Creatine is an amino acid that naturally occurs in the body, but it can also be purchased as a dietary supplement designed to enhance athletic performance, typically found in pill or powder form to be taken with liquids. Creatine monohydrate, the most common formula of the supplement, has increasingly been used as a substitute for steroids, and many people who would never touch steroids have claimed to use creatine as a legal performance enhancer. Users should be aware, however, that as with many steroids, high creatine levels in the body have been found to have adverse effects such as an upset stomach, dehydration, or kidney problems. While any long-term side effects have yet to be discovered, some athletes choose to avoid the possibility of short-term side effects altogether.
Produced by the liver and kidneys, creatine is used as an energy source by muscles and other organs. Creatine can also be derived naturally through eating certain meats, poultry, and fish. In most cases, the body regulates the correct amount of creatine on its own — whether the creatine is produced by the body or consumed from sources of meat. High creatine levels in the body occur only when creatine supplements are consumed, resulting in the presence of more creatine in the body than would occur naturally.
Many athletes add creatine supplements to their diet because high creatine levels have been shown to improve sports performance when bursts of energy are required, and the makers of creatine supplements claim that high creatine levels fuel skeletal muscles. The supplement is usually taken as a pill or powder that can be mixed with sports drinks. Creatine supplements have been available since the late 1980s and can be purchased in many health food stores and online.
Peer pressure is one of the reasons that creatine supplements are so popular among athletes; the pressure to compete and win in today’s society, no matter what the cost, has increased the sales of these supplements. Creatine has been used in competitive sports at the university and high school level, and competitors with high creatine levels have been found at nearly every sporting level from amateur to professional. The dietary supplement is most often used in sports such as weightlifting, running, wrestling, and hockey.
Possible Side Effects
According to health and sports officials, the possible side effects of creatine can include muscle cramps, dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea. Anterior compartment pressure, which usually appears as tightness in the calf, shin splints, or both, is another possible side effect, and high creatine levels can also result in tears to the muscles or ligaments. When creatine supplements are used, the kidneys must filter out extra creatine, which causes them to work harder; this can result in kidney failure if the kidneys are overly stressed. Possible long-term side effects of high creatine levels have yet to be determined, but studies of creatine supplement usage up to five years have not shown any major effects, besides the ones previously mentioned.
Many athletic coaches are well aware that students are using these dietary supplements to enhance their abilities, regardless of the chance of side effects. A study by the Blue Cross health insurance company showed that one million people from the age of 12 to 17 have used dietary supplements to enhance their sports performance. Although creatine is legal and easy to purchase, some concerns have risen regarding the content of the supplements. Health officials have stated that at least 25% of these dietary supplements are laced with substances that are not listed on the packaging, which could lead to additional risks.