The first time I was introduced to creatine, it was around the time Mark McGwire was beginning to come under fire for potential steroid use back in 1998, as he was helping baseballs make their exits from major league stadiums at an unprecedented pace. He offered up his creatine use as an apparent feint to help him sidestep the simultaneous criticism he was receiving over his use of androstenedione — an actual steroid.
It seemed like the very next day, half of the guys I knew were experimenting with creatine. Some even went so far as to blame it for whatever overaggressive or clownish behavior they exhibited, as if creatine was some sort of psychedelic drug rather than a substance that exists naturally in the body.
What that episode rapidly taught me is that there’s no mysterious outside influence to which people aren’t willing to attribute their troubles, and this is especially true of ingested substances if those taking them have no earthly idea how those substances operate.
So is creatine responsible for my hair loss?
*Deep sigh* Okay… we’re going to take this apart piece by piece.
Creatine supplementation increases the levels of phosphocreatine (PC) in your muscles. It also boosts the quantity of adenosine triphosphate — more commonly known as ATP — in your body. Boosting your ATP levels with creatine supplementation is especially handy during explosive, high-intensity exercise. Your body has three energy systems — the ATP-PC system, the glycolytic system and the oxidative system — and the system it taps into at a given point in time is dictated by the type of workout you’re involved in.
For instance, let’s say you were a relatively untrained swimmer who decided to sprint a 200-meter butterfly without preparing for it. Your ATP-PC system would be able to sustain your efforts for about the first 10 to 12 seconds, and then your body would transition over to the glycolytic system, an intermediary energy source, to keep it going. The problem is, the glycolytic system is less efficient to sprint with. Pretty quickly then, you’ll reach the point where you can’t sustain a powerful stroke and kick even if you wanted to because you’ve maxed out your first two energy systems. That’s when your oxidative system kicks in, which fortifies you throughout any long physical endeavors.
During a sustained athletic undertaking, creatine supplementation may only add one or two seconds worth of hyper-efficient energy to your sprinting capabilities by boosting your ATP-PC system. But in a weight-room setting, it may improve your lifting volume by one or two reps — or a certain percentage of pounds — over and above what you’d ordinarily lift. That may not sound like much, but sustaining higher poundages and rep totals week in and week out will result in noticeable gains to your muscle size.
Why do I bring this up? Because creatine does not boost testosterone levels or otherwise influence hormones, which is frequently the territory of steroids.
Does this mean it’s steroids, not creatine, that accelerate hair loss?
Steroid use increases levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) in the body. When it comes to your hair — and primarily the hair on your head — DHT attaches to the hair follicles, causes inflammation and boosts the likelihood that they’re going to fall out. Resistance to DHT is a genetic trait; if you aren’t genetically predisposed to handle the inflammation caused by DHT, you’re likely to lose your hair.
Again, creatine isn’t a steroid, nor does it function in any way like a steroid. Because some people believe creatine influences hormones like a steroid, that might cause them to believe it’s responsible for their hair loss. But if you find your hairline looking more like Hulk Hogan’s just as your body is also beginning to resemble his, your creatine supplementation isn’t going to be the culprit.
Then why is my hair falling out if it isn’t the creatine?
“Time” and “genetics” would be my first two guesses.
The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the more time that passes, the more likely it is that you’re going to lose some hair. When hair loss commences, it can be very tempting to place the blame on the most recent thing about yourself that’s changed. In this instance, it may simply be a coincidence that routine hair loss, which your genetics have predestined you for regardless, managed to neatly overlap with the start of your creatine supplementation.
That said, it’s not like creatine is without side effects, some of which can be rather dire. Kidney damage, kidney stones, liver damage, cramps and digestive concerns are all on the list of potential unintended consequences caused by creatine use. The thing is, these are all internal. This means that creatine is far more likely to be at fault for what’s going on inside your body than atop your head.