The lowdown on Beta-Alanine
By Sebastian Balcombe, BSE, Ash Batheja, MPT, CSCS
By now, hopefully many of you are hearing about beta-alanine and the huge amount of excitement it is creating in both bodybuilding and science communities. Finally, a supplement other than creatine that both the science and bodybuilding community can find some common ground on. While this may not seem like a huge feat to the casual reader, it truly is a rare occurrence in sports nutrition. It’s very uncommon to find a supplement that both the bodybuilding and the science communities can embrace as being effective. In sports nutrition history, there have only been a handful of exceptions, and beta-alanine can be added to that list.
Beta-alanine joins the elite group of highly efficacious supplement, by proving itself in the real world gym environment as well as under scrutiny from researcher in the lab setting. This article is designed to not only give you the lowdown on what is beta-alanine but also how beta-alanine works, how it can benefit your workouts, but will also address and debunk the many myths that are already surfacing.
What is Beta-Alanine and where do we get it?
Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid and is the only naturally occurring beta-amino acid. Not to be confused with regular alanine, beta-alanine is classified as a non-proteinogenic amino acid, as it is not believed to be used in the building of proteins. The greatest natural dietary sources of beta-alanine are believed to be obtained through ingesting the beta-alanine containing dipeptides: carnosine, anserine and balenine, rather than directly ingesting beta-alanine. These dipeptides are commonly found in protein rich foods such as chicken, beef, pork and fish. However, obtaining beta-alanine through these dipeptides is not the only way, as our bodies can synthesize it in the liver from the catabolism of pyrimidine nucleotides which are broken down into uracil and thymine and then metabolized into beta-alanine and B-aminoisobutyrate. Of course, it can also be ingested through direct supplementation which is the focus of this article.
What are the beta-alanine benefits?
Benefits of beta-alanine as supported by university research
- Increase muscular strength and power output
- Boosts muscular anaerobic endurance
- Increases muscle mass
- Increases aerobic endurance
- Delay Muscular Fatigue - train harder & longer
How does beta-alanine bring about these benefits?
The majority of beta-alanine’s effects are brought about by its ability to boost the synthesis of a intracellular (inside the cell) buffer called carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide, composed of the amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine and has the ability to stabilize muscular pH by soaking up fatigue causing hydrogen ions(H+). Carnosine is found in both type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers, but is in significantly higher concentrations in type 2 fibers. Type 2 muscle fibers are primarily used in high intensity strength workouts and are most responsive to muscular growth.
By boosting carnosine concentrations, with beta-alanine, our type 2 muscle fibers can soak up more H+ and stay in an optimal pH range. By keeping our type 2 muscle fibers in an optimal pH range, they are better able to maintain maximal strength and endurance throughout your workout session and bring on new muscle gains.
If the benefits are derived from carnosine, why not just directly take carnosine instead of beta-alanine?
When you ingest carnosine intact, most of it is broken down in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract into its constituent amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine. Some intact carnosine does escape the GI tract freely but even that amount is quickly broken down in our blood by the enzyme carnosinase. In a very short time, all the carnosine you just ingested is either eliminated or broken down into beta-alanine and histidine. These two amino acids are then taken into the muscle, where they are converted back into carnosine with the help of the enzyme carnosine synthetase.
Unfortunately, only about 40% of the carnosine you take actually contains beta-alanine, making it an inefficient source at best. You are better off, from both efficiency and a financial standpoint, taking beta-alanine directly. You would have to take substantially more carnosine just to approach the increased concentrations of carnosine achieved by taking the scientifically recommended dose of beta-alanine. Clearly, taking beta-alanine is the superior solution to increasing carnosine levels.
How exactly do hydrogen ions (H+) decrease strength and increase fatigue?
When we exercise, especially when it’s at a high intensity, our body’s energy systems release large amounts of hydrogen ions (H+). The release and accumulation of H+ causes our muscles' pH to drop (become more acidic). This process is occurring whether you feel a burn or not. The breakdown of the high energy compound ATP and the subsequent rise in H+ concentrations occur in all of our energy systems but H+ buildup is most prevalent in an energy system called glycolysis, which also produces lactic acid. At physiological pH, lactic acid dissociates (releases) H+ and is the primary source of released H+ ions during exercise. It is the released H+ from lactic acid that causes muscular fatigue and performance problems, not lactic acid or the leftover lactate ions as many incorrectly believe.
While lactic acid is the primary source of released H+, it is not the only source. H+ ions are also being released at a rapid rate when you break down ATP during exercise. With the presence of many sources during energy production releasing H+, pH quickly drops quickly. As our muscles' pH quickly drops, so does their ability to contract forcibly and maintain a high level of performance throughout your workout session. Not being able to perform and maintain forceful muscular contractions and push your body to the limit during your workout session, seriously hampers your ability to maximally overload your muscles and force new muscle gains.
H+ causes your muscles pH to drop, in turn decreasing your strength and causing you to fatigue faster. These limitations stop you from adequately overloading your muscles, which is what is needed in forcing new muscle gains.
At what point during my workout set will extra carnosine concentrations exert their strongest effects?
Boosting carnosine levels with beta-alanine is effective at all points during your set, whether you’re lifting heavy or doing endurance work, but will exert its largest benefits in our energy system called glycolysis. Your body uses three energy systems to perform work: the ATP-PC system(think creatine), which is primarily used during heavy lifting and for sets up into the 5-6 rep range; the glycolytic system (think beta-alanine), which is predominantly used roughly within the 7-15 rep range and up; and the oxidative/fat system, which is used primarily in endurance training. Our energy systems are utilized simultaneously; however, depending on the level of intensity or duration of exercise and fitness levels of the individual, certain energy systems will become more dominant in producing energy needed for that activity. Anybody who trains with weights will primarily use the first two systems and, in both cases, the build-up of hydrogen ions will contribute to fatigue in both systems, especially glycolysis.
Glycolysis is where the supplement creatine falls a little short and beta-alanine is strongest. Creatine is mostly effective in the ATP-PC system, which relies on stored ATP and re-synthesis using phosphocreatine (PC) for intense, high-energy contractions. Taking creatine will help your explosive strength but it likely won’t help you as much as beta-alanine will in the 7-15 rep range. As anyone trying to build bigger muscles knows, you must train in both low (1-6) and moderate to high (7-15) rep ranges to maximize muscle mass gains. Beta-alanine, by increasing carnosine concentrations, can buffer/fight the H+ build-up that occurs in both these ranges, but more so in the moderate to high(7-15) rep ranges than creatine can. On the contrary, creatine is better suited to impacting strength in the lower 5-6 rep ranges. Decreasing cellular fatigue is an additional strength of beta-alanine. A recent study demonstrates that beta-alanine outperformed creatine in decreasing cellular fatigue, giving it yet another advantage over what has been considered the most effective sport supplement of the last decade.
How much can beta-alanine increase our muscles carnosine concentrations?
Researchers have shown that when supplementing with beta-alanine for just 4 weeks, we can increase our carnosine concentration by 42-65%. Longer beta-alanine studies going up to 10-12 weeks, show carnosine concentrations increased up to 80%.
How do we know beta-alanine is actually increasing carnosine levels?
Researchers have proven it by actually taking muscle biopsies (using a hollow needle to remove a small sample of muscle tissue) prior to the study and at various time points throughout the study. What they found is that beta-alanine does, in fact, effectively and significantly increases carnosine concentrations in the range of 42-80%, depending on the dosing and duration of the study.
How much beta-alanine is needed to increase carnosine enough to cause performance increases?
Research has shown that you can take an amount between 3.2 grams and 6.4 grams per day to significantly boost carnosine levels and improve performance. The most recent research, now using 4-5 grams a day, is showing comparable carnosine concentration and performance improvements to those using 6.4g daily. Based off the research, 4 grams of beta-alanine a day, seems like the optimal daily dosing protocol. Relevant HUMAN research on beta-alanine continues to pile up. Another important point to raise in regards to beta-alanine research is the subjects used in the studies. What is often found with sport supplement research is the subjects used in the studies are often sedentary individuals. This is important to mention, because it is easy to bring about big changes in performance or body composition changes when you are using individuals who do not exercise (sedentary) and are often out of shape. The results from studies using subjects that are sedentary is yet another reason why so many supplements disappoint in bodybuilding and athletic communities.
The good news is, the studies on beta-alanine often use strength/power athletes, active individuals and elite athletes and the results are still highly impressive, showing big performance increases. Recent beta-alanine studies, using 18 collegiate football players and wrestlers A recent beta-alanine study on 18 collegiate wrestlers, using the commercial beta-alanine supplement IntraXCell was just completed. The subjects took IntraXCell daily, supplying 4 grams of beta-alanine for 8 weeks. The researchers measured changes in strength, power and endurance during the course of the wrestler’s competitive season. Following this study, a second double blind placebo study on IntraXCell again has been completed. The study lasted eight weeks, with some impressive performance results. But even more impressive was that the subjects taking IntraXCell, in just eight weeks, on average gained 2 POUNDS of LEAN BODY MASS (LBM). Additionally there has been a THIRD study on IntraXCell completed, showing it decreased muscular fatigue in runners performing endurance running tests. IntraXCell has fast become the most research backed beta-alanine formula in the WORLD.
Who can benefit from beta-alanine?
- Individuals participating in weight training looking to gain lean body mass and increase strength.
- Any individual involved in athletic activities where strength, power and muscular endurance are needed.
- Active individuals who have reached a training plateau and are looking for a supplement to take them to the next level
How long will it take to start noticing benefits?
Performance benefits typically occur in as little as two weeks, although some individuals will notice benefits within one week. As carnosine levels increase, the benefits will follow. The most dramatic results are generally experienced within the 3-4 week range but they don’t stop there. Recent research is now showing carnosine levels continue to increase for a minimum of 12 weeks which is why we recommend staying on beta-alanine for at least three months to optimize your carnosine levels. Immediate benefits: Many users experience intense vasodilation/pumps from the very first dose of beta-alanine. This experience occurs because beta-alanine increases carnosine and carnosine is a powerful precursor in generating nitric oxide synthase (a group of enzymes necessary for making the powerful vasodilator nitric oxide).
Are there any methods that may increase beta-alanine’s ability to increase carnosine levels?
Yes. A recent study showed that a group of subjects taking Beta-Alanine with carbohydrates increased performance gains in half the time of the group taking an equal amount of beta-alanine without carbohydrates. Carbohydrates spike insulin and one of insulin’s effects is to increase amino acid (such as beta-alanine) transport into our cells. Taking beta-alanine pre-workout and post-workout may increase the uptake of beta-alanine into our muscles. Amino acid nutrient timing studies have clearly shown when amino acids are ingested pre-workout and post-workout, their delivery and uptake into our muscles is increased. The improved uptake is largely due to increased blood flow during exercise.
What is the prickling I feel when I first take Beta-Alanine?
The prickling - called parathesia - is caused by beta-alanine binding to nerve receptors, activating them and causing them to discharge/fire. Many of these nerves are below the skin, giving a prickling/pins-and-needles sensation. This sensation begins approximately 15-20 minutes after ingesting beta-alanine and usually continues for 1-1.5 hours. The intensity varies depending on dosing, individual sensitivity and potentially from activators of Ca2+ channels, such as caffeine. This sensation, though generally enjoyed, often subsides over a few weeks of continued use. Carbohydrates/food may also blunt the prickling effect from beta-alanine.
Is beta-alanine really the “next creatine”?
Beta-Alanine shares many similarities and parallels with creatine, and is often touted as “The Next Creatine.” While it is understandable why these two powerhouse supplements are often compared, it’s a great injustice to both beta-alanine and creatine to use titles like that, as it leads people to believe one can replace the other. We hope that readers can understand the distinction between saying beta-alanine is on par with creatine, from both a scientific and efficacious standpoint, but at the same understand that it does not replace creatine, as this article explains. Some of the reasons beta-alanine is often spoken about in the same breath as creatine, is because they due share some similarities. Let’s first look at some of the similarities and then some of the ways they are different.
Similarities between beta-alanine and creatine:
The performance research has been pioneered by the same man, Dr.Harris (AKA, the father of creatine)
Beta-alanine has already accumulated enough peer reviewed university research, to surpass almost all ergogenic supplements except for creatine. And the research is still being published at an alarming rate.
Never has the sports nutrition science community seen such an effective supplement since creatine in terms of improving performance and increasing lean muscle gains.
Beta-alanine is believed to become as popular if not more popular then creatine in time.
They both improves anaerobic strength, power, endurance and increase muscle mass
Beta-alanine must be taken daily and does not instantly effect you like stimulants such as caffeine
Both have been shown very safe in the research
Differences between beta-alanine and creatine:
Beta-Alanine takes 1-2 weeks of continued use for it to start increasing performance gains. Creatine usually only takes a few days
While they both increase anaerobic strength, power, endurance, they work utilizing different pathways in the body to bring about these changes
Beta-alanine is more effective in improving strength and power in the 7-15 rep range, while creatine is superior in the 5-6 rep range or less.
Beta-alanine is superior to creatine in delaying muscular fatigue
Creatine quickly causes you to gain water weight through cell volumizing, beta-alanine has no impact on water weight
In many people, beta-alanine causes parethesia (prickling/pins and needles sensation under the skin). Creatine does not
Beta-alanine can likely impact aerobic endurance more so then creatine
One does not replace the other and they work VERY well together. The only times, we would suggest you replace creatine with beta-alanine.
- You are a creatine non-responder
- You are an aerobic endurance athlete. Creatine is highly anaerobic performance enhancer and will have little impact on aerobic performance. While beta-alanine is also a highly anaerobic supplement, it has been shown in research to positively impact aerobic performance as well
- The increased water gain could negatively affect a competition you are participating in
Stack them together as the ultimate, one-two punch!
1. 'Take extra histidine along with beta-alanine since histidine is a component of carnosine'
This is false, as histidine is already present in high concentrations in muscle, while beta-alanine is only present only in small amounts. Researchers have determined that it is beta-alanine that drives carnosine synthesis, not histidine. Since this has been proven repeatedly in research, there is no need to supplement with extra histidine to increase carnosine levels. There are potentially some select populations like vegans, vegetarians or the elderly that may not get enough histidine in their diets and are thus deficient, which may compromise optimal carnosine levels. But, we still don’t recommend taking just extra histidine with beta-alanine. Instead, we recommend these groups and simply bump up their total protein intake which will in turn solve their possible histidine deficiency. For the majority of healthy people, only beta-alanine is needed as histidine deficiency is rare and no extra supplementation is needed to increase carnosine concentrations.
2. 'If I don’t feel the prickling, beta alanine isn’t working on me'
The prickling sensation does not occur at all in some individuals, even when taking 4-6 grams of beta-alanine at one time. Do not worry if you are in this group. The prickling is NOT a sign that beta-alanine is working or being absorbed by your muscles and converted to carnosine. If you are feeling nothing, you need not be concerned as it is still increasing your carnosine stores as research has repeatedly shown. A good example of this phenomenon is when combining carbohydrates with beta-alanine. Not only do carbohydrates blunt much of the prickling sensations, they also increase beta-alanine's performance gains faster than beta-alanine without carbohydrates.
Another good example is comparing studies that measure carnosine concentrations using multiple small 800 mg doses of beta-alanine vs. studies using multiple doses of 1.6 g of beta-alanine. The total daily amount of beta-alanine ingested is similar and the duration of the studies using both dosage strategies is matched up as well. 800 mg is low enough to cause little to no prickling, based off feedback from both research and anecdotal, where as 1.6 g can cause quite a lot.The outcome of both studies showed carnosine concentrations were very similar.
3. 'Taking taurine at the same time as beta-alanine is going to stop beta-alanine from working'
While it may seem that there is potential for problems when taking these two together (they share the same transporter into tissues), it hasn’t yet been supported in the research to any level of significance. In fact, a recent study, showed that the increase in muscle carnosine with beta-alanine was not reduced when taurine was taken along with it. Just in case you wanted more proof to support recent research. Since there is a group of studies that used either beta-alanine by itself or beta-alanine with taurine, we examined them to determine if there were any differences in the resulting carnosine concentrations.
While more research is always needed, there are quite a few beta-alanine vs. beta-alanine plus taurine studies, and their outcomes are all the same. There is little to no difference in carnosine concentrations. In other words, taurine does not appear to inhibit beta-alanine from being absorbed to any level of significance, otherwise carnosine levels would have been lower in the beta-alanine plus taurine studies. Another key point to mention is that carnosine is much higher in type II muscle fibers, while taurine is much more concentrated in type I muscle fibers, even further lessoning potential competitive uptake.
4. 'Beta-alanine replaces creatine'
Beta-alanine does not replace creatine. As shown above, they work differently and creatine is still effective for maximizing strength and power and more effective than beta-alanine in the lower rep ranges. If anything, they should be taken together as the ultimate one-two punch.
5. 'Beta-Alanine buffers lactic acid'
No, beta-alanine buffers H+, not lactic acid. It is the H+that arereleased from our energy systems, AS WELL as being released from lactic acid that causes muscular fatigue and performance problems. It is not lactic acid itself, or the leftover lactate ions as many incorrectly believe
We hope our article has given you a much better understanding of how beta-alanine works and why it is so effective. It truly is the next tier in sports nutrition. Look for beta-alanine to continue to grow in popularity as more people experience it first hand that it is everything it is cracked up to be and much more. The company Athletic Edge Nutrition is largely responsible for bringing about worldwide awareness on the science and benefits of beta-alanine with their product IntraXCell®. IntraXCell® is The worlds first dedicated beta-alanine, carnosine booster, as well as being the first stand alone commercial beta-alanine formula used in a research study and shown effective. At Predator Nutrition we believe Athletic Edge Nutrition is one of the leading US sports supplements companies and their products are outstanding, results based products designed for use by competitive athletes to maximise their performance. Click here to view all products by Athletic Edge Nutrition, including their revolutionary beta-alanine supplement Intra XCell.
- Hoffman J, Ratamess N, Kang J, Mangine G, Faigenbaum A, Stout J. (2006) Effect of Creatine and Beta-Alanine Supplementation on Performance and Endocrine Responses in Strength/Power Athletes. IJSNEM, 16(4).
- Zoeller RF, Stout JR, O'kroy JA, Torok DJ, Mielke M. (2006) Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on aerobic power, ventilatory and lactate thresholds, and time to exhaustion. Amino Acids, 1-6
- Harris RC, Tallon MJ Dunnett M, Boobis L, Coakley J, Kim HJ, Fallowfield JL, Hill CA, Sale C, Wise JA (2006) The absorption of orally supplied Beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids, March.
- Harris RC, Ponte J, Sale C, JonesGA, Kim HJ, Wise JA. Effect of 14 and 28 days B-Alanine(Carnosyn™) supplementation on isometric endurance of the knee extensors.Univeristy of Chichester, ChichesterUK; Korea National Sport Univeristy, SeoulKorea. Poster Presentation
-Harris RC, Marlin DJ, Dunnett M, Snow DH, Hultman E ((1990) Muscle buffering capacity & dipeptide content in the thoroughbred horse, greyhound dog & man. Comparative Biochem Physiol 97A: 249-251
- Harris, R C.; Hill, C; Wise, J A.(2003) Effect of combined Beta-Alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on exercise performance.Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:Volume 35(5) Supplement 1May 2003p S218
- Harris RC, Dunnett M, Greenhaff PL(1998) Carnosine & Taurine contents in individual fibers in human vastus lateralis muscles. J Sports Sci 16: 639-643.
- HillCA, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Harris BD, Sale C, Boobis LH, Kim CK, Wise JA (2006) Influence of b- alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity Amino Acids.
- Hill C. A., R. C. Harris, H. J. Kim, L. Boobis, C. Sale, J. A. Wise. "The effect of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on muscle composition and exercise performance." (Presented at the AmericanCollege of Sports Medicine Annual conference, 2005, Nashville.)
- Kern BD, Robinson TL, Manninen AH. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on exercise performance during a competitive wrestling season: An 8-week open label pilot study. (Manuscript under review).
- Kim HJ, Kim CK, Lee YW, Harris RC, Sale C, Harris DB, and Wise JA (2006) The effect of a supplement containing Beta-alanine on muscle carnosine synthesis and exercise capacity, during 12 wk combined endurance and weight training. J. Inter. Soc. Sports Nutr. 3(1): S9
- Stout JR, Cramer JT, Mielke M, O'Kroy J, Torok D, and Zoeller RF (2006) Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on the physical working capacity at neuromuscular fatigue threshold J Strength Cond Res (in press)
- Stout JR, Cramer JT, Zoeller RF, Torok D, Costa P, Hoffman JR (2006) Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women. Amino Acids. Nov 30
- Suzuki Y, Ito O, Takahashi H, Takamatsu K (2004) The effect of sprint training on skeletal muscle carnosine in humans. Intl J Sport Health Sci 2: 105-110
- Suzuki Y, Ito O, Mukai N, Takahashi H, Takamatsu K (2002) High Level of Skeletal Muscle Carnosine Contributes to the Latter Half of Exercise Performance during 30-s Maximal Cycle Ergometer Sprinting. Jpn J Physiol 52:199-205.