Is creatine safe? What you need to know about the popular supplement.

Creatine monohydrate is one of the most popular and controversial supplements on the market today. There is a lot of misinformation regarding creatine. Is this dietary supplement safe, and if so, is it right for you?

Mayo Clinic defines creatine as “a naturally occurring compound produced by your body that helps your muscles release energy.” Research indicates that taking creatine monohydrate supplements can lead to increases in certain athletic performance, specifically sports that use rapid bursts of energy like weightlifting or sprinting.

Creatine supplementation can lead to improved maximal strength, increased muscular endurance, and improved anaerobic performance. “Creatine allows you to have a longer and larger work volume. It helps you get one more rep,” says David Sandler, the senior director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

If you are looking to bulk up, using creatine can lead to an increase in lean body mass and muscle fiber size.

But is creatine safe?

As a supplement — not a drug — creatine manufacturers are not under the same regulations as drug companies, so some caution is warranted. But according to Jose Antonio, Ph.D., CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, “Creatine is perhaps THE most studied ergogenic aid in history. And the science clearly suggests that there are no harmful side effects of creatine supplementation.”

“I read that creatine can lead to kidney damage…”

The internet is full of anecdotal accounts of kidney and liver damage caused by creatine use. The kidney regulates the amount of creatine in your system. If your body already creates sufficient amounts of creatine, supplementation may not be necessary. If creatine is used beyond recommended daily intake (3-6 grams), the kidney will have to go to work to clear it out of your body. Overworking your kidney may cause it some distress. In short, creatine appears safe unless used in excessive quantities. If you have existing kidney or liver health issues, speak with your family doctor about creatine before beginning supplementation.

Water weight 

Creatine supplementation causes your muscles to hold more water weight. This will increase your muscle size and appearance, and will likely lead to a little weight gain. If your number one goal is to lose weight, creatine may not be for you. But there is also evidence to suggest creatine may help burn fat. The weight you gain due to water will not be “water-fat.”

The verdict

I have used creatine in the past and cycled off of it. When I start up again, I always notice I’m just that much stronger at the gym, and I usually notice an increase in my muscle mass — which is followed shortly by lots of questions like, “Have you been working out more recently?” I like that creatine is organic and naturally occurring. I haven’t experienced any negative side effects and feel comfortable suggesting it to friends with specific goals.

That being said, you should ALWAYS be cautious when putting ANYTHING in your body. People can react differently to different foods — just ask those who are lactose intolerant. There is evidence of some negative side effects, including stomach cramps, muscle cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. Stop supplementation if you experience these side effects.

In short, creatine appears to be safe for adults when used in recommended quantities. According to the Mayo Clinic, the long term effects of creatine supplementation, especially in teens and children, remain unknown. For that reason, I cycle my creatine use and take a few months off from the supplement before starting up again. This may not be necessary, but it seems right to me.

Mark Spurbeck

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