How is Creatine Different from Steroids?

My 16-year-old son is really into sports. He's on the football team and baseball team, and he spends a lot of time working out and lifting weights with his friends. Recently, he started taking creatine to build muscle and improve his performance. I was alarmed when I found out, but he assures me that creatine is natural and safe. Is this true? What's the difference between creatine and steroids?

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Jennifer Trachtenberg

Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg is a board-certified pediatrician and a fellow member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is on the... Read more

Performance-enhancing supplements like creatine, which is sold over-the-counter, are gaining fast popularity among middle school and high school students, even though they are not recommended for children under 18. In a recently study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 44 percent of high school seniors admitted using creatine. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance that is found in low doses in foods. Proponents say it can safely add muscle and improve strength and endurance, but there is serious concern among doctors about the possible long-term effects of taking it in high doses. Furthermore, because creatine is marketed as a supplement, it isn't held to the strict standards of the Food and Drug Administration. It is also, like steroids, banned from athletic organizations like the NFL, NCAA, and the International Olympic Committee.

Anabolic steroids are also used by athletes to enhance performance, but these are extremely powerful and dangerous drugs that help to build muscle tissue by acting like the male hormone testosterone. Relying on anabolic steroids to improve athletic ability is not only illegal, it can be extremely harmful, especially for teenagers. Steroids can have an extreme effect on stunting growth. Other side effects include:

• Severe acne
• Baldness
• Sleep problems
• Headaches
• Nausea and vomiting
• Diarrhea
• High blood pressure, heart disease and strokes
• Liver damage
• Aggressive, violent behavior
• Severe mood swings (also depression and anxiety attacks)
• Hallucinations and paranoia

Additionally, steroids cause males to produce less of their own testosterone, which can result in impotence, gynecomastia (increased breast size) and reduced sperm count. In females, steroids can lead to reduced breast size, deeper voice, increased facial and body hair, and menstrual problems.

Remember, athletic ability depends on more than just muscle mass. Genetics, age, diet, training, dedication, and perserverance all play a part in how a young adult plays sports. Using steroids or supplements is not only cheating, it can cause numerous health problems. Until safety can be established, I would discourage your son from taking creatine.

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