Creatine is a natural substance said to build muscle mass and boost muscle strength. Available in meat and fish, creatine is also produced naturally in the human body and found primarily in skeletal muscle.
Creatine is known to play a key role in the production of the energy needed for muscle function. Many athletes use creatine supplements (in the form of creatine monohydrate) in an effort to enhance muscle strength and improve sports performance.
The Science Behind Creatine and Muscle
To date, research on creatine's effectiveness in building muscle mass and boosting muscle strength has yielded mixed results.
In a 2005 research review published in the journal Sports Medicine, for instance, scientists found that taking creatine supplements may be most effective for improving performance in activities that involve "repeated short bouts of high-intensity physical activity" (including jumping, sprinting, or cycling). However, the review's authors also found little evidence that creatine supplementation may help improve strength-training performance. In addition, the review showed that use of creatine supplements has little benefit when it comes to preventing or suppressing post-exercise muscle damage or soreness.
Other research indicates that using creatine may help improve muscle strength in people with certain health conditions. For example, a small study published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair in 2007 found that creatine supplements may enhance the benefits of strength-training in people with Parkinson's disease (a condition associated with decreased muscle mass and muscle strength). For the study, 20 people with Parkinson's disease took either creatine supplements or a placebo daily while completing a total of 24 strength-training sessions (performed twice a week). While both groups showed improvement in muscle endurance, the creatine group experienced significantly greater gains in several measures of muscle strength.
Is Creatine Safe?
Although creatine is likely safe when taken at recommended doses, creatine supplements may trigger a number of side effects (including stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and cramps).
There's some concern that creatine may harm the kidney, liver, or heart function when taken at high doses.
Additionally, taking creatine in combination with medications that can harm the kidneys (such as ibuprofen, cyclosporine, and naproxen) may increase risk of kidney damage. You should also avoid taking creatine in combination with ephedra.
Since creatine causes muscles to draw water from the rest of your body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warn that exercising in the heat while using creatine may lead to dehydration.
Sources of Creatine
Creatine supplements are generally available in capsules or as a powder. You can find creatine supplements in natural-foods stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.
Creatine is also found in small amounts in red meat and fish. However, much of the creatine in these foods is destroyed in the cooking process.
Creatine and Carbohydrates
There's evidence that taking creatine in combination with carbohydrates can increase muscle levels of creatine more effectively than consuming creatine on its own. For instance, the NIH state that supplementing five grams of creatine with 93 grams of simple carbohydrates four times daily for five days can increase muscle creatine levels as much as 60 percent more than creatine alone.
Should You Use Creatine for Muscle Mass and Muscle Strength?
Due to a lack of scientific support, use of creatine supplements cannot currently be recommended for building muscle mass or improving muscle strength.
If you're considering the use of creatine supplements in treatment of muscle problems associated with a chronic condition, consult your physician prior to starting your supplement regimen. It's important to note that self-treating a chronic condition with creatine supplements and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.
Bemben MG, Lamont HS. "Creatine supplementation and exercise performance: recent findings." Sports Med. 2005;35(2):107-25.
Hass CJ, Collins MA, Juncos JL. "Resistance training with creatine monohydrate improves upper-body strength in patients with Parkinson disease: a randomized trial." Neurorehabil Neural Repair. 2007 Mar-Apr;21(2):107-15.
National Institutes of Health. "Creatine: MedlinePlus Supplements." January 2011.