Everyone with fitness gains on the brain is sipping on creatine these days (thanks, TikTok!). But this natural substance’s perks don’t end at the gym. In fact, while most people only associate creatine’s health benefits with muscle building, it’s got a whole lot more to offer. Here’s an overview on the lesser-known ways creatine may positively impact your health.
What is creatine?
Known as a ‘non-protein nitrogen’, creatine is a compound of three naturally-occurring amino acids. Almost all of the creatine we produce or consume is stored in our muscles.
When you exercise, your muscles burn through cellular energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), says Brian Tanzer, M.S., nutritionist and manager of scientific affairs for The Vitamin Shoppe. The creatine stored in your muscles helps make more ATP so you can keep grinding.
That said, there’s only so long any of us can do high-intensity exercise, says Kim Yawitz, R.D., a registered dietitian and the owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, MO. “Whether you’re lifting heavy weights or sprinting, your muscles run out of gas after only a few seconds of hard effort.” One good way to help refuel the tank? You guessed it—a creatine supplement.
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Many think of creatine as a building block for getting those gains at the gym. “Hundreds of studies have shown that having more creatine in the muscles can increase exercise capacity,” says Yawitz, pointing to this scientific review of the literature. “This is how creatine supplements can help with muscle gain—by allowing weightlifters and other athletes to work their muscles a little harder for a little longer during exercise.”
common sources of creatine
“Creatine is made in the liver and kidneys, and omnivores can get more of it by eating meat, fish, and other high-protein foods,” says Yawitz. “But taking supplements—in the form of powders and capsules—increases the amount of creatine in the muscles by up to 30 percent,” she continues, citing this research.
Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form of creatine, though creatine hydrochloride is quickly gaining popularity for its solubility and bioavailability.
3 Lesser-Known Health Benefits of Creatine
1. Musculoskeletal health in older Adults
You may associate creatine with younger gym rats. While it’s not as often talked about, creatine is of particular importance for mature adults. “Musculoskeletal health is a major predictor of independence and quality of life in older adults,” offers Yawitz, noting that on average, we lose 3-8 percent of our muscle mass per decade starting in our 30s, and this process speeds up even more after the age of 60.
As Yawitz explains, muscle loss makes it more difficult to perform normal day-to-day activities, but the risk of disability is even higher in older adults who’ve also lost bone mass. “There’s some evidence that creatine helps protect the muscles and bones as we age. In theory, then, taking creatine supplements could promote independence and quality of life in older adults,” Yawitz says. “In one small study, elderly women who took creatine supplements significantly improved their times on a sit-to-stand test after just one week of treatment.”
And in other small studies that Yawitz highlights, “older adults given creatine had significant improvements in bone mineral density, upper body strength, and lower body strength. This was especially true for seniors who lifted weights, although muscle and bone strength also increased in a handful of studies that didn’t involve exercise.”
Of course, these results aren’t a complete surprise: “Because creatine supplementation is connected with increased athletic performance for sports, it also makes sense that creatine may help improve muscle strength in older adults who suffer from sarcopenia, a.k.a. age-related muscle loss,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Master the Media in Stamford, CT. People have seen best results when they pair supplementation with muscle-building exercise, according to research in Experimental Gerontology, Gorin adds.
2. healthy blood sugar levels
Blood sugar, also known as glucose, is an important metric of health. “Eating lots of carbs in one sitting can make your blood sugar levels creep up well beyond a healthy range. That’s not the end of the world if you’re in good health and it only happens every now and again,” says Yawitz, noting, however, that large and frequent blood sugar spikes can be harmful to your health, especially if you’re already at risk for diabetes.
“Small studies suggest that creatine supplements can support healthy blood sugar levels after carb-heavy meals in both healthy adults and adults with type 2 diabetes. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how creatine helps to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. “There’s some evidence that creatine increases the activity of a protein called GLUT-4—which pulls sugar out of the blood and into the muscles—but more studies are needed.”
This effect of creatine potentially aiding in better glucose metabolism (i.e., blood sugar control) is seen “especially when combined with exercise,” says Rebekah Blakely, RDN, a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe.
It’s important to keep in mind that no supplement can offset the health consequences of a bad diet. “Eating well and working out (and taking your prescribed medications, if you have diabetes) are your best bets for keeping blood sugar levels in check,” stressed Yawitz.
3. Increased Focus
Another Science 101 refresher: “Tasks that require intense concentration use up a lot of ATP in the brain. Because creatine can help the body make more ATP, supplementing with it may give you a bit of a mental boost when you really need to flex your brain muscles,” explains Yawitz. “In small studies, volunteers who took creatine supplements for several weeks improved their performance on tasks that required memory, reasoning, and mathematical processing.”
Notably, the effects in some studies were more pronounced in vegetarians, Yawitz points out, adding that they tend to eat fewer creatine-rich foods.
Riffing on this, Blakely shares a bit more on creatine’s potential cognitive benefits: “Some studies show it may improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning capabilities (offering potential benefits for aging or stressed individuals),” she says, pointing to this scientific review. “Other studies show promise for creatine’s ability to improve cognitive processing, brain function, and recovery from trauma, especially in people with creatine deficits.”