FLORIDA — Many creatine experts are fed up with the way we talk about creatine. Some are tired of cotton candy flavored energy drinks advertising “super creatine” on neon cans, protein bars infused with the supplement, social media posts mistaking creatine for steroids.
Others are tired of the plethora of “before and after” TikToks in which slender young men show off bulging muscles after a handful of weeks on the supplement, or women show off rippling abs that they attribute only to the powder.
“I don’t know why people make things up about this particular supplement,” said Dr. José Antonio, an associate professor of human health and performance at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, who has studied creatine. The creatine world is riddled with misinformation, he said, despite a large and growing body of evidence that the supplement can improve athletic performance and increase muscle mass.
Is the powder a miracle training supplement, or is it hype? This is what you should know.
WHAT IS CREATINE?
Creatine is formed in the body from compounds similar to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It serves as a type of fuel for skeletal muscles and can promote muscle growth when combined with exercise. It’s made in your liver and kidneys, but you’ll likely also get creatine through your diet: red meat, fish, and chicken all contain it.
Throughout the day, your body naturally replenishes creatine in your muscles, but supplementation can help “fill the tank,” said Dr. Eric Rawson, a professor of health, nutrition and exercise sciences at the University Messiah in Pennsylvania.
Creatine monohydrate, the form of creatine normally found in commercial powders, has been rigorously studied. “There is probably more data on creatine monohydrate than any other supplement out there,” said Dr. Antonio.
There are more than 20 different formulations of creatine, Dr. Rawson said, including creatine hydrochloride and creatyl-l-leucine, but only creatine monohydrate has strong evidence to support it, so I’d recommend against taking any other form of creatine. compound.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CREATINE?
Creatine has specific and focused benefits for athletes. The supplement can power you through short bursts of activity, such as lifting weights or running a sprint. If you’re in the middle of a Peloton workout, for example, you might increase your speed for a sprint, said Dr. David Creel, an exercise physiologist, psychologist and dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Metabolic and Bariatric Institute. .
But the effect is usually small. Creatine makes the most sense for certain competitive athletes eager for a split-second advantage, said Dr. Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Langone Health. “For the average gym goer, someone who’s a biker, someone who plays soccer on the weekends, they don’t need this,” she said.
Scientists have studied creatine and exercise performance since the early 1990s. A recent review of 35 studies found that creatine supplementation, combined with resistance training, increased lean body mass (body weight, minus body weight). fat) by more than two pounds (0.9 kg) in adults, regardless of age. The difference is small, but significant, although men reported higher gains than women. Vegetarians and vegans are more likely to have a greater response to supplementation, since they don’t get as much creatine in their diets, Dr. Rawson said.
Creatine may provide a small boost in muscle mass, but “whether it’s a two, three or four percent increase, no dietary supplement compares to proper training, sleep and nutrition habits,” said Dr. Rawson . Still, the increase could have a noticeable effect on older adults in particular, he said.
“A very, very small improvement in strength could be the difference between a fall and not a fall.”
And emerging research suggests that creatine might have cognitive benefits, potentially improving memory and mitigating symptoms of concussions or traumatic brain injuries, although the data is much more limited than studies on creatine and muscular fitness.
DOES CREATINE HAVE SIDE EFFECTS?
“There really don’t seem to be any major dangers, which is unique for a supplement,” said Dr. Creel.
People who take the supplement, especially in large amounts, may experience gastrointestinal upset, Dr. Heller said. People can also get bloated or experience weight gain.
There are some claims floating around on social media that creatine causes hair loss, but doctors said there was no significant research to verify that. And you won’t get any kind of high from creatine—it’s not like the jolt of energy you get from drinking espresso, Dr. Creel said.
The supplement is popular with teenagers, but there’s no data on long-term use, especially in people who are still growing, said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, who studies the supplements. Out of an abundance of caution, he suggested that teens refrain from using the supplement.
WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND BEFORE TAKING CREATINE
As with any supplement, you should speak with your primary care physician before starting creatine. And like other dietary supplements you can pull off the shelves, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t test for creatine, Dr. Cohen said.
That means there’s no guarantee that a powder you’re buying actually contains the amount of creatine it claims, or even at all. The Department of Defense’s Operation Supplement Safety program recommends four outside companies that test and evaluate dietary supplements, which you can use to make sure you’re really getting creatine.
You should also stick to the recommended dose, which is usually three to five grams a day. There is no substantial data on how long people can safely take the supplement beyond five years.
It’s also important to set specific goals before taking the supplement, Dr. Cohen said, and determine what the pill or powder might actually help you achieve, keeping in mind that it’s not a guaranteed ticket to building muscle.
“People think creatine is a steroid,” said Dr. Antonio. “That’s like saying water is fire.”
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.