Dear Doctors: My boyfriend has been lifting weights at his gym. He’s working on getting stronger, and one of the trainers there suggested he start taking creatine as a supplement. I’ve never heard of that before. What is creatine, and what is it made out of? How does it affect your body?
Dear Reader: Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that our bodies use to help power the skeletal muscles. About half of our daily requirement is produced by the liver and kidneys. The other half is derived from dietary sources, primarily red meat, seafood and chicken, and to a lesser extent, dairy products.
Creatine is stored in the skeletal muscles, then used to help power high bursts of physical activity. It appears to be particularly effective in boosting anaerobic performance, including weightlifting and resistance training. It can also help the muscles and muscle groups that are used during a specific type of exercise to grow larger and stronger.
Numerous studies have shown that adding a creatine supplement to the daily diet can enhance an individual’s natural store of the compound. This can lead to modest, but still measurable, improvements to both athletic performance and endurance when engaged in high-intensity exercise. Research into creatine supplements also suggests they may play a role in helping to prevent use-related muscle injuries, support or even speed post-exercise recovery, and help the body to regulate temperature during exercise. All of this has led to creatine quickly becoming one of the most popular dietary supplements among athletes and others hoping to improve physical performance.
Another interesting aspect of research into creatine is the discovery that the supplement doesn’t produce the same effects in all populations. Instead, studies have found that people who are younger and in good health derive the greatest benefits. Also, these benefits, including muscle growth, were seen only when the individual followed a targeted and sustained training program.
Outside of the gym, creatine may have some useful clinical applications. Studies are looking into whether supplementation with creatine can help to slow disease progression in people living with Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases, aid in recovery from spinal cord injury, ease the effects of fibromyalgia and perhaps play a role in blood-glucose management, including in people living with diabetes.
If your boyfriend eats a well-rounded diet that includes a wide range of animal-based sources of lean, high-quality protein, he is quite likely getting enough creatine. However, because increases in intramuscular creatine concentrations can benefit athletic training, many athletes find it to be an attractive option. When used appropriately, creatine supplementation has proven to be safe and well-tolerated by individuals who are healthy and in good physical condition. Some people report experiencing water retention. Others, particularly those using it in large amounts, have occasional gastric distress. As with all supplements, it’s important to use a high-quality product, and to follow the guidelines for use. We always think it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider or a licensed dietician before adding any type of supplement to your daily diet.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.
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