Can Creatine Kill

For crying out loud, it’s the science. Notwithstanding political references, the science is what invariably seems left out when newspaper and television reporters do their so-called objective reporting. Sometimes I’m left to wonder if the news media just go and find someone with initials after his or her name and quote whatever blather he or she is willing to spew. Whether the blather is incorrect or imbecilic doesn’t seem to matter.

Hence, we run into the controversy concerning three college wrestlers and the purported link between their deaths and the use of creatine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is ostensibly investigating the role that creatine played in their deaths. In a USA Today report, FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore states:
Nothing is confirmed. It has been reported that at least one wrestler was on creatine, but we don’t know yet.” Before you raise your eyebrows at the suggestion, let’s look at what happened to these athletes

Raising Suspicions?

Jeff Reese, a University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) wrestler, was attempting to drop weight by wearing a rubber suit and working out in a 92-degree room. He died. Joseph LaRosa, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse wrestler, also wore a rubber suit while exercising in the heat. He died. Also attempting to lose weight, Billy Jack Saylor, a Campbell University (Boles Creek, North Carolina) wrestler, died after a two-hour workout. Such deaths are tragic and we look for something to blame. But if we put the blame in the wrong place, we don’t prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Mark S. John, MD, a sports-medicine physician at the University of Washington (Seattle), inferred that creatine may have contributed in part to these deaths. “Respected members of the sports-medicine community have reported muscle cramping and tearing in athletes on creatine … many feel this is due to muscle-tissue changes, such as retained water in the muscle cell, which can promote muscle dysfunction. . . . While it’s hard to prove that creatine is the cause of these problems, it certainly does raise suspicion.”

Now, I don’t know for certain what killed these presumably fit and healthy young men, but if I were to venture a guess, creatine would not be in my top 10 explanations. You know what raises my suspicion? Exercising for two hours, in the heat, wearing a rubber suit! Follow my logic: Intense exercise in extreme heat leads to severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and possible heart failure. Everybody knows you can’t live for long if you stop ingesting fluids. Imagine if you’re purposefully trying to lose weight (water weight, not fat weight) as quickly as possible and at the same time depleting your body of glycogen; you’re definitely setting yourself up for disaster.

Use of these ill-advised weight-loss schemes by wrestlers isn’t new; they’ve been doing this for years. Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t see more deaths. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association have warned about this for years. In 1970, these practices were investigated in Iowa. In 1992, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) instituted a rule to keep weight loss to no more than 3 pounds per week and bodyfat at or above 7%. All WIAA members are required to abide by these rules. And if you’re thinking like I’m thinking, why would someone who’s desperately trying to lose weight concurrently take creatine? We know of at least two side effects of creatine: You get stronger and gain weight … sure bet.

I can see these guys taking creatine in the off-season when they’re trying to build a good foundation of strength and muscle mass, but to continue taking it while attempting to lose weight is kind of like taking a shower with your raincoat on. I’d say if you want to look at possible culprits, see if these athletes used laxatives ordiuretics. Improper use of diuretics is a sure way to quickly meet your maker. As for laxatives, there just has to be a better way.

A Sensible Option

An examination of the current scientific research lends credence to the idea that creatine is quite safe. Creatine is normally made by your liver, pancreas and kidneys, but can be obtained from a diet rich in meat or fish. You get approximately 212 grams of creatine per pound of meat. Thus, you’d have to eat about 8 pounds of meat to ingest 20 grams of creatine, a dose typically ingested. Obviously, it may not be feasible for some people to consume Godzilla-sized servings of meat, so supplementing with creatine is a sensible option.

Unless you were part of a lost tribe in a far-off jungle, you probably wouldn’t find anyone in a strength-power sport that hasn’t tried or isn’t currently using creatine. Why? Because it enhances anaerobic performance, pure and simple.

On the flip side, not everyone responds the same to creatine (or any other supplement for that matter), so side effects, though rare, may occur in certain individuals. The only consistent side effect is weight gain (about 6-7 pounds in one month is common); this has been reported in numerous scientific publications. Some anecdotal reports suggest that creatine may predispose certain users to muscle pulls or cramps, but this hasn’t been demonstrated scientifically.

Other factors such as hydration status, fitness level, type of training, etc., may affect the occurrence of muscle cramps or pulls. Certainly, individuals who use creatine, because they grow stronger and more powerful, may end up training harder. They may even do too much too soon. The possibility that they’re overtraining may predispose them to muscle pulls and cramps and is therefore not necessarily related to the use of creatine itself.

The role creatine could play in dehydration-associated heart failure isn’t clear. At this point, nobody knows if it has an effect at all. But the burden of proof should be borne by those who make negative claims. Show me the evidence, then I’ll believe that creatine can be dangerous. Otherwise, there’s no need to give the public at large reason to believe the sky is falling just so the popular press can brandish one more sensationalized story.

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