Creatine: A Multifaceted Supplement?

Creatine is a fitness supplement, made popular by social media. But is there enough evidence to support the claimed benefits?

Close-up image of a woman in sportswear mixing creatine powder into a protein shake after a workout

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The widespread marketing of creatine as a cure-all has led to misinformation and controversies. Creatine has garnered attention across social media platforms as a popular fitness supplement. Creatine is produced within the human body, albeit in smaller quantities than found in supplements. It’s also present in foods like fish and red meat, contributing to its availability in our diets. Primarily recognized for its role in providing energy for muscle contractions, creatine’s potential effects may extend beyond the realm of fitness.

Creatine products have become widespread on social media, promoted by everyone from brain coaches to fitness trainers. In 2022, creatine sales surged by 120% over the prior year. But only 25% of the touted health benefits are supported by any evidence, and concerns about the supplement’s safety persist.

Darren Candow and team explored potential benefits of creatine intake across different groups. The researchers reviewed over 1,000 peer-reviewed articles and found some evidence that creatine might have modest positive effects on brain health after a concussion, strengthen memory retention in older adults, and potentially alleviate some symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with mood disorders. They also found that the supplement may improve cognitive function acutely for children with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

Athletic performance remains the major focus of creatine research. Scott Forbes and his colleagues studied the supplement’s effects on athletes’ endurance, anaerobic activity, and body mass. They found that although some randomized clinical trials support creatine’s role in enhancing muscle growth in athletes who consume supplements post-workout, the evidence for other benefits is less compelling.

Multiple clinical studies have identified creatine supplementation as safe for healthy adults, with minimal acute side effects. The primary downside is the potential for weight gain due to increased water retention in muscles. For adults with underlying medical conditions, it is advised to seek doctor approval before starting supplementation. The long-term risk of regular use remains understudied.

However, the landscape changes when it comes to children and adolescents. The safety of creatine use in younger populations is largely unexplored. While warning labels caution against use by individuals under 18, these warnings are more about manufacturers’ legal protection than clinical evidence. This lack of research leaves a gap in our understanding and underscores the need for scientifically rigorous studies to ascertain the safety and efficacy of creatine in children and adolescents.

Although taking dietary supplements is worth considering, the positive health effects thus far are minor. While some studies suggest promising outcomes, uncertainties remain, and creatine use might be approached with caution.