by Chris Lockwood, Ph.D.
Beta-alanine is technically a non-essential beta-amino acid, but it has quickly become anything but non-essential in the worlds of performance nutrition and bodybuilding. Also known by its trademarked name CarnoSyn, it has become a shining star due to claims that it raises muscle carnosine levels and increases the amount of work you can perform at high intensities.
Beta-alanine is also famous for producing a certain "tingle" you probably felt—and possibly freaked out about—the first time you tried a pre-workout supplement containing beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine can offer real performance benefits, but it has unique chemical properties that need to be understood. It may also have a unique push-and-pull relationship with our old friend taurine that should be taken into account.
Beta-alanine could earn a permanent place in your nutritional war-chest. I'm here to provide you the science-based intel you need to decide if it's right for you.
Beta-alanine, or 3-aminopropionic acid is a naturally-occurring beta-amino acid and a component of the histidine dipeptides carnosine and anserine, as well as vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid. Structurally, beta-alanine is a hybrid between the potent neurotransmitters L-glycine and GABA, which may explain why consumers often claim to experience a caffeine-like response from it. Beta-alanine is even gaining support within the scientific community for being secondarily classified as a neurotransmitter.
Your body can produce beta-alanine in at least three ways. It can be released during the breakdown of histidine dipeptides, such as carnosine or anserine, or it can be formed as a secondary byproduct of a reaction that converts L-alanine to pyruvate. Additionally, beta-alanine can be formed during digestion, when intestinal microbes remove a carbon atom from L-aspartate, releasing both beta-alanine and CO2. But don't tell Al Gore that, or he'll try to argue that you should be charged for increasing your carbon footprint.
When consumed as a dietary supplement, beta-alanine passes from the bloodstream into skeletal muscle via a beta-alanine and taurine transporter that's dependent upon both sodium and chloride availability. Once it enters a skeletal muscle cell, it binds with the essential amino acid L-histidine to form the dipeptide carnosine. That's where the fun really begins.
The sports benefit of supplementing with beta-alanine lies mostly in its ability to raise muscle carnosine concentrations. In fact, beta-alanine is the limiting amino acid in carnosine synthesis, meaning that its presence in the bloodstream is directly tied to muscle carnosine levels.
To date, every study in which beta-alanine has been supplemented to human subjects has resulted in a significant increase in muscle carnosine. This stands in contrast to other iconic supplements like creatine, for which distinct responders and non-responders have been observed. But beta-alanine doesn't just work broadly; it also works well. Supplementation with beta-alanine has been shown to increase muscle carnosine concentrations by up to 58 percent in just four weeks, and 80 percent in 10 weeks.
What's so special about carnosine, you ask? Well, aside from being a potent antioxidant, this peptide is one of your muscles' first lines of defense against the buildup of hydrogen ions (H+) during high-intensity exercise. This rise in H+ dramatically lowers the pH within muscle cells, negatively effecting enzyme function and muscle excitation-contraction coupling events that support continued, high-intensity output. Put simply, a drop in muscle pH is a major contributor to muscle fatigue.
Muscle carnosine concentration is also linked with having a high percentage of Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers. For this reason, you'll find higher levels of muscle carnosine among sprinters and natural muscle freaks. Men also generally have higher muscle carnosine concentrations than women, most likely because the enzyme that breaks down carnosine is more active in women.
You derive little free-form beta-alanine from the foods you consume. Most comes in the form of the dipeptides carnosine, anserine or balenine, each of which contribute to raising beta-alanine availability when broken down during digestion. Unless you are vegetarian, you derive these from the animal proteins in your diet. Specifically, pork and beef are good sources of carnosine, whereas tuna and venison are high food sources of anserine.
Just how tied is carnosine to being a carnivore? Well, carnosine synthase (the enzyme that produces carnosine) expression has been shown to be significantly reduced in response to just five weeks of a vegetarian diet. As you might expect from that, muscle carnosine concentrations are significantly lower in vegetarians than in the muscles of their carnivorous or omnivorous counterparts.
Beta-alanine is also a standard ingredient in many pre-workout supplements, in addition to being available on its own. When purchasing a beta-alanine supplement, however, look for the brand name CarnoSyn® on the label.
Natural Alternatives International, Inc. is the patent-holder on the manufacturing process by which beta-alanine is made, and its product is the only one protected by use patents and is the one that has been suggested to be effective in repeated research trials.
Buyer, be wary if you don't see CarnoSyn® on the label! You may instead just be consuming regular L-alanine or something altogether different.
If you're looking for a boost in short-to-medium duration high-intensity muscle performance, few supplements to date have fit the bill as consistently as beta-alanine.
Specifically, beta-alanine seems most effective for supporting exercise lasting longer than 60 seconds. It has not been shown to be significantly or consistently effective in shorter duration bouts of exercise, where the ATP-phosphocreatine energy system is in highest demand.
For example, in one of the first published studies on beta-alanine and human athletic performance, subjects received either a placebo, 20 g per day of creatine monohydrate, 800 mg of beta-alanine four times per day, or the same dose of beta-alanine plus 20 g of creatine monohydrate. Maximal power output in a four-minute all-out cycling test was significantly increased in the two groups receiving beta-alanine, versus those receiving the placebo or only creatine. The most significant improvement was noted in the first and fourth minutes of cycling.
Since that early trial, beta-alanine has been consistently suggested to increase muscle power output, strength, training volume, high-intensity exercise performance and peak oxygen uptake (aerobic capacity). Most recently, when players consumed 3.2 g per day of beta-alanine for 12 weeks during a competitive soccer season, their performance was shown to improve by 34.3 percent, compared to a -7.6 percent change in those consuming a placebo. In fact, when all subject responses were analyzed, those consuming beta-alanine improved by a range of 0 to 72.7 percent, whereas those consuming the placebo had a response range of between -37.5 and +14.7 percent.
Similarly, researchers out of the U.K. presented evidence that just four weeks of six grams per day of beta-alanine (1.5 g, four times per day) increased the punch force of amateur boxers by an amazing 20 times, and punch frequency by four times, as compared to a placebo. However, when long rest periods (2-5 minutes) were provided between sets of a high-intensity strength training session, the effects of beta-alanine were insignificant.
Therefore, for the effects of beta-alanine to be most noticeable, I would recommend a high-intensity bodybuilding-style training program, HIIT or interval training, CrossFit, or all-out 1-5 minute bouts to exhaustion, with short rest periods of less than 2 minutes.
Beta-alanine can provide an acute stimulant response and is therefore a good candidate for being consumed pre-workout. If you take a pre-workout supplement, you might already be taking it this way. However, the performance benefits from beta-alanine are based upon raising muscle carnosine concentrations over time. Thus, the time of day you consume beta-alanine isn't nearly as important as consistently consuming beta-alanine each day.
Your muscle fiber makeup and the amount of muscle carnosine you have when you start supplementing with beta-alanine do not appear to impact how you will respond to supplementation. Likewise, the size of individual doses doesn't appear to affect the maximal concentration of muscle carnosine that you can achieve. Instead, the total dose over a period of time affects the final muscle carnosine concentration that you can achieve.
The dose response to beta-alanine increases exponentially over time because of the long clearance time of elevated muscle carnosine concentrations. Once you build up your carnosine concentration with beta-alanine, those elevated levels have been shown to drop by just two percent every two weeks after you cease supplementing.
I recommend consuming taurine when supplementing with beta-alanine. Not only is taurine an underutilized super-nutrient, it's also incredibly important for neuromuscular, cognitive and lung function, blood glucose utilization, and as an antioxidant. Since beta-alanine and taurine compete for uptake and the concentration of one affects the other, consuming one of them consistently while dosing the other is just common sense.
If common sense isn't enough for you, then let's get specific. Over the long term, there is a possibility that high-dose beta-alanine use in the absence of dietary taurine may lead to health and performance complications. Data in mice seem to indicate that pushing either supplement in the absence of the other can lead to neurological and neuromuscular decreases in performance tests. With beta-alanine, the result was an angiogenic (stress-inducing) response as serotonin production was compromised.
Other research in rats seems to indicate that significant taurine deficiency, in response to chronic, high-dose beta-alanine, reduces nitric oxide production and response. However, no long-term studies have been conducted to determine the likelihood of such problems with humans in response to typical beta-alanine dosing.
Aside from taurine, what you choose to stack with beta-alanine will depend most upon your goals. Remember, beta-alanine works best when exercise is of a high-intensity and lasts at least 1-5 minutes. So if your goal is exercise improvement for sessions lasting less than 60 seconds, aim for ingredients that support the ATP-PCr energy system. These include creatine, oral ATP, caffeine, and betaine.
If you are training for sports, then also consider adding ingredients such as DL-malate and similar energy system intermediates such as alpha-ketoglutarate, citrates, aspartates, in addition to carbohydrates, BCAAs, glutamine, citrulline, and Co-Q10.
Based upon the available data, I don't see a need for cycling beta-alanine, as long as you're also supplementing with taurine.
If you're not consuming supplemental taurine, then it may be prudent to cycle your beta-alanine every so often. Since taurine uptake is only affected by rises in plasma beta-alanine, and because muscle carnosine remains elevated for up to three months after ceasing beta-alanine supplementation, a 4-9 weeks "on" to 4-9 weeks "off" cycling strategy should allow you to consistently reap the performance benefits of beta-alanine. However, this is just conjecture on my part, and it's a moot point if you just supplement with taurine.
One complication in the task of providing dosing duration and/or cycling direction is the lack of human performance studies assessing the affects of beta-alanine beyond 12 weeks. Beyond that point, it's unclear if muscle carnosine concentrations will continue to rise, or if a ceiling is eventually reached. Additionally, since the clearance time of muscle carnosine is so slow, more research needs to be performed to determine what carnosine concentration increases are necessary to observe significant improvements in performance.
To put it another way: Is an 80 percent increase in muscle carnosine any more effective than a 50 percent increase? Also, is cycling beta-alanine helpful or necessary after a certain threshold of muscle carnosine concentration has been achieved? Until we have answers to these questions, we can only suggest general guidelines over the long-term.
Beta-alanine comes with its own built-in dosing regulator. You might recall feeling it in your neck or arms the first time you tried a pre-workout supplement that contained beta-alanine.
The scientific name for this "pins and needles" feeling is acute paresthesia. It can also produce a burning, itching, or flushed feeling on the scalp or ears. Beta-alanine doses greater than about 800 mg-less than half of the amount contained in a single scoop of some popular pre-workouts-have generally been reported to cause moderate to severe paresthesia lasting 60-90 minutes. In one study, in which subjects consumed 3 grams of beta-alanine in one dose, the parasthesia effect was reported as significant and severe.
If paresthesia is a concern, then I would recommend you limit your initial consumption to no more than about 800-1200 mg of beta-alanine, every 3-4 hours, for at least four weeks. This will be sufficient to derive the supplement's performance benefits and your reaction to its use.
If you take beta-alanine on an empty stomach, blood concentrations will indeed increase faster, but you're also more likely to experience the paresthesia side effects. Additionally, consumers who use beta-alanine for its stimulant response tend to report more consistent effects when they consume it on an empty stomach. If however, you're just taking beta-alanine for its performance effects, then this matters less, since every dose of beta-alanine simply adds to the previous dose's raising of muscle carnosine concentrations regardless of being consumed in the presence or absence of food.
As probably the most consistently effective performance-enhancing supplement to hit the sports nutrition market since creatine, beta-alanine is an ingredient I strongly recommend athletes to keep in their arsenal.
Time and more research will help refine dosing and delivery, giving us a clearer picture of beta-alanine's long-term safety and effectiveness, as well as what ingredients may boost its benefits. For now, there is ample evidence to suggest that athletes—especially vegetarians,ectomorphs (hard-gainers), and women—can benefit by consuming beta-alanine regularly.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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