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Creatine – a boon or a bane?
Can athletes owe their peak performance to the positive influence of approved nutritional supplements like creatine? Is success in sports not just a play of innate talent, skill, practice and perseverance but the work of nutritional supplements? Has the body of studies that support the use of creatine gained enough muscle to push for its use?
Creatine is one the most popular nutritional supplements with a huge business turnover. The United States alone invests about $2.7 billion annually on sports supplements. Most of the sports supplements contain this amino acid as a main ingredient. The use of the supplement is permitted by The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is a legally approved sports supplement.
It has created more interest among athletes and others who play different forms of sport for its perceived role in enhancing performance by improving muscle mass, strength, building intensity and endurance. These supplements are used more often by men who are into competitive sports like wrestling, football and hockey. It is also considered a highly effective supplement for gym enthusiasts.
Sports drinks and sports nutrition have creatine as the most common ingredient.
What is Creatine?
- It is an amino acid which can be found in a natural form in fish and red meat. Muscles store creatine which is used to provide the energy required during activities that involve strength and intensity.
- Body uses the simpler amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine to produce Creatine.
- It has all the properties of a protein with nine essential amino acids forming part of its constitution.
- Places where this amino acid is stored in the body are muscles, liver, kidneys and brain.
- Muscles have the maximum stores of creatine, in a form called phosphocreatine, which is nearly 95% of the reserve. The rest 5% of creatine gets distributed in the liver, kidney and brain.
- Factors that influence its stock in the body are quantity of meat consumption, hormone levels, fitness and physical activity.
- The human body also taps into other sources for the amino acid, like nutritional supplements.
In simple words, creatine helps the muscles in the body by carrying vital energy to the cells. It positively impacts the energy levels in the body. Its influence happens at the levels of cells, accelerating growth of healthy muscle mass, repair and healing, and improving overall strength.
Creatine has been in the limelight for its varied health blessings:
- A positive impact in alleviating muscle diseases.
- Can help retard the aging process.
- Ability to boost exercise intensity.
- Plays a significant part in improving cognitive abilities.
- More recent gains suggest its benefit in offsetting risks of neurological disease.
- Multiple sclerosis victims on these supplements reported improvement in their symptoms.
- It helps body builders gain muscle, improve strength and develop exercise performance.
How much creatine do we need and how is it sourced?
The amount of creatine needed per day in the human body is anywhere between 1 and 3 grams (g).The source of nearly 50% of the requirements of the human body is from food. The rest is manufactured within the body.
Creatine Supplements: How Do They Work?
The growth of the nutritional supplement industry has witnessed an upward trend. It is a multibillion-dollar industry full of products which claim to improve endurance, performance and strength.
Creatine is known to give an impetus to work load during a single training session. How does this happen?
- When supplements are consumed they improve the levels of phosphocreatine in the body. During high intensity exercise, its role is to boost the phosphocreatine stores in the muscles.
- The stored cellular energy assists in the production of ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate), which is the name given to the energy carrier of cells.
- ATP levels are related to endurance and performance during exercise. High levels of ATP translate into positive experiences during exercise, which results in peak performance.
- Creatine supplements can give a boost to the hydration levels in cells. They can also help lower breakdown of proteins thus empowering muscles.
- These supplements have also been studied to ascertain their influence in increasing the levels of anabolic hormones in the body- for instance the levels of IGF-
- They could assist in the treatment of certain medical conditions although these supplements are not advised for long term consumption.
- However, the risk of indiscriminate use of creatine supplements does loom large, especially in the light of unregulated supplements available in the market. It might come as a shock but the United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved the use of creatine supplements.
Creatine monohydrate is the most recommended form of creatine supplement which is backed by several research studies and has also been in use for quite some time.
- The dosage for these supplements begins with a loading period. It is called loading because this phase is marked by quick improvement in the muscle stores.
- To load with this amino acid, 20 grams per day for 5–7 days is prescribed initially and spread over four intervals in a day with each serving not exceeding 5 grams.
- Once the loading phase is completed, it can be followed up with 3-5 gram doses for an extended period.
- It is also possible to maintain 3–5 grams dosage but this also means that results can be seen only after 30 days.
- It is very important to keep well hydrated while taking these supplements.
Are Creatine Supplements Needed?
These supplements are used by athletes mainly to give their performance a push. It also enables them to train with more vigour as creatine increases energy production.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has estimated that athletes into competitive sports, engaged in intense training may require between 5 and 10 g of creatine a day. Besides the sports population, there are also a section of people whose bodies are unable to manufacture the amino acid.
Such creatine-challenged victims are usually advised to take the supplements of about 10 to 30 g a day to allay potential health risks.
Creatine- Perceived Benefits
- Cognitive ability
Several insights have pointed to the effectiveness of these supplements in improving cognitive ability. A study showed that consuming a 5-g supplement each day for 6 weeks helped study subjects perform better with intelligence, memory and tightly scheduled tasks. The elderly also witnessed improvement in the cognitive abilities with the supplements.
A 5g dose of creatine supplements when included along with the antidepressant for a period of 4 weeks was found to alleviate symptoms of depression. This treatment, was effective for methamphetamine addiction as well. Yet, scientists are not fully convinced of its role in alleviating depression and feel the need for more research in the area.
- Faster Healing and Recovery
Studies have pointed towards faster recovery post injury as the supplements protect the muscle from damage. Muscles will not go into a cramp also because of creatine’s antioxidant effect, which can offset such risks.
- Improves Athletic Outcome
Creatine has been used extensively as a sports nutrition supplement. This has been used more among athletes into competitive sports, even though its efficacy in improving strength, performance and intensity is yet to be proved 100%.
- Several studies in the past few years have given confusing results. Uniform benefits were not reported from the many research endeavours. Some research insights pointed out that the benefit of creatine supplements was witnessed only on high intensity short duration exercises. These benefits were not observed in other types of exercises.
- Improvement of Academic Performance in Children
Studies to ascertain the impact of creatine supplements on children did not provide uniform results. Supplements taken for more than 8 years showed that while it did benefit a section of the study population in improving attention, performance and language, the results could not to be applied to everyone using the same yardstick.
- Increased Body Mass
Creatine is known to cause a jump in body mass due to its presence inside muscles.
There was another school of thought from the U.S. National Library of Medicine that completely negated this theory about its contribution to greater body mass. Because it causes the muscles to retain water and water retention may have increased the body mass, was the overriding opinion.
- Creatine and Muscular Dystrophy
It most certainly improved the strength of muscular dystrophy victims. During the study, subjects who had taken supplements showed marked improvement in muscle strength vis a vis those who had not taken any supplements. Again uniformity in results of all research endeavours is needed to prove the efficacy of creatine supplements on muscular dystrophy patients.
- Creatine has not proved highly effective for all types of sports; it has not made a difference to athletes and sports people that are already performing well. Even those that already possess high levels in the body are not benefited by supplements.
Although the list of benefits appear to be growing, more research and experiments are needed to prove the long standing gains with the use of creatine supplements.
Are Creatine Supplements Safe?
This amino acid supplement has had its share of flak. Critics have cautioned about the apparent side effects from its constant use.
Creatine happens to be one of the most studied health supplements and exhaustive studies have not shown any adverse side-effects.
- In a landmark study that evaluated 52 blood markers, the results could not pin point any adverse reaction after 21 months of creatine use.
- The supplements in recommended doses may not pose any major health risk although the guideline suggests that it is always best to derive the chemical from natural sources.
- If creatine supplements are taken excessively it could affect the heart, kidneys and liver.
- There has been no proof of these supplements causing liver and kidney problems in healthy people. However, victims of kidney and liver disease should seek the advice of a medical practitioner before consuming them.
- Other side effects that could arise from a high dose of creatine supplements could manifest as cramps in the muscles. Although it is believed that the supplements can trigger cramps and dehydration, there is no adequate research to support this. Studies have proved the contrary, and use of these supplements can reduce cramps and dehydration while performing endurance exercises.
- Creatine can cause stomach ache or diarrhoea. Nausea is another side effect of creatine supplements.
- Some of the side effects of excessive use of creatine supplements for diabetics may result in lowered blood glucose. Extreme caution is recommended for diabetics and anyone taking blood sugar supplements.
- Hypertensive may experience a spike in blood pressure.
- Such supplements are not advised to be taken by expectant or lactating women.
- These supplements can cause water retention leading to weight gain.
- Creatine affects water levels in the body. Taking it with diuretics may lead to dehydration.
Those with the following health conditions need to be extra cautious with these supplements as they could affect their health adversely.
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Irregular heartbeat
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Bipolar disorder
- Electrolyte disorders or imbalances
- Low blood pressure
- Liver disease
Within the prescribed doses, these supplements are relatively safe to use for short term. If taken in the long term the safety cannot be guaranteed as research showed different results for varied populations. Further, they have not received the FDA nod as yet.
It is always the best to derive the required nutrition from a natural source. Even in the event of taking creatine supplements, it is best to use them moderately. Nothing can replace the health benefits of consuming a balanced diet and ensuring all the nutrition is from natural and dietary sources.
• Skeletal muscles are the storehouse for most of the creatine in the body
• It was found to boost both short- and long-term memory for vegetarians
• These supplements helped reduce recovery time in victims of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
• Helped reduce symptoms for victims of neuromuscular disorders
• Prevents DNA mutations in aging cells
• Effective in treatment of children with traumatic brain injury
• Paediatric cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy benefited after using these supplements.
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