Plus, everything else you need to know about the supplement.
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Woman Drinking Protein Supplement Creatine after Training
Credit: Mattia / Stocksy

Finding the right balance between nutrition and exercise is key for any fitness goal. Yet, some people argue that nutrition is even more important than physical exercise. Proper nutrition doesn't just come from the foods you eat, but also in supplements if that's something you opt to use or your doctor recommends it.

As of late, a buzzy supplement that's taken over #fitnesstok, the health and wellness corner on TikTok, is creatine. While creatine itself isn't a new supplement or unknown to many in the fitness space, it's recently skyrocketed in popularity on social media with more than one billion views under the hashtag #creatine on TikTok alone. Users on the platform are posting transformative videos highlighting how creatine supplements have contributed to their successes in building muscle. But are these gains really thanks to creatine? And is the supplement safe for everyone to take?

Ahead, experts answer those questions and more, including "what does creatine do?" and "should you take creatine before or after a workout?"

What Is Creatine?

Creatine is an amino acid naturally found in the muscles and brain, according to Stevie Lyn Smith, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., C.D.N., a registered sports dietician. It provides energy for muscle contraction, and "does this more quickly than any other compound, including glucose and glycogen," adds Smith. (FYI, glucose is generally thought of as the body's first choice for readily available energy. Glycogen is the unused glucose that is stored for later use.) This makes creatine the ideal source of energy for high-intensity and strength-based workouts, she explains. (Related: The 10 Best Vitamins and Nutrients That Help Boost Muscle Growth)

About 95 percent of creatine is stored in the skeletal muscle of your body, while the rest is in the brain and other tissues, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In addition to being made by your body — in fact, your liver, kidneys, and pancreas make about 1 gram of creatine per day, according to the Mayo Clinic — "it's also [found and] consumed via fish and [red] meat," says Smith. Those who eat a standard omnivorous diet [meat and plants] typically consume about 1 to 2 grams of creatine a day because it's found in milk, meat, chicken, and seafood, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And since vegans and vegetarians don't eat any meat, they naturally have lower stores of the amino acid and thus, may benefit from taking a creatine supplement.

What Are the Benefits of Creatine Supplements?

Improves Fitness Performance

If you've seen professional athletes or fitness lovers at all levels take an interest in creatine, that's likely because it can enhance workout performance. "Creatine helps to improve strength by increasing exercise capacity," explains Smith. By replenishing the energy in muscles, it allows an individual to run a little further, lift a little heavier, or push a little more, resulting in increased performance and results.

Increases Muscle Mass and Strength

Creatine can also help improve muscle mass because it increases the production of proteins that repair damaged muscle fibers, according to a scientific review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. When you exercise, you're actually breaking down your muscle fibers. Your body then repairs and rebuilds them, making you stronger than you were before — that is, of course, as long as it has adequate amino acids and protein to do so.

Speeds Muscle Recovery

What else does creatine do? The supplement — which, BTW, typically comes in powdered form — can improve muscle recovery after a workout due to its ability to speed up muscle repair and reduce the chance of injuries. Some studies show that people who take creatine supplements experience fewer cases of cramping, dehydration, muscle tightness, and muscle strains than those who don't take creatine supplements, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (Related: What to Do After a Workout Within the Next 30 Minutes)

What Are the Side Effects of Creatine?

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate nutritional supplements, creatine has been deemed safe to take by healthy adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, "the most common side effect of creatine supplementation is [temporary] water retention, causing weight gain," explains Smith. "This weight gain is from increased water content in your muscles, not fat." Some people may also feel nauseated or experience stomach issues, such as diarrhea or bloating, but research suggests these creatine side effects are usually from taking incorrect dosages.

There are also some concerns that creatine can cause kidney disease, however, studies have found that when taken in safe doses, which can be up to 25 grams per day, it doesn't result in kidney damage in healthy individuals. That being said, folks who are taking medications that affect the kidneys and those with kidney disease, high blood pressure, or liver disease should not take creatine, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Ultimately, "the safety of short and long-term creatine use is well established in healthy users using correct dosing," according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

When and How to Take Creatine

How you take creatine depends on your fitness goals. "Creatine is a supplement that you can [use] for a specific outcome or taken daily," says Smith. Creatine "loading" essentially involves taking more than the recommended dosage for several days to help reach fitness goals. "Loading can be done if you want to see performance benefits quickly, usually athletes in season, or maybe used in athletes who are injured and looking to maintain muscle," explains Ly. While loading creatine has been deemed safe and effective by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, it isn't necessary, and you should consult with a nutritionist or doctor first.

"For those who want to see the performance benefits but not as soon as possible (aka loading) or are using it for the long-term health benefits, 3 to 5 grams a day [for any body weight] is recommended," says Smith.

As far as when you take a powdered creatine supplement, it's all about consistency vs. time of day. "There are recommendations that it be taken before your workout but, it is more important that it is taken consistently to see the desired outcomes of supplementation, so I recommend picking a time of day that you can be consistent with," says Smith.

Whether you opt to take creatine before or after your workout (or another time altogether), avoid adding the powder to any caffeinated beverages, as these can compromise its efficacy, according to the Mayo Clinic. Instead, consider mixing creatine into another type of drink, such as a protein shake, juice, or smoothie.

And being that supplements are not regulated by the FDA, you also want to make sure that you're purchasing a product that's undergone third-party testing, says Smith. Third-party testing is when an organization that was not included in the development or sale of the product ensures it complies with specific standards for safety, quality, or performance, according to NSF International. Products that are third-party tested have a stamp of certification on the label. When it comes to creatine, look for supplements that have stamps from the Informed Choice or NSF Certified for Sport, recommends Smith.

Is Creatine Necessary to Improve Performance?

"Even as one of the safest, effective, and cheapest supplements, I do not think it is necessary to reach fitness goals," says Smith. Can it help? Yes. Does it work? It can, at least according to science. However, it isn't necessary for everyone to include the supplement in their diet. "If you're active and eating enough overall energy [aka calories] from balanced meals and snacks, you can reach your fitness goals without a creatine supplement," she adds.

Remember, you naturally produce 1 gram of creatine per day and, if you eat fish and meat, get about 2 grams from food, which hits the daily 3-gram recommendation. "With my nutrition clients, I start with food first and then can add in supplementation to take their performance to the next level," notes Smith.

If you're considering adding a creatine supplement to your routine, always consult your health care provider or work with a registered dietitian for individualized guidance. (See also: How to Find the Best Nutritionist for Your Needs)