You can get creatine naturally from several high-protein foods, but many athletes also seek out creatine supplements. Positive creatine effects may include increased muscle mass and improved athletic performance. But could you also be among those who are susceptible to a creatine headache?
Are Creatine Benefits Worth it?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), creatine exists naturally in our bodies. Because it is composed of amino acids, it's also available in protein-rich foods like red meat and seafood that contain those specific amino acids. If you don't eat those foods on a regular basis, or you have specific needs that require larger amounts of the compound, you may consider taking creatine as a supplement.
Some people take extra creatine at the suggestion of a doctor, when tests indicate a creatine deficiency. Not being able to maintain enough of the compound naturally can contribute to, or worsen, a number of conditions. Among those listed by the NLM are low bone density, muscle inflammation, muscle atrophy, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, COPD, eye disease, rheumatoid arthritis and slow recovery time after surgery.
For this reason, boosting creatine effects through supplementation may be prescribed. NLM warns that not enough research has yet been done to rate this treatment's effectiveness.
Low levels of creatine in the brain can additionally cause seizures, memory loss, loss of cognitive function and trouble with movement. NLM notes that some people have difficulty metabolizing creatine, making supplements a possible solution.
Creatine supplements are also used by people who don't have a known deficiency of creatine, or conditions that may be helped with supplements. For the most part, people seeking creatine effects by taking in extra creatine are competitive athletes hoping to improve performance or people trying to build muscle mass.
The supplement is rated as "possibly effective" for seniors who are having trouble building muscle through resistance training alone. NLM warns older adults that creatine's effects on muscle mass are only possible with continued use and in combination with strength training.
Suggested creatine dosage varies, depending on the need and length of time you'll be taking it. Competitive athletes, bodybuilders and older adults usually start with 20 grams for the first week, and then move to a lower maintenance amount. The creatine dosage for children with conditions that may be improved with extra creatine is usually between 400 to 800 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, according to NLM.
Is a Creatine Headache Common?
Among the potential negative creatine effects, headaches are not the most commonly reported at a normal creatine dosage. That doesn't mean that your own headaches don't have a connection with taking creatine. What it does mean is that fewer people report headaches, as possible side effects of taking creatine, than people who report other symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the most-common side effects of creatine is dehydration. As a possible correlation to this dehydration, or along with it, come other reported side effects such as muscle cramps, dizziness, diarrhea, fever, nausea, gas pains and heat intolerance. Creatine's tendency to cause people to retain water can also lead to bloating and temporary weight gain.
The side effects listed above are drawn from those taking the recommended dose. The Mayo Clinic warns that those who take larger amounts of creatine supplements risk damage to the heart, liver and kidneys. In addition, people who have a history of kidney disease, diabetes or bipolar disorder may find an their symptoms amplified by taking any amount of creatine supplement.
Those who have kidney issues, but who choose to take creatine anyway, should be especially careful. Doubly so if also taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
Read more: Is Creatine Bad for You?
What Explains a Creatine Headache?
Even though creatine headaches aren't reported often enough to statistically warrant placement on official lists of side effects, that doesn't mean that you aren't experiencing a creatine headache. It may just mean that the headache is a secondary side effect of creatine-caused dehydration.
One of the effects of taking creatine is that it draws more water into muscle tissues. This can have benefits for building muscle mass, yet for some people there may be drawbacks. A January 2018 study published in the Sports Health journal noted that this osmosis effect can also carry the risk of causing dehydration, because needed body fluids have been diverted.
If headaches aren't currently listed as a primary symptom of creatine supplements, it's nonetheless not surprising that some people might experience them as a secondary symptom of dehydration. Dehydration is certainly one of the listed side effects of creatine supplements.
The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that headaches are common for adults suffering from mild to moderate dehydration. If your creatine intake has coincided with increased thirst and darker urine, these symptoms, along with the headaches, may indicate that your creatine supplement is making you more dehydrated than usual. Other signs of dehydration, which also overlap with creatine supplement side effects, include muscle cramps and feeling light-headed.
Because many people take creatine to support bodybuilding, it can be difficult to determine whether it's the intensity of the workout or supplements like creatine that cause the headaches. Exertional headaches are especially common with weight lifters, and the effects can be worsened by certain supplements. The primary symptom of an exertional headache is the onset of throbbing head pain that begins during exercise and starts to subside after the workout.
Preventing a Dehydration Headache
As the American Heart Association (AHA) points out, some medications and supplements may increase how much fluid you'd normally need to take in each day. In the case of bodybuilders who are taking creatine, the combination of the extra exertion and the potential-dehydrating effects of the supplement add up to a need for extra water.
Ideally, you'll keep your fluid intake high enough, especially while exercising, that you won't find yourself feeling parched. In fact, feeling thirsty isn't a sign that you're about to be dehydrated, but instead that you've already reached mild dehydration. AHA recommends water as your primary source of fluids, especially when lifting weights or performing other workouts.
After you've worked out, and throughout the day, choose foods with a high water content to help offset the dehydrating effect of the creatine. Foods that are highest in water content include watermelon, strawberries, orange slices, lettuce, cucumbers and celery. Add them to as many meals and snacks as possible, to help prevent creatine headaches through dehydration.
Keep a journal to gauge how much fluid you're taking in, as well as how soon symptoms like headaches, darker urine and muscle cramps begin. If other dehydration effects decrease, but your headaches persist, you may want to talk to your doctor about other reasons for the pain.
A word about caffeine: It may be tempting to quench a post-workout thirst with a fizzy soda, but caffeine can be additionally dehydrating, meaning that the fluid you get from the drink is somewhat negated by the effects of the caffeine. In addition, caffeine can make the creatine supplement less effective, according to the Mayo Clinic. That makes it doubly important to trade your morning coffee and afternoon sodas for herbal teas and water breaks.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Creatine"
- Mayo Clinic: "Creatine"
- Sports Health: "Creatine Use in Sports"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Dehydration"
- Akron Children's Hospital: "Intense Weight Training Can Lead to Exertional Headaches"
- American Heart Association: "Staying Hydrated - Staying Healthy"