Gyms across the country are full of people (the majority of which are men) trying to bulk up in order to extract the maximum potential from their muscles. Although regular exercise and weightlifting can show results, athletes looking to amp up their physique for an upcoming match, game, or competition have often turned to the natural substance creatine to create their preferred physical look. Creatine has been negatively portrayed in the media for the past few decades, stemming from problems with the substance being abused at the Olympics and the trickle effect on sports affiliates down the line from professional teams to local chapters.
According to most people who have used or recommended it, creatine is not the enemy. A mixture of three amino acids—arginine, methionine, and glycine—creatine is a naturally occurring substance that is found in all vertebrates, being produced internally by the pancreas, liver, and kidneys. People consume creatine in foods such as fish in order to keep their muscle tissues strong—especially around the heart—and there is no harm in ingesting it through your diet because small, daily dietary amounts (usually around 1 to 2 grams) are not considered abusive.
Athletes however, use creatine powder, tablets, or supplement pills in order to help build muscle mass while in the gym and some even say it keeps energy up and puts off the inevitable muscle fatigue caused by overexertion. Creatine is aimed at the serious bodybuilder and the recommended dosage can be anywhere from 15 to 25 grams per day before rigorous workouts based on body weight. Short intense workouts are best for building the muscle mass wanted with creatine for example competitive sports like swimming, cycling, running sprints, or the most popular form: lifting weights.
Anti-creatine groups say that creatine does little more than add water weight and endanger the body by causing the organs to work overtime. Professionals do warn that these types of intense routines can overwork the kidneys and end up being dangerous for otherwise healthy individuals. Some studies have revealed prolonged use of creatine resulting in rare kidney disease or flaring up of an existing kidney problem in young adults taking a lot of the supplement. Severe muscle cramps are another potentially dangerous symptom purported to come about with large amounts of creatine being pumped through the body’s systems; although no science has backed this up and the cause may very well be from simple dehydration.
In a double-blind study with placebo controls done by researchers in 2003, creatine was able to improve the memory function of vegetarians as a supplement for the naturally-occurring creatine carnivores consume while eating meat. Although we see that creatine is safe in small doses and for people relying on it to help strengthen the muscular tissue without the goal of creating over-processed muscles, there have been no studies stating that any long term effects are shown with prolonged use for athletes.
Other studies indicate that short-term creatine supplementation in healthy individuals is safe, although those with renal disease should avoid it due to possible risks of renal dysfunction, and before using it healthy users should bear these possible risks in mind. Small-scale, longer-term studies have been done and seem to demonstrate its safety. There have been reports of muscle cramping with the use of creatine, though a study showed no reports of muscle cramping in subjects taking creatine-containing supplements during various exercise training conditions in trained and untrained endurance athletes. The cause of the reported cramping by some users may be due to dehydration, and extra water intake is vital when supplementing with creatine.
Creatine supplementation, in the dosages commonly used, results in urinary concentrations that are 90 times greater than normal.The long term effects of this have not been investigated, but there is possibility for a variety of nephrotoxic, i.e. kidney damaging, events. There is potential for direct toxicity on renal tubules where urine is formed, and for acceleration of kidney stone formation. Creatine has been shown to accelerate the growth of cysts in rats with polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Studies have not yet determined if creatine supplementation will accelerate the growth of cysts in humans with PKD.
The positive results on a person’s performance, however, has shown to be a negative effect within the media and has had quite a backlash. While medals were stripped from Olympians testing positive for the substance in the past, creatine has yet to be outlawed. Recently the NCAA banned the use of creatine by a team (meaning the coaches, trainers, or administration cannot recommend or distribute to their college sports organization) but it is not illegal for individuals to use creatine and be part of a sports team.
As with all substances, organic or not, there are always more studies to be done in order to make sure it is safe from every angle. There will always be side effects and drug interactions as with every type of substance we put into our bodies but as far as we can tell, creatine as of right now poses no serious threat to the football players and bodybuilders of the future.