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If you don’t take creatine yourself, you probably know someone who does. The sports supplement rocketed to popularity after the 1992 Olympics, when British track star Linford Christie testified that it had helped him train for his gold-medal-winning 100-meter dash. Nearly 30 later, it’s still one of the most popular—and most studied—training supplements on the market. According to exercise physiologist Jose Antonio, PhD, of Nova Southeastern University, “Creatine’s been the subject of more than 500 scientific studies. No other food or dietary supplement has as much supportive data.”
Yet creatine remains a perpetual target for rumors and misconceptions. Among the most powerful: That creatine causes hair loss. Research remains ongoing, but “the current body of evidence does not indicate that creatine causes hair loss or baldness,” says Dr. Antonio.
Why the creatine-and-hair-loss myth persists
The hair-loss rumor stems from a single study conducted in 2009 in South Africa in which a group of college-aged rugby players took creatine every day for three weeks. The study showed a “statistically significant” increase in the participants’ levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), the testosterone byproduct that, in high concentrations, can shrink hair follicles, shorten the hair growth cycle, and cause hair to thin.
However, according to Dr. Antonio—who, along with an internationally renowned team of researchers, reviewed the most common creatine misconceptions for the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition—none of the rugby players in the study actually experienced hair loss as a result of taking the supplement. What’s more, the people in the study who received the creatine started out with baseline DHT levels 23% lower than the placebo group, and their measured increase in DHT “remained well within normal clinical limits.” In other words, their DHT levels started out low and they stayed low. “‘Statistically significant’ is not the same thing as physiologically meaningful,” Dr. Antonio explains.
Twelve other clinical trials have examined the effects of creatine supplements on testosterone, and, so far, none have replicated the findings of the South African study. Nevertheless, the study made its way to social media and the creatine-causes-hair-loss rumor was born.
The good side of creatine
Creatine is simply an amino-acid derivative. It helps create and store the molecule phosphocreatine (Pcr), which the muscles use to generate energy for low-duration, high-intensity exercise. Dr. Antonio laments creatine’s bad rap. “I’ve been taking it for 25 years,” he says. He cites studies showing that creatine may help improve memory and brain function and benefits patients with neuromuscular diseases, Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and traumatic brain injury. The supplement may even help limit the amount of damage from a concussion. Creatine may also work synergistically with exercise to slow, and perhaps even reverse, age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia).
What else to know about creatine
Creatine isn’t FDA approved as a drug, but it is designated as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the Food and Drug Administration. If used correctly, creatine doesn’t have many side effects other than some weight gain, though usually in the form of lean muscle mass.
A study in the International Journal of sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggests that caffeine may make creatine less effective, though more research is needed. Leslie Bonci, dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs, cautions that creatine may not work for everyone. Since creatine is a naturally occurring organic compound in most meats and fish, Bonci says creatine supplements may be more beneficial for vegetarians “who don’t already consume creatine as part of their daily diets.”
Any guy thinking about adding creatine to his diet should visit a reputable health-food or vitamin-and-nutrition store, says MH dermatology advisor Adnan Nasir, MD. The supplement is available as a powder, tablet, energy bar, or drink mix. Discover how to buy an effective creatine supplement here. Men with underlying kidney disease should consult their doctor before coming home with a barrel of powder. And stick to the recommended amount: typically 3 to 5 grams a day. Guzzling 20 grams at a time isn’t going to turn you overnight into the Hulk. Creatine is water soluble, which means if you take too much, you’ll literally be flushing your money down the toilet. At least you can be pretty sure that creatine won’t cause you to find your hair around the shower drain.
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