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How to be a Better Athlete – The Creatine Edge?

By Dr. Victor Gong, Medical Director of 75th St. & 126th St. Medical, Ocean Pines Medical & Doctors Weight Control & Wellness centers, Ocean City, MD.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a compound found naturally in the body's muscle tissue. It is created by the liver, pancreas and kidneys at a rate of about 1 gram a day. Meat, fish and milk are sources of creatine.

Creatine is used by muscle cells to produce energy for short-term, explosive exercise such as sprinting and weightlifting. In the muscle, creatine is synthesized into creatine phosphate, a significant component in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Creatine is not new. Scientists have known about creatine for decades, and athletes have ingested creatine – in the form of meat – for centuries. There are approximately 4 grams of creatine per kilogram of raw meat and 10 grams of creatine per kilogram of raw fish.

St.Louis slugger Mark McGwire swears by it. So do sprinter Michael Johnson and Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe. There is a good chance that the average gym jock at your local Y has used it, too.

So what is it these practitioners of such varied disciplines have in common? Creatine.

In powder, pills or punch, it is the supplement of choice for those searching for the magic potion that will boost power and build muscle harmlessly.

From high school weight rooms to the training centers for professional sports teams, creatine – with its promise of speed, strength and stamina – has become as ubiquitous as barbells and weight machines. Available in most health food stores, creatine has been promoted as a safe, legal alternative to anabolic steroids.

But is it ok? Thus far, no one can say for sure if it poses a long-term health risk. Only now are studies under way to look at the effect that using creatine for up to two years might have on a person. And that has placed creatine at the center of a fierce debate in the athletic world.

So what is creatine and how does it work? Well, let's start with what it is not; it is not a steroid that triggers muscle growth on its own. Rather, it is a chemical compound, occurring naturally in the body, that facilitates the release of energy in the muscles.

Specifically, it enables the body's muscles to use energy anaerobically--that is, without oxygen. Explosive, short-term activities such as sprinting and weightlifting use creatine to provide energy to the muscles.

The body has a limited store of creatine in muscle cells. Once that store is depleted, an athlete's strength is diminished.

Creatine is found naturally in animal muscle tissue and is created by the liver, pancreas and kidneys. Studies have shown that the amount of creatine stored in muscles can be increased by taking creatine supplements. The additional creatine has proven to permit athletes to perform a bit longer at top levels.

For instance, a weightlifter might find he can do 10 repetitions of a weight he previously was able to lift only seven or eight times. The ability to lift a weight more times enables an athlete to gain more strength more quickly.

In a study conducted by Kraemer and Penn State researcher Jeff Volek, 14 college-age men were divided into two groups. Half were given a placebo; half were given 25 grams of creatine a day. After a week, the creatine group performed an average of eight more repetitions in the bench press and demonstrated significantly more peak power output in the jump squat.

More than 100 studies have been done on creatine. Many, but not all, of those studies found an improvement of performance in short-duration anaerobic exercises (creatine has not been found to benefit athletes who perform aerobic sports, such as longer-distance running.)

“There are basically three categories of individuals who can be helped by using creatine,” he said. “Athletes who benefit from short bursts of power – bodybuilders, weightlifters, perhaps football players, perhaps baseball players. Secondly, younger individuals in their 20s to 30s who work out and want to build up their muscles. And thirdly, middle-aged and older individuals who have lost muscle mass over the decades and can't build back up, no mater how hard they try.”

There can be some unpleasant short-term reactions during the "loading phase," the first week of use when large doses of creatine are taken, he said. Nausea, loose stools, stomach cramps and tmeporary dizziness are some of those side effects that have been reported, Long-term problems, Sahelian said, could be muscle and tendon sprains that could occur if an individual gets overenthusiastic and starts adding the weights faster than ligaments or tendons can handle them.

Late last year, there was speculation that creatine was a factor in the deaths of three college wrestlers. The Food and Drug Administration released a statement in April saying creatine did “not appear to be a major factor” in the deaths.

Because creatine causes muscle cells to absorb more water, its use requires athletes to drink more fluids or run the risk of dehydration.

Additional studies would specifically address the questions surrounding creatine's impact on the liver and kidneys. One study will be conducted by Richard B. Kreider, a professor of Exercise and Sports Nutrition at the University of Memphis.

However, even that study is unlikely to lessen the controversy surrounding creatine. Questions concerning longterm side effects, if any, await to be determined.

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