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The actual benefits of creatine supplements, according to experts

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Creatine powder has been around for a while but is still one of the most talked-about supplements. You might’ve overheard gym bros name-drop it in the weight room, or scrolled past fitness influencers hawking it on Instagram, emphasizing its ability to boost performance and muscle mass. Popular brands that sell creatine include Myprotein, Pure Encapsulations, and Optimum Nutrition. More recently, people have been seeking out creatine for reasons beyond what it could do for their bodies. I began taking Momentous's creatine powder, which the brand touts for its cognitive benefits, too, blending it into my morning mango-banana-coconut milk smoothie.

Amid all the spurious claims about dietary supplements, though, it’s hard not to be skeptical. Does creatine live up to the hype? And how safe is it? I turned to experts to find out.

What is creatine, exactly?

Creatine is a naturally-occurring compound that you store in your muscles, Krystle Zuniga, a registered dietitian at UT Health Austin, tells Mic. Your body uses it to generate short, intense bursts of energy very quickly (more on that later).

While your body can produce creatine, you can also get it from meat and seafood, Zuniga says. But consuming it in food may only yield enough to replace the creatine your body uses. To get the purported performance benefits, you’ll need to saturate your muscle’s stores of creatine, which you can't achieve through dietary sources alone.

Can creatine improve performance?

The theory behind using creatine for athletic and exercise performance stems from the lightning efficiency of the body's creatine phosphate system, Zuniga says. In a one-step process, it supplies the high-energy phosphate which can be used to produce ATP, a molecule that supports muscle contraction. In contrast, it takes many steps to break down carbohydrates before they can generate energy. Fats take longer still.

Although the creatine phosphate system is fast, it’s also short-lived, providing energy for only 5 to 10 seconds — just long enough for the carbohydrate and fat energy systems to kick in, Zuniga says. As a result, “it’s really good for activities that require a lot of power very quickly.”

Michael Fredericson, a sports medicine physician at Stanford Health Care, agrees. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to a distance runner, but maybe anybody who does any type of strength activity or something more explosive,” like sprinting or lifting heavy weights.

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Both Zuniga and Fredericson agree that plenty of research backs up the use of creatine to increase performance, particularly in these types of activities. Zuniga points to an International Society of Sports Nutrition position statement, which evaluated numerous studies of creatine for sports, exercise, and other applications and noted they “provide a large body of evidence” that it can enhance performance.

But Kerry Stewart, director of clinical and research exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, takes a somewhat more measured view of the literature, which he refers to as “a mixed bag.” Studies in athletes and high-performing individuals have shown a potential benefit, mainly in those short, explosive activities, but with strength increases “ranging from zero in some studies to perhaps up to 15%.” So “there’s a reasonable chance of achieving benefit” in those types of activities from taking creatine, but not an overwhelming one.

Will it make me swole?

Well, you won't wake up looking like The Rock the next morning. Instead, it’ll help you go harder on your workouts so that you can reap more benefits from them, Zuniga says, including more #gains. It might give you the energy boost you need to, say, add two reps to each set. “Those types of things can add up in helping someone build muscle more quickly,” she explains. Indeed, the International Society of Sports Nutrition position statement cites several studies showing creatine can increase muscle mass. If this happens, it’s usually in athletes engaging in explosive activities, Stewart says, and seniors prone to losing muscle mass.

Can it help with depression?

Since creatine is an important compound involved in metabolism — and there’s some evidence of metabolic changes in people with depression — it would be logical to assume that altering creatine levels could benefit them. But how this plays out in real life remains unclear. “The research on creatine and depression is “extremely limited,” Dean MacKinnon, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Mic.

The studies so far are pretty inconsistent, he says. “There were a few trials with positive results, but nowhere near enough to say it’s helpful for depression.” They were small, and only a couple were randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, which randomly assign participants to the intervention (in this case, creatine) or a placebo, and keeps both researchers and participants blind to which they received. This setup basically minimizes bias and allows researchers to conclude that the intervention, not some other factor, resulted in any improvements they saw.

Plus, studies that showed a benefit measured depressive symptoms, rather than major depressive disorder — that is, not just a depressed mood, but feelings of hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms that persist in time and affect your ability to function, MacKinnon says. If you’re considering taking creatine for depression, he suggests doing so to supplement, not replace, evidence-supported treatments, in other words, antidepressants and therapy.

So, should I take creatine?

Based on our conversations with experts, the evidence for creatine’s performance and muscle mass benefits, as well as its safety, seems strong enough to warrant taking it to up your fitness game. Most athletic supplements “seem pretty bogus, but creatine definitely has the most amount of research and long-term clinical trials,” says Zuniga, who uses creatine herself. The studies that showed benefit used easy-to-obtain doses of creatine, which is also pretty cheap, she adds. Fredericson agrees. “There’s a ton of research on this,” he says. “It is incredibly valuable.”

That said, don’t expect creatine to transform you into a superstar athlete. “It’s just going to help support the training and help you get more benefits out of the training,” Zuniga says.

Stewart, on the other hand, says a lot of hype surrounds creatine, but that “there’s probably no harm in trying it” if you’re healthy. If you have kidney disease, liver disease, or a metabolic disorder like diabetes, though, you should probably avoid it, he notes.

If you decide to try creatine, Zuniga recommends running it past your doctor first, as you would for any supplement. Look for products labeled “creatine monohydrate,” the form researched in the studies described in the International Society of Sports Nutrition position paper — “it’s also the cheapest form.” Companies have created creatine derivatives and claim they’re superior, but they just don’t have the same body of evidence behind them. Also avoid liquid creatine, which studies show breaks down, “so you don’t actually get active creatine.”

Since supplement companies aren’t required to demonstrate that their products are safe, look for certifications from third parties, such as NSF and USP, which reassure you that the supplements actually have what they claim they do, and nothing else, Zuniga says.

If you’re an athlete and want to see benefits quicker, Fredericson suggests starting with a loading dose to saturate the creatine stores in your muscle, or about five grams, four times a day, for the first five to seven days. Then go down to a maintenance dose of about three to five grams a day (but you may need more if you’re, say, a football lineman). Keep in mind that although creatine loading is safe, it can cause some GI distress, like bloating or diarrhea, Zuniga says, “but five grams is pretty well-tolerated.”

Some fitness influencers swear by taking creatine pre-workout, but “it can be taken at any time to saturate the muscle stores,” she says. Taking it post-workout, though, can help bring carbs into the muscles, which they can use as an energy source for recovery.

Creatine won’t get you shredded overnight, nor will it cure depression, but it can help you get more out of your workouts, particularly if they involve intense bursts of energy. Unlike with other fitness supplements that may promise more, there's pretty solid evidence that creatine can actually deliver on this claim.

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