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BLUF: Four to Six grams of Beta-alanine taken daily in divided dosages for one month WILL improve your physical performance for exercise lasting 1 to 5 minutes.
Have you ever taken a preworkout drink that made your face feel momentarily like a large pin-cushion with 100 needles in it? And, from that very fact, you knew you were about to experience a great workout?
Well, the substance in that drink was very likely a non-essential amino acid called beta-alanine. Also known as CarnoSyn, this supplement has made it into our next round of performance supplement recommendations.
When we reviewed this supplement in 2014 the strength of evidence was not sufficient to support a solid recommendation in favor of use (even though we began self-experimentation in earnest). Many of the prior studies had significant flaws, including a strong industry sponsorship.
Since then there have been several studies in military personnel that are of high enough quality, and without the bias of industry, to shed light on what can actually be expected from beta-alanine.
What is beta-alanine and what can it do?
β-alanine (3-aminoproprionic acid) is a non-proteogenic amino acid that forms carnosine in brain and muscle tissue when it combines with histidine. Carnosine is well known for its properties as an antioxidant, in anti-aging, and in fighting inflammation. There is also a growing body of evidence for carnosine’s role as a cognitive enhancer.
But Carnosine also has two other unique properties where performance is concerned:
- It is a potent pH buffer against the lactic acid that builds up during anaerobic exercise.
- Structurally, it is similar to the excitatory neurotransmitters L-glycine and GABA which likely gives its stimulant properties.
beta-alanine is the rate limiting step in Carnosine synethesis.
Although beta-alanine can be produced naturally by the body,like creatine can, to get the performance-enhancing effect requires dietary supplementation (like creatine). But unlike creatine, for which there are “responders” and non-responders,” every study that we looked at in which beta-alanine has been studied in humans has resulted in a significant effect in both muscle carnosine levels and performance.
Carnosine concentration in omnivores is much higher than those in vegans so supplementation should significantly enhance those that avoid animal meats in their diet. In vegetarians the only source of beta-alanine for muscle synthesis is from uracil degradation in the liver.
Ingestion of 200 grams of chicken, or 150 grams of Turkey is the equivalent of 800 mg of beta-alanine supplementation. To get to the recommended dose of 6g of beta-alanine would mean eating 1.6 kilograms of chicken per day. Good luck with the natural route.
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.
Recent studies in military personnel have provided direct evidence supporting the use of beta-alanine supplementation for enhancing combat-specific performance and this translates well into overall performance as combat is some of the most functional physical demands out there.
Miltary personnel are an interesting population to study in that, unlike the general population, most use performance/health supplements. Fifty-three percent of the American soldiers at various military installations around the world (outside of the combat theater) indicated that they used nutritional supplements on a regular basis (Lieberman et al. 2010).
The evidence of beta-alanine’s ergogenic effects appear to be most relevant for high-intensity activities lasting 60–300 seconds putting β-alanine supplementation just beyond the time-order effects of creatine supplementation. Thus, if the performance requirements you need are for sustained superior performance in say, the quarter mile or hitting a CrossFit WOD, beta-alanine will certainly help. Creatine will help as well but its range of effects are usually 20-60 seconds. Supplementing with both will certainly help those that are seeking improved strength AND stamina from supplementation.
beta-alanine’s ability to moderate the decline in pH that comes with increasing lactate levels should certainly help performance at high altitudes as well.
Further, limited evidence has recently been presented suggesting that beta-alanine supplementation may enhance cognitive function and promote resiliency during highly stressful situations. Existing evidence suggests that an increase in brain carnosine can maintain focus, alertness, and cognitive function during highly fatiguing, high intensity activity. There is also evidence showing that elevated brain carnosine levels help attenuate the symptoms of anxiety as well as PTSD, likely through an elevation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus.
Safety and Side Effects
There is only one side effect with beta-alanine supplementation and that was alluded to in the opening paragraph: paresthesias (Harris et al. 2006). Paresthesia is a sensation of numbing or tingling in the skin.
Considering that beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid with an important physiological role in the body, it is likely a very safe supplement to use. Nevertheless, the long-term effect of β-alanine supplementation and the combinations with other supplements remain unknown.
This side effect is more common with higher doses (>800 mg kg−1) in a non-sustained- release form (Harris et al 2006). Reports of paresthesia have not been reported in studies that use sustained-release formulations. Symptoms of paresthesia generally disappear within 60–90 min following supplementation(Stellingwerff et al. 2012b).
How do I use it?
It seems obvious that beta-alanine would work well as a pre-workout but it is most important to use regularly as it takes time to build up in muscle cells and the washout period is prolonged as well. So if you miss a few doses after a build-up or loading period it’s not a big deal.
The best literature I’ve seen is the use of 4-6 grams per day for one month and it seems to work best when taurine is also included. You’ll need to look for the sustained-release form if you want to avoid the paresthesias. Ensure you are taking a supplement with the trade name ingredient “Carnosyn.” Otherwise, you are accepting a lower standard in the use of β-alanine.
Use of β-alanine shows solid efficacy across multiple high-quality studies examining sustained, high-intensity exercise in competitive and recreational athletes. Based on current research, beta-alanine supplementation appears to be efficacious during high-intensity activity lasting 1 to 5 minutes.
In addition, evidence indicating potential psychological benefits including enhanced cognitive function during stressful conditions and improved resiliency to stress from beta-alanine ingestion should stimulate further inquiry into this area. Results of the investigations conducted on both competitive and tactical (i.e., soldiers) athletes provide strong evidence that supplementing with beta-alanine will increase muscle carnosine level. The role that elevations in carnosine may have in cognitive function needs further study.
Lanny Littlejohn, MD
Hoffman JR et al. β-alanine Supplementation and Military Performance. Amino Acids, 2015 (47):2463-2474