Your body naturally produces creatine from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Creatine produces energy for your muscle to sustain short-duration, intense exercise. A large amount of water is bound to creatine in the body, and creatine can help draw more water into muscles, but it might cause bloating or water retention if a large amount is not absorbed.
Creatine is made from three amino acids: glycine, L-arginine and L-methionine. Your muscles add a phosphate group to creatine to create phosphocreatine and charge it with energy. During exercise, phosphocreatine recharges ATP, adenosine triphosphate, the primary source of energy in your muscle. The creatine system is rapidly generated over approximately 10 seconds. Increasing creatine levels in your muscle can increase your strength and endurance in activities such as sprinting and weightlifting.
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that studies demonstrated a positive effect of creatine for athletic performance in young male athletes, but supplemental creatine might not increase levels past a genetically predetermined level, limiting the effectiveness for some. Preliminary clinical studies have shown that creatine supplements can help improve exercise tolerance in those with cardiovascular disease, muscular dystrophy or Parkinson's disease.
The chemical properties of creatine cause it to carry a large amount of water, called a hydration shell, around with it. Increasing the levels of creatine in your muscles increases the volume of water in your muscles, temporarily increasing their size. If your muscles do not absorb creatine, it sticks around in your body until your kidneys can remove it via urine. Before it is removed, this excess creatine can cause water retention and bloating, leaving you feeling smooth and spongy. In the short term, creatine bloat primarily is a cosmetic problem, but consistent water retention can place additional stress on the heart, blood vessels and kidneys.
Avoiding the Bloat
Your muscles might absorb creatine supplements only when they are absorbing nutrients. Take your creatine supplement around when you exercise to maximize this absorption. Avoid taking large amounts, especially when you're not exercising.
Be sure to take creatine with plenty of water, as it increases the risk of dehydration, which can cause you to retain water and bloat in addition to the direct effects of creatine.
If you continue to feel bloated when taking creatine with plenty of water and during exercise, reduce your dose or stop taking it all together. This will correct bloating within a few days.
Consult with your doctor before taking creatine if you currently are under medical treatment. Serious side effects are related to severe dehydration, as creatine significantly increases your body's need for water. Many supplement makers recommend consuming an extra 64 ounces of water when taking creatine. This need increases further if you are exercising intensely, for a long duration or in a hot environment.