Fall 2008 Issue

Pumped up

While pro sports continue to be plagued by steroid scandals, chemistry professor Tony Wallner researches a safer alternative to boosting athletic performance.

By Jim W. Harper

Professor Tony Wallner uses a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument to ascertain minute changes in solutions with creatine.

Performance-enhancing drugs have crushed the image of many athletes who were once idolized. Several Tour de France winners, including Floyd Landis in 2006, have lost their titles and their dignity due to doping. Illegal drug usage has been so rampant in Major League Baseball that Congress became involved and issued a stinging report in 2007. Sprinter Marion Jones went to jail in 2008 for steroid use and was stripped of her Olympic medals.

While scandals of steroid continue to capture the public’s imagination, legal alternatives exist for boosting athletic performance. But many questions remain about their efficacy and safety. Stepping into the athletic supplement debate is Dr. Tony Wallner, chair of Barry’s department of physical sciences and a professor of chemistry.

For the past decade, Wallner has been researching creatine monohydrate, a protein-building substance that occurs naturally in the body. Since arriving on vitamin store shelves in the 1990s, creatine has become the biggest muscle-building supplement on the market today.

Some weightlifters consider creatine to be a “miracle” supplement, because it helps build muscle without the many side effects that accompany the use of steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). Wallner, himself, can attest to its effectiveness from his own experience. “I have taken it in the past and it worked,” he said. “You can put on a fair amount of muscle size reasonably quickly.”

Also providing a positive review of his creatine experience is Dan Hill, the director of Barry’s fitness center. “This was going back to the late 90s,” said Hill. “It was popular, so I tried it. It actually did give me some added benefit.” He noted that he found that his muscles’ mass expanded rapidly and that he recovered quickly between workouts. But, he is quick to add that the results a bodybuilder can get from creatine are usually not as dramatic as the ones they see after steroid use.

“I discourage people if they compare it to steroids. If you’re not going to put in the workout intensity, it’s not going to do you a bit of good,” he said. Hill discourages high school athletes from using creatine, simply as a precautionary measure. As a supplement, creatine is unnecessary for good health, and he would like to see more long-term studies proving a lack of side effects before allowing young, growing bodies to try it.

Creatine is an amino acid that is produced naturally by the liver and the kidneys, and it supports the proper functioning of the musculoskeletal system. Creatine supplements are legal and generally considered safe, unlike steroids and HGH. “Those things are hormones and have huge harmful effects,” Wallner says. “Liver damage, heart damage, testicular damage – horrific things. You’re messing with the natural balance of your body.”

In contrast, the two primary damaging side-effects from creatine supplementation have been documented as cramps and kidney stones, and the latter, Wallner says, can usually be avoided by ingesting cranberry juice. Moreover, an increase in fluid intake during supplementation is necessary to avoid the possibility of dehydration.

Both Waller and Hill stress the importance of obtaining creatine from a reputable source, because supplements are not as strictly regulated as food. “You’re relying on the honesty of the company that’s producing it,” said Wallner.

The question on Wallner’s mind now, however, is not so much how effective it is as a supplement but, rather, how to take it. Excess amounts of creatine will be expelled through urination in a manner similar to Vitamin C. But how are the benefits of creatine enhanced or diminished based on the solvent it dissolves in?

For example, if you head to the gym but forget your “creatine shake” inside the car, will it overheat and become useless?

Two of Wallner’s students investigated the stability of creatine in water, which is a common form of ingestion. Jeavon Inniss ’08 and junior Kiyana Edwards presented a poster at the April conference of the American Chemical Society based on their finding that creatine remains stable in water for at least two weeks. This finding adds to the debate about how to ingest creatine for maximum effect.

Wallner’s lab uses the latest technology to ascertain minute changes in solutions with creatine. The spin of an atom’s nucleus can be detected by a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument, which behaves like a medical MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) instrument. Wallner compares the results from this newer technique with those obtained in earlier studies using the technique of HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography), thereby adding depth to this line of research.

In addition to investigating creatine dissolved in water, Wallner’s research team has experimented with various acid solutions, such as grape juice, to determine how long this mixture would remain effective.

In theory, fruit juices may enhance the muscle-building effects of creatine due to their high glycemic index or ability to increase blood sugar rapidly. The problem with this better-tasting formula, however, is that creatine tends to degrade in acidic solutions such as fruit juice. Therefore, precise measurements are needed before bodybuilders can be certain of the effectiveness of getting “juiced” with creatine.

Research into the supplement, however, is not purely for the benefit of gym addicts, Wallner notes. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has funded researchers exploring its benefits to sufferers of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and other neuromuscular disorders. Its anti-oxidant properties are well documented, and some studies suggest that it can reduce total cholesterol. A 2008 study from the University of Munich found that it may increase brain functionality and longevity in the elderly.

Could creatine be the fabled fountain of youth? Probably not. But research into the reactions of creatine is taking Wallner to laboratories on the other side of the world. During the spring and summer semesters, he will be spending a research sabbatical in Australia.

Wallner’s colleagues at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia study creatine with the same advanced technology as he does. But while Barry has one nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument, multiple NMR instruments at Monash will allow Wallner to accelerate the pace of his research.

Wallner hopes that the collaboration Down Under will also allow him to expand the scope of his research. He plans to continue investigating other athletic supplements and how they react in various solutions. The next supplement placed under the NMR instrument will most likely be beta-alanine, another amino acid reported as having a synergistic effect when combined with creatine and credited with reducing fatigue.

He also plans to take steps toward establishing a student/faculty exchange with Monash University. “Certainly that is my hope,” he said. “I’ll be talking with colleagues about setting up a partnership for summer research experience.”

Based on recent success, the signs are positive for Wallner and his students. They remain far from the spotlight of athletic scandals but at the center of debate about legitimate supplements that can make a healthy, positive difference in performance training.

Jim Harper is a freelance writer who backpacked through China in 1991. He has worked as an English teacher, ocean conservationist and swimming coach. He resides in North Miami, leads a weekly long-distance ocean swim, and writes regularly about the environment.