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Is beta-alanine a waste of your money?

Aaron Deere is a sports nutritionist, functional medicine consultant and advanced personal trainer. He is based in London.

What is beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, but it’s different to alanine because it is not a proteinogenic amino acid, which means it does not synthesize protein molecules.

Beta-alanine’s key role is that it acts as the rate-limiting precursor of carnosine, with carnosine levels being shown to be directly correlated to the amount of available beta-alanine in the body. This is significant because higher carnosine levels positively impacts exercise performance, specifically because carnisine has a modulating effect upon the accumulation of hydrogen ions (H+) during exercise.

The increase of intercellular H+ ions has been shown to dramatically lower the pH within muscle cells, negatively effecting enzyme function and muscle excitation-contraction coupling events that support continued, high-intensity output. The result is a decrease in muscular performance capacity.

How can I increase beta-alanine levels?
With research suggesting that beta-alanine is the rate-limiting step in the synthesis of carnosine, it has been suggested that supplementation could increase muscle carnosine levels, which would act as a buffer to reduce acidity in working muscles, and so increase athletic performance.

This hypothesis was analysed by review, meta-analysis and randomised controlled trials[1-4] with the evidence suggesting that:
– muscle carnosine concentrations rose by up to as much as 80% following beta-alanine supplementation;
– exercise lasting 60 to 240 seconds was improved;
– exercise lasting more than 240 seconds was improved;
– there was no benefit on exercise lasting less than 60 seconds;
– the median effect of a 2.85% improvement in the outcome of an exercise measure;
– and a median total of 179g (which works out a 6.4g per day over a four-week period, according to the studies in the review) of beta-alanine is required to be supplemented for the effect.

What does all this mean?
The effect of beta-alanine supplementation was predominately measured in the form of exercise capacity. It was found to have little effect on explosive, short-duration sports due to the lack of accumulation of H+ ions as a result of the exercise, but potentially positive effects on high-intensity exercise of a duration in excess of 60 seconds.

Beta-alanine was also shown to be the most beneficial form of supplementation to raise muscle carnosine levels, because when intact carnosine was used it was found most of it was broken down in the gastrointestinal tract into its constituent amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine, with these two amino acids then converted back into carnosine within the muscle. This process resulted in a lower level of muscle carnosine when compared with beta-alanine supplementation.

Studies looking at the effects of beta-alanine supplementation are often inherently difficult to blind, due to participants often suffering from paraesthesia, which is the clinical name for the tingling or prickling sensation that accompanies intake. The paraesthesia normally results in a neuropathic sensation of pain, often occurring when doses exceed more than 10mg per kilogram of bodyweight.

Who should take beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine has been shown to impart beneficial effects on activities lasting more than 60 seconds in duration. It would be a useful supplement for high-volume and longer-duration activities, such as middle to long distance running and metabolic conditioning workouts, which have sets with a total time under tension that exceeds 60 seconds.

When do I take it and how much do I need?
The research is yet to identify an exact dose-response for beta-alanine in terms of bodyweight, but it is clear loading phases resulted in greater increases in muscle carnosine levels.

Research has shown that doses between 3.2g and 6.4g per day significantly boost carnosine levels and resulted in improved performance. Loading phases of two to four weeks have been shown to be sufficient to significantly elevate muscle carnosine levels and a maintenance dose of 1.2g of beta-alanine per day was most effective for keeping carnosine levels elevated 30% to 50% above baseline, the degree correlated to effectively promoting performance.

1 CULBERTSON, J.Y., KREIDER, R.B., GREENWOOD, M. and COOKE, M., 2010. Effects of beta-alanine on muscle carnosine and exercise performance: a review of the current literature. Nutrients, 2(1), pp. 75-98.
2 CHUNG, W., SHAW, G., ANDERSON, M.E., PYNE, D.B., SAUNDERS, P.U., BISHOP, D.J. and BURKE, L.M., 2012. Effect of 10 week Beta-alanine supplementation on competition and training performance in elite swimmers. Nutrients, 4(10), pp. 1441-1453.
3 HOBSON, R.M., SAUNDERS, B., BALL, G., HARRIS, R. and SALE, C., 2012. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), pp. 25-37.
4 SALE, C., SAUNDERS, B. and HARRIS, R.C., 2010. Effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine concentrations and exercise performance. Amino acids, 39(2), pp. 321-333.