Sunday 15 September 2019

Dear Dr Nina: My son has started to take creatine, he says it's harmless. Is it?

Creatine can have side effects

Nina Byrnes

Question: My 15-year-old son has started taking creatine with his protein shakes after training. He is a keen rugby player, and says that it is harmless and that everyone does it. Is it harmless? Or should I be worried about him using this supplement?

Dr Nina replies:  Creatine supplementation has become very popular in recent years. It is used primarily by athletes and those undertaking resistance training in the hopes that it will help increase lean body mass.

Creatine is an amino acid (a protein building block) that is found naturally in meat and fish. It is stored in muscles in the body, it’s a source of energy for muscle contraction and helps in muscle growth. Studies in adults have suggested that creatine supplementation can cause a small 3-5pc increase in muscle mass. It may also enhance athletic performance.

This supplement is not without side effects. In rare cases it may cause an allergic reaction. It can also cause dehydration, as it draws water out of the blood stream and into muscle. Dehydration may be a higher risk if creatine is used without adequate fluid supplementation during exercise. Caffeine, another supplement used to increase endurance, can put a strain on the heart and increase dehydration. Creatine and caffeine should not be taken together. Creatine can lead to bloating and gastrointestinal upset.

Long-term use can be associated with kidney and liver damage. Those with kidney problems should not use creatine.

All the research in creatine use has been performed on adults. There is limited data available for its safety in teens, yet one study in the USA suggested that up to 30pc of high school boys might be using this supplement. A study published last year suggested that health food shops and pharmacies frequently recommended it to teens, even though this is contrary to professional guidance. The concern is that as teen bodies are still growing and maturing they may be more susceptible to the toxic damage creatine can cause. The American Academy of Paediatrics and The American College of Sports Medicine advise against its use in those under the age of 18.

Creatine cannot do what a good sports and exercise programme can. The safest way to gain muscle mass is to do it slowly through a properly prescribed resistance and endurance training programme. As in most things in medicine, quick fixes don’t work.

A healthy lifestyle including a broad balanced diet, regular exercise and proper rest will allow the body to develop healthily and perform at it’s best. Teens should be taught to focus on growing healthy bodies not bulky ones.

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