You can find countless dietary supplements that will claim to help you lose weight, enhance performance, boost your immunity, improve sleep or give you energy ““ you name it, there’s a supplement marketed to fix it.
Unfortunately, the problem associated with this class of products is that they’re really poorly regulated. The Federal Drug Administration requires that drugs be safe and effective. Supplements, however, are regulated like foods. Therefore, they cannot make any claims about preventing or treating disease. When they do, the manufacturers get fined, ordered to “cease and desist” and sometimes pulled off the market. But who sets the standards for quality control? And who monitors it?
All too often, the only time we find out that a supplement may be dangerous and gets pulled off the market is when enough people get really sick or die from taking them. So, buyers beware, right?
If you are going to spend your money and accept the risk of taking a performance enhancing supplement, it would be awfully nice for you to be able to know at the very least that it’s not going to harm you. But it would be even better if the stuff actually did what it claims to do. You’re not crazy for wanting to take something that can improve your competitive edge, help you excel, achieve, innovate, grow and succeed.
Aside from weight loss aids, athletic performance enhancing products probably make up the largest class of supplements that people take regularly. And next to protein powders, creatine is among the most popular of these products. So what is creatine? Is it safe? And does it work?
Well, in this case there’s actually a decent amount of mainstream scientific data to look at for the answers. Creatine is a simple protein that is necessary for the chemical processes muscle cells use to produce energy that translates into movement.
While your body produces some of the creatine it needs, you can also get it in both food and supplemental form. It’s found in beef, tuna, cod, salmon, and pork ““ making it difficult for vegetarians to include in their diet.
The theory goes that if you increase the supply of creatine to the body, you will make and store more of it in your muscle cells and make more energy available to let muscles work harder before becoming fatigued.
Well, both the increase in storage and the slight reduction in muscle fatigue can and have been measured, studied and published. It’s just that the results aren’t all that impressive.
For example, one double-blind study of creatine supplementation in sprinters and jumpers enhanced performance in the jumping test by seven percent for the first 15 seconds, 12 percent for the next 15 seconds and showed no difference after that in a 45-second jumping test. In other words, the results are nothing to jump up and down about.
So it turns out the claims about creatine just don’t hold water. But you might.
Creatine has not been reliably proven to increase muscle mass, but it sometimes increases muscle size by causing water retention, which in turn can cause cramps, dehydration and heat intolerance. And taking more than two grams of creatine daily could potentially cause damage to your kidneys.
Numerous other adverse creatine-associated events have been reported to the FDA over the many years the type of supplement has been popular, though the correlation between the health concerns and the supplements has not been definitively determined.
Oftentimes, it is actually impurities in supplements that are the result of either intention or poor manufacturing and oversight processes that cause some of the most harmful effects.
So how are you going to figure out if a product that you hear or read about is worth trying and safe?
In this case, I can confidently tell you that creatine is more hype than help.
As far as other supplements go, ask a clinician at the Ashe Center. Ask me. Don’t just Google it. There are reliable websites out there that you can trust. In a future article, I’ll refer you to a few of them. Or check the Ashe website for helpful links.
In the meantime, here’s a simple tip: muscle building is not caused by taking supplements or even by eating extra protein, it’s a result of increased muscular work. See you at the gym.
Dr. David Baron is the executive director of the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center.