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What is creatine? Is it a drug and why do people use it?

“I’ve got some friends who are into bodybuilding and they are using creatine. A couple of guys who are in the school rowing team use it as well. What is creatine? Is it a drug and why do people use it?”

Creatine is a naturally-occurring compound synthesised from amino acids by the kidneys and liver. It is also contained in foods such as meat, fish and poultry. The product that people purchase from health food shops or bodybuilding suppliers is a salt form of synthetic creatine called creatine monohydrate. It is classified as a nutritional supplement, not a pharmaceutical grade drug.

The main reason that people use this product is to help them train harder and, as a result, assist them build muscle. Research has found that creatine monohydrate may replenish and increase the stores to delay fatigue during intense, brief exercise, as well as reduce recovery time between bouts of exercise.  Apart from this main benefit of ‘supplying energy to the muscles’, it is also believed that it can effectively ‘pump up’ the user (increase their size) by allowing their muscles to hold more water. Evidence has found that people who use creatine usually experience an immediate weight gain of 1-2 kilos, with this most likely being due to the increase of fluid stores.

When used as directed, most people experience few, if any, problems and there is no evidence that pure creatine poses immediate problems in healthy people. However, using higher doses then recommended over a long period of time has been found to cause significant problems. For example, taking higher doses may place great stress on the kidneys, as they will have to work harder to remove any unabsorbed creatine from the bloodstream.

Creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements there is, however, little is known about its long-term effects on teenagers and growing bodies. The majority of studies have been on university-aged students and adult athletes. Some experts believe that if young people have not completed their ‘growth spurt’, creatine use could be problematic. It is therefore recommended adolescents avoid creatine supplements and instead stick to a healthy diet and exercise plan.

First published: January 2019

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