrition articles.