Fueling our bodies with the right foods (like lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats) makes all the difference when we're trying to maximize muscle gains or increase stamina. Still, sometimes we look to nutritional supplements to give us an edge in the exercise department. And many turn to creatine to do just that.
Popular with athletes and bodybuilders, creatine is a performance booster known to supply energy, support muscle growth and aid in post-workout recovery (more on this later).
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But is taking creatine safe if you drink alcohol on occasion? We spoke with Kylene Bogden, RDN, a sports dietitian and co-founder of FWDfuel, to see if supplementing with creatine while continuing your cocktail habit can be harmful to your health.
While creatine supplements are considered relatively safe for most people, always talk with your doctor before taking any new nutritional supplements.
What Exactly Is Creatine, Anyway?
Creatine is an amino acid that provides energy to your muscles. While most people get half of the creatine they need through their diet (from animal proteins, specifically), your body also makes its own in the liver and kidneys, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
In fact, your organs can produce about 1 gram of creatine each day, per the Mayo Clinic.
While this amount of the amino acid is adequate for the average person, some choose to supplement with extra creatine to amp up their athletic performance during workouts. Indeed, research has shown that taking creatine supplements may boast some big benefits for your body. Here are a few, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- It supports recovery after intense exercise
- It prevents and/or reduces the severity of injuries
- It helps tolerate heavy training loads
- It increases fat-free muscle mass along with training
On top of these perks, supplementing with creatine might help combat age-related muscle and bone loss and improve cognitive function, among other advantages, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What's more, vegetarians (whose eating patterns may provide lower levels of creatine) might also benefit from adding additional amounts of the amino acid to their diet.
How Alcohol Affects Your Muscles
While creatine promotes lean muscle growth and strength gains, alcohol can adversely affect your body's ability to build new muscle. Here's how a few cocktails can counteract or limit your lean muscle-building goals:
1. It Reduces Your Body’s Absorption of Nutrients
Your body needs fuel to perform at its best and build muscle, and it gets this essential energy through proper nutrition. Problem is, drinking can disrupt your body's absorption of these necessary nutrients.
"Unlike food, alcohol is not digested but rather absorbed directly into the bloodstream," Bogden says. "But this decreases our body's natural secretion of digestive enzymes and prevents us from properly utilizing specific nutrients," she says.
Making matters worse, drinking too much booze too often leads to losses of vital nutrients through urine and may even raise your risk for certain nutrient deficiencies, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and B vitamins, which all play a pivotal part in athletic performance, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
2. It Interferes With Muscle Growth and Recovery
As we know, alcohol can affect your absorption of essential nutrients. But this has a damaging domino effect on your muscles.
"When our body is unable to properly digest and absorb critical vitamins, minerals and especially macronutrients like protein, we are unable to build muscle or recover post-workout," Bogden says.
Indeed, sipping on spirits can slow down muscle repair and the recovery process, per the NCAA.
3. It Slows You Down
While creatine delivers a quick burst of energy, liquor lessens your speed, making you move more sluggishly.
That's because alcohol reduces reaction time, stamina, strength, power and speed for up to 3 days, according to the NCAA.
And when you're lacking liveliness, your workouts will, too. Read: Your strength and muscle-building goals get sidelined.
4. It Can Increase Your Risk of Injury
"When our body is unable to take nutrients and plug them into our cells, we're unable to perform optimally," Bogden says. "This means that everything from sleep to recovery can be impaired. And when this occurs, especially on a routine basis, it puts us at a major risk for injury," she says.
It's true: Regularly drinking too much alcohol can impair immune function and inhibit healing, per the NCAA. And both can make you more susceptible to getting hurt.
What Are the Effects of Combining Creatine and Alcohol?
On its own, alcohol can minimize muscle function. But what happens when it's taken in combination with creatine? It's not good news for your workouts.
Here's what you should know if taking the two together:
1. It Can Affect the Organs That Make Creatine
Creatine is produced and utilized by your kidneys and liver. "Coincidentally, these are the organs most directly impacted by excess alcohol intake," Bogden says.
And here's the thing: "If your organs are working overtime to process alcohol, a substance like creatine will not be as efficiently digested and absorbed," she says.
In other words, mixing cocktails and creatine might decrease the efficacy of this energy-promoting amino acid.
2. It Can Worsen Dehydration
Noticed that you're more prone to peeing when you pound back a few? That's because alcohol is a diuretic. And if you drink too much, it can cause dehydration.
But this can cancel out creatine's effectiveness. Here's why: "Proper hydration (in particular, making sure we have adequate sodium levels) makes a big difference when it comes to the absorption of creatine," Bogden says.
And if you're urinating a lot on account of drinking, you can lose a lot of fluids and disrupt your body's balance of sodium. "Sodium serves as a transporter of creatine into muscle tissue, so when we are poorly hydrated, creatine is not as effectively transported and absorbed," she says.
Drinking booze may lead to dehydration — and this is on top of potential dehydration from not drinking enough water during and after workouts. This can contribute to uncomfortable symptoms like muscle cramps, which are certainly not conducive to a successful sweat session at the gym, Bogden says.
Severe dehydration can be dangerous and requires immediate medical care. See your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Diarrhea for 24 hours or more
- Irritability or disorientation
- Excessive sleepiness
- Difficulty keeping down fluids
- Bloody or black stool
3. It Can Heighten a Hangover
"Being hungover is partly a result of dehydration," Bogden says. But if you're supplementing with creatine, you may notice your post-party headache is more intense.
Again, this has to do with creatine's possible dehydrating effects. Our bodies require more water to stay hydrated when taking creatine, Bogden says.
"Combine these two factors, and [it's no surprise that] you might experience exacerbated hangover symptoms," she says.
And this agonizing aftermath of alcohol will prevent you from performing at your highest athletic capacity. Case in point: Just your average alcohol-based hangover (unconnected to creatine) can decline aerobic capacity by more than 11 percent, according to the NCAA.
4. It Can Potentially Harm Kidney Function in Some People
While creatine doesn't appear to harm kidney function in people without health conditions, supplementing may be unsafe for folks with preexisting kidney problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
And if you load up on liquor, the effects can be even more damaging. That's because alcohol affects your kidneys' ability to filter toxic substances from the blood, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Plus, it also interrupts hormones that affect normal kidney function.
Needless to say, by taking creatine and alcohol, you could be setting yourself up for increased kidney troubles if you have a history of kidney disease.
Though drinking (especially in excess) diminishes the effectiveness of creatine (read: you won't reap the same muscle-building results) taking the two substances concurrently may be safe as long as you're in good overall health, Bogden says.
If you'd like to keep taking creatine and going to the occasional cocktail hour, here are Bogden's tips to do it in the safest way:
- Make sure your creatine supplement is NSF Certified for Sport. "This means it does not contain banned substances and is produced by a trusted manufacturer," Bogden says. This certification is especially important as the FDA doesn't regulate nutritional supplements, so the quality and purity of ingredients in creatine products can't be guaranteed, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Stay properly hydrated and fueled. "The worst thing you can do is under-fuel and under-hydrate [when taking creatine and alcohol]," Bogden says. Your body requires adequate water and macronutrient intake to support training demands.
- Drink in moderation. Whether you're supplementing with creatine or not, limiting your liquor is a smart strategy for overall health. This means sticking to no more than one to two drinks daily, per the National Kidney Foundation.
- Cleveland Clinic: “Creatine and Creatine Supplements”
- Mayo Clinic: “Creatine”
- National Collegiate Athletic Association: “More than just a drink: effects of alcohol on training and competition”
- National Collegiate Athletic Association: “Alcohol and Athletic Performance”
- Mayo Clinic: “Dehydration”
- National Kidney Foundation: “Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Kidneys”