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Even though the first human study on beta-alanine (BA) was performed as recently as 2006, BA formulation by the registered name of CarnoSyn(R) has been patented, NSF certified, and introduced into almost every multi-ingredient pre-workout product on the market and several daily and recovery formulas. Whether you are taking BA or just want to learn about augmenting your workouts, this article will give you an introduction to this popular supplement.

What is Beta-Alanine?

BA is an amino acid that is naturally produced in the liver of human beings, and while it doesn’t exist freely in foods we eat, we can consume BA in the form of carnosine, anserine, or balenine from animal proteins that are broken down during digestion. Carnosine, anserine, and balenine are molecules concentrated in brain and muscle tissue that protect against oxidation and fatigue. In reverse, the free form of BA in our bodies can be used again to make carnosine, anserine, and vitamin B5. For practicality, BA is usually preferred as a concentrated supplement since getting to effective levels of BA requires a lot of meat - about 6-8 chicken breasts per day. Molecularly, BA is similar to L-glycine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), key excitatory neurotransmitters in our brain, and may be the reason why some people describe a caffeine-like, stimulatory effect upon consumption.

How does Beta-Alanine work?

Carnosine, a compound made with BA, is the primary molecule through which BA exerts its muscle-related effects. During exercise, our muscle cells accumulate protons as waste products, which then impairs enzyme activities that contribute to muscle contractions. In layman’s terms, we call this “fatigue”. Carnosine acts as a buffer that prevents those protons from accumulating too quickly, thus allowing muscle activity to continue.

Secondarily, studies have proposed that carnosine acts as an antioxidant that scavenges free radicals, and can sequester transition metals like copper and iron, which inhibits further free radicals from forming. This supposedly mitigates the oxidative damage that occurs during exercise. Additionally, higher muscle carnosine concentrations may promote a higher percentage of Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers, the type you would find most commonly in sprinters and athletes of other high-intensity, short-duration activities.

How should you use Beta-Alanine?

Any carnosine taken orally is digested by an enzyme present in our serum before it reaches skeletal muscles, so consuming carnosine directly would be ineffective. Oral BA, however, can be transported into muscle cells and then be converted into carnosine, bypassing carnosine digestion en route. Research consistently supports BA dosing of 4-6 grams in divided doses of 2 grams or less throughout the day for a minimum of 2 weeks to raise carnosine concentrations - up to 30% in 2 weeks, 58% in 4 weeks, and 80% in 10 weeks, regardless of differences in baseline carnosine levels and with no upper limit of carnosine having yet been identified. Because carnosine acts as a proton buffer, BA supplementation is mainly effective for high-intensity exercise lasting 60-240 seconds, also known as anaerobic exercise, when acidosis is most limiting. Short sprints and weight-lifting are a few examples.

Large doses of BA above 2 grams, as suggested by pre-workout formulas on the market, may actually be counterproductive and increase the risk of tingling, or paraesthesias, in the arms, head, and neck. This tingling, however, is generally regarded as harmless and should disappear within 60-90 minutes of consuming BA.

Future Research Directions

Although BA’s contribution to proton buffering seems to be clear, there are still many questions yet to be answered. For example, BA is often found in combination with other active ingredients in pre-workout supplements, the theory being that the ingredients work better when ingested together than if they were taken separately. BA has already been shown in research to add to caffeine’s benefits of delaying fatigue and increasing muscle contractility. Now, research is attempting to determine whether the combination of creatine and BA creates a synergistic advantage. Even more than BA, creatine has been scientifically vetted as a workout enhancer whose mechanism is increasing the body’s energy currency in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate); results to date are equivocal.

In other applications of BA, new research suggests that BA also has receptors in the brain and heart, possibly affecting cognitive function and heart health. BA has also been recently shown to improve muscle performance in the elderly population, and possibly be helpful in the cognitive performance of military members. These more specific applications are only just being uncovered. Lastly, because research on BA is relatively new, not much can be said about the long-term safety of BA.

To research and find pre-workout supplements with beta-alanine, visit Labdoor’s Pre-workout Rankings.

Sources

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  20. Trexler, et al. (2015). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 12(30):1-14.
     

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