Several years ago a new sports supplement called beta-alanine was introduced to the commercial market. Before that it was an obscure amino acid that was not incorporated into muscle tissue. We knew that the body synthesized small amounts of beta-alanine in the liver, mainly from the breakdown of substances used as building blocks for DNA and RNA, vital cell substances.
The introduction of beta-alanine to the sports world generated some excitement, since one of the primary researchers involved in the research was Roger Harris, the man who also published the initial studies on how creatine could be a potent ergogenic aid back in 1992. It wasn’t long before beta-alanine was being hailed as the “new creatine.”
In point of fact, however, while it does have some overlapping effects with creatine, such as the reduction of excessive acid production in muscle that leads to fatigue, the primary action of beta-alanine is the reduction of excessive hydrogen ions through a buffering action, while the primary ergogenic action of creatine involves improving ATP regeneration in muscle.
While there are many theories of precisely what causes muscle fatigue, a major theory involves increased production of hydrogen ions, or acidity, as a result of anaerobic metabolism that leads to more lactic acid in the muscle. The lactate portion of lactic acid does not cause fatigue. In fact, it can be used as an energy source for both muscle and brain. It’s the acid portion, the hydrogen ions, that are considered the culprit in muscle fatigue.
Enzymes in muscle that are involved in energy production can only function in a narrow range of pH, or acidity. Excessive acid rapidly halts the enzymes’ function, and when that happens, muscle fatigue sets in. The body has ways to deal with it. One is through bicarbonate production.
While bicarb is an effective extracellular buffer, it cannot penetrate into muscle. As such, it’s mainly a blood buffer. The muscle itself has a limited number of buffers, such as phosphate and carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide, meaning that it’s composed of two amino acids bonded together, in this case histidine and beta-alanine.
So, if you can increase intramuscular buffers, such as carnosine, you will have an increased buffer capacity. That would translate into less muscle fatigue, expressed as a higher capacity for muscle endurance and intensity before fatigue sets in. It also follows that increased training intensity would likely produce more gains in muscle and strength. That was the hypothesis behind the early studies of beta-alanine.
Taking carnosine itself would not be useful because most tissues of the body, including the blood, contain an enzyme called carnosinase that degrades carnosine at contact. The one tissue in the body that is devoid of carnosinase is muscle. So the idea is to provide the building blocks of carnosine, namely beta-alanine and histidine, and hope that they will be converted into carnosine in muscle. In truth, however, histidine is not required for that, since muscle already contains a lot of it. The real limiting amino acid for carnosine synthesis within muscle is beta-alanine. When you take beta-alanine, it is converted into carnosine within muscle by way of the enzyme carnosine synthetase, which exists there.
Studies show that boosting carnosine in muscle increases the muscle’s buffering capacity an average of 10 to 15 percent. While that doesn’t sound like much, it nonetheless makes a significant difference in exercise capacity by reducing excess hydrogen ions. As you might expect, beta-alanine is useful only for exercise that involves a heightened production of hydrogen ions. That would be short, high-intensity bursts of exercise, as occurs during bodybuilding training. Thus, it’s no surprise that bodybuilders and others engaged in high-intensity activity, such as sprinters, have higher-than-normal levels of carnosine in their muscles.
On the other hand, people afflicted with diabetes, along with vegetarians and older people, show low levels of carnosine in muscle. Carnosine is important, not only for athletic purposes but because it provides antioxidant activity, especially in the brain. It also blocks glycation, considered a major cause of tissue aging in the body. Glycation involves the abnormal accumulation of sugar in protein tissues, which harms the health of those tissues.
Despite the fact that athletes involved in high-intensity exercise or sports already have higher-than-usual amounts of carnosine in their muscles, studies have clearly shown that giving them beta-alanine can boost their carnosine even more. Taking doses of beta-alanine that range from 3.2 to 6.4 grams per day in divided doses led to an increase in intramuscular carnosine of 42 percent and 64 percent over baseline levels. More important, that led to an increase of muscle buffer capacity of 12.6 percent and 18 percent, depending on the dose. Taking beta-alanine for four weeks boosted muscle carnosine by 60 percent, while ingesting it for 10 weeks increased carnosine by 80 percent.
As with creatine, the lower the carnosine level to begin with, the greater the increase. Thus, it may produce the greatest results for women, vegetarians and the elderly. Because of its involvement in dampening the energy-draining effects of excess acidity in intense exercise and sport, beta-alanine would also prove useful for anyone engaged in those activities.
Studies show that beta-alanine taken orally is highly retained in the body, with pure beta-alanine having an average retention of 96.3 percent, and a slow-released form showing a rate of 98.9 percent. So any attempt to produce a “more absorbable” form of beta-alanine would be nonsensical. Yet some supplements add histidine to their formulas, which, as noted above, is not unlike shipping sand to the Sahara. The slow-release beta-alanine was developed in an attempt to prevent a common side effect called paresthesia, which involves a type of flushing and pins-and-needles feeling in the skin. It results from stimulation of superficial nerves in the skin, starting about 20 minutes after the beta-alanine is taken. It’s not dangerous, but some find it uncomfortable. It dissipates after about an hour on average and can be prevented by taking the beta-alanine in smaller doses—800 milligrams—or using the slow-release form. The actual amount of either form incorporated into muscle carnosine is surprisingly small, less than 6 percent.
As beta-alanine continued to be sold, more studies were published that refined how it is best used. Most recently, the question arose as to whether it should be taken with meals, especially those that contain carbohydrate, which may promote a similar improved uptake to that of creatine.
A recent two-part study examined that issue.1 In the first part the effects of five weeks of slow-release beta-alanine at a dose of 4.8 grams a day in relation to whole-body retention of the amino was determined in seven subjects. The men were given both carbohydrate and protein to see if combining those nutrients with beta-alanine would improve body retention.
The second part of the study featured 34 participants. Its aim was to see how timing meals with beta-alanine would affect carnosine in muscle. The subjects got 3.2 grams of beta-alanine a day for six to seven weeks. One group got pure beta-alanine between meals, while the other got it at the start of meals to see if there was an interaction with insulin released during the meal. Another group took slow-release beta-alanine at the start of the meals.
The results showed that slow-release beta-alanine has a high body-retention rate of 97 to 98 percent, which is not influenced by the ingestion of other nutrients. Only 1 to 2 percent is lost through urinary excretion, but less than 3 percent is incorporated into muscle carnosine. That led to the hypothesis that the majority of beta-alanine was possibly oxidized, or used as an energy source. In the soleus, a slow-twitch muscle, getting pure beta-alanine with a meal that contains carbs and protein leads to a 64 percent increased carnosine retention compared to 41 percent when it’s taken between meals. That suggests that insulin does indeed boost beta-alanine uptake into muscle, as it does for creatine. The study also found that chronic loading with pure beta-alanine is just as effective as using the slow-release form.
The practical points of this study are that beta-alanine is best taken either at the start of or during a meal to trigger an insulin release that boosts uptake into muscle. If you experience side effects, such as parathesia, keep the dose at 800 milligrams maximum, or use a slow-release form. While the precise range of effective doses is still not clear, anecdotally, when I recently increased my dose from 3.2 to 4.6 grams a day in divided doses, I noticed a definite boost in training intensity. Also, I rarely experience anything more than a slight warm feeling when I take my average dose of beta-alanine, which is 1.5 grams. If that’s parathesia, it’s extremely mild and not at all uncomfortable to me. Certainly it’s nothing comparable to the intense flush I’ve experienced after taking high-dose niacin. —Jerry Brainum
Editor’s note: Have you been ripped off by supplement makers whose products don’t work as advertised? Want to know the truth about them? Check out Natural Anabolics, available at JerryBrainum.com.
1 Stegan, S.,et al. (2013). Meal and beta-alanine co-ingestion enhances muscle carnosine loading. Med Sci Exer Sports. 45:1478-85.