Whether you consider yourself a couch potato, a casual fitness enthusiast, or a dedicated gym rat, you've probably heard about creatine. However, chances are you've either heard a slew of outlandish horror stories, or had the positive, ergogenic (performance enhancing) effects of creatine over-stated to you.
You probably find yourself confused when it comes to this popular supplement and unsure if it is safe for you to take. Let's take a look at some of the most prominent misconceptions surrounding creatine. I believe that once these common myths are debunked, you'll see that creatine is in fact a very safe supplement.
Creatine Myths Cracked
Is Creatine A Steroid?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic analogs of the male sex hormone testosterone, and in the US they are illegal to possess without a doctor's prescription ("Drug Enforcement Administration"). While anabolic steroids are obtainable on the black market, you certainly can't walk into your local vitamin retailer and pick-up a vial of anabolic steroids.
Creatine, on the other hand, is a legal dietary supplement that is widely available and easily obtained (even grocery stores sell creatine), and creatine is not a banned substance under IOC or NCAA guidelines. Creatine has been sold over-the-counter for decades and is considered overwhelmingly safe for healthy adults.
While creatine is certainly an ergogenic aid that will slightly increase the user's strength, muscular endurance, and help volumize muscle cells, all of these effects occur through non-hormonal pathways.
Does Creatine Cause Kidney Damage?
As with any supplement, it is highly advisable that you consult your health care provider before beginning any type of creatine protocol, however multiple studies have shown creatine to be non-toxic and safe for use by adults with healthy renal function, even when used long-term. (Poortmans and Francaux 1108-1110)
Any anecdotal reports of creatine causing kidney damage are very likely to be from users who were unaware of a pre-existing health condition.
Will Creatine Cause Muscle Cramps Or Injury?
This is perhaps the most prominent creatine myth among athletes. It is a post hoc fallacy and something that gets repeated so much that those with no prior knowledge of creatine will usually and regrettably accept it to be fact.
If an athlete who happens to be using creatine gets a muscle cramp they will point the finger at their creatine use, when in reality the cramp is most likely due to lack of hydration, improper electrolyte balance, or variety of other factors that can result in cramping.
In a recent and very large (nearly 1500 participants) study, creatine supplementation did not result in increased incidence of cramping amongst athletes. In fact, the groups using creatine actually suffered from less cramps than the non-creatine group. (Dalbo, Roberts, and Kersick)
In a similar vein, many athletes mistakenly believe that creatine will heighten their risk of injury. However, research has demonstrated that creatine does not increase the likelihood of injury.
Quite to the contrary actually; a study conducted using 72 NCAA division 1 football players as subjects found that the athletes supplementing with creatine experienced less muscle cramps, muscle tightness, muscle strains, dehydration and total injuries. (Mayhew, Mayhew, and Ware)
Perhaps even more interesting is a 2001 study that showed creatine supplementation to speed up the progress of subjects placed on a rehabilitation program following immobilization (having a limb placed in a cast for an extended period). (Hespel, et al)
The few myths I just covered are the most prevalent you'll find today, however there are surely more you'll encounter if you look a little bit deeper. Hopefully I've encouraged you to take everything overly negative you hear about creatine with a grain of salt from here on out.
I encourage you to always seek out legitimate scientific literature when it comes to creatine or any other dietary supplement. Don't rely on the personal anecdotes of friends, fellow fitness enthusiasts, coaching staff, etc. Rely on published, peer-reviewed research. Be suspicious of any outlandish claims you hear, whether they are negative or positive.
While I've chosen to focus on debunking the negative myths surrounding creatine, the old saying of "buyers beware" certainly applies to the supplement industry. Remember, creatine isn't a steroid, so don't expect steroid-like results, regardless of how lofty the manufacturer's claims may be.
Having given you that warning, the bottom line is that there have been over 600 studies conducted on creatine (Satterwhite), with the overwhelming majority showing it to be a safe (Schilling, et al) and effective supplement. Whether you're an athlete or simply a recreational lifter, and providing you're in good health, creatine definitely deserves a place in your supplement regimen.