Beta-Alanine has become something of a celebrity among supplements.
It has a wide range of benefits, including the ability to boost muscle carnosine levels.
Carnosine helps with increasing power, speed, stamina and performance.
It also helps to prevent anti-ageing too!
We’ve gathered everything you need to know from an athletic perspective in this definitive beta-alanine guide.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid.
‘Non-essential’ means that the human body has the ability to make this amino acid from other substances, so we don’t need to consume it directly in order to survive.
Because it has proven benefits for anyone on a quest to gain muscle, we often see beta-alanine as an ingredient in supplements such as preworkouts, or as a supplement on its own.
Athletes who supplement beta-alanine have been proven in many peer-reviewed studies to show large increases in muscle carnosine levels, leading to increased muscle gain, strength, power, and endurance.
We do produce limited amounts of beta-alanine in the body naturally, but supplementing allows athletes to access the higher quantities needed for improved results.
We are interested in this substance primarily for its ability to link with histidine to form carnosine.
Carnosine (a.k.a. beta-alanyl-L-histidine) is found in large amounts in muscle tissue.
Over the last decade, scientists have discovered that carnosine has many beneficial effects such as anti-ageing, increased heart health, lower blood pressure, eye health and much more.
But if it’s so great…
Then why don’t we just supplement carnosine?
That’s down to efficiency and the way the digestive system works.
Upon ingesting carnosine, the body sets to work breaking it down into its component parts; histidine and beta-alanine.
Scientists now agree that we already have an adequate supply of histidine naturally in the muscles, so supplementing this is not necessary.
After breaking down the components of a carnosine supplement, the body will rebuild them into carnosine as and where needed.
Because only about 40% of a carnosine supplement is made up of beta-alanine, you would need to take more than double the amount of carnosine supplement to see the same benefits as taking beta-alanine directly.
In terms of diet, beta-alanine is thought to be obtained in the greatest quantities from high protein foods such as pork, chicken, fish and beef.
These foods contain anserine, balenine and carnosine, which are broken down by the body during digestion, resulting in beta-alanine being produced.
However, the above quantities are in small supply.
Supplementing directly will provide a more efficient source, which can be put to immediate use by the body in its efforts to produce carnosine.
There are many supplements on the market, some of which contain the patented formulation CarnoSyn.
CarnoSyn is the only supplement to be both patented and proven to work in a number of peer-reviewed studies. Other supplements containing beta-alanine are from non-proven sources, so their effectiveness is unknown.
What Does Beta-Alanine Do?
As an anti-oxidant, beta-alanine is able to contribute to removing harmful substances from the body. However, it has no direct effects on athletic performance.
Beta-alanine’s main benefit is indirect – increasing carnosine levels.
Scientists haven’t yet found an upper limit to the amount of performance increasing carnosine that can be present in the muscles. But without the supplementation of beta-alanine, your body simply doesn’t have what it needs to make more than a basic amount.
In a short while, we’ll look at the benefits this can bring to your muscles and your body.
But first – are we sure that beta-alanine is what contributes to the increase of muscle carnosine?
The short answer is yes.
Many studies have shown the link between the two substances.
For example, a study by Derave et al measured carnosine levels before, during and after supplementation of beta-alanine, showing a significant increase of up to 39% more carnosine in skeletal muscles.
High levels of carnosine have been shown to increase power, speed, endurance, general performance and may also help to reduce fat.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these effects:
Concentrated muscle carnosine has been associated with a high ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibres.
As type 2 muscle fibres (fast twitch) are what gives the muscle its power, speed and force, we can see that more carnosine equals better performance in all these areas.
This is borne out by a study of amateur boxers by Donovan et al performed in 2004:
Sixteen boxers with about 6 years experience each were split into two groups.
One group received a placebo – something they were told would improve them, and they may even feel like it did, but would actually make no difference.
The other group received 1.5g of beta-alanine.
Each were given their ‘supplement’ four times per day, for four weeks.
After the four weeks, the group who had received beta-alanine showed increased speed and punching force compared with their baseline tests.
The placebo group showed no change.
In another study by Van Thienen et al, 2009, beta-alanine improved sprint performance in endurance cycling.
Printed in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine found that cyclists who had taken a supplement of beta-alanine performed better in a sprint following a 110 minute time trial.
The cyclists who had received beta-alanine supplements had an average increase of 11.4% in their peak power output, and a mean increase of 5% in their overall power.
Again, the placebo group showed no increase in power.
Increased Performance in Sport
The effects of supplementing this performance boosting amino acid were also seen in a group of football (soccer) players studied by Hoffman et al, 2006.
Two groups of players were given either a placebo or a dose of 3.2g of beta-alanine per day over a period of 12 weeks.
The placebo group showed an average improvement of -7.6% (yes, some of them actually got worse) with the individual placebo group members ranging from -37.5% to +14.7%.
The group who received the supplement had an average improvement score of 34.3%. Individual members of this group had improvement scores ranging from 0% to 72.7%.
In Stout et al, 2006, it was proven that beta-alanine supplementation is responsible for increased stamina in untrained men over a 28 day period.
This study divided the participants into four groups:
One was given beta-alanine, one creatine, one group was given both supplements and one received placebo.
In the final tests, the two groups who had received beta-alanine were found to have increased the workload they could handle before exhaustion, while the other groups showed no improvements.
How can this supplement increase the maximum possible workload of people who aren’t in training in so short a time period?
When we exercise for a prolonged period, our muscles produce lactic acid in a process called glycolysis, which is designed to fuel the muscles.
Lactic acid is what causes the burning feeling in tired muscles, but glycolysis can occur without that burn.
Lactic acid in the muscles causes fatigue to set in.
This means they can no longer contract forcefully; strength fails, and performance drops.
IThis is where carnosine steps in.
Carnosine works as a buffer, stabilising the muscles. The cell is able to continue working effectively for longer, which translates to a boost to your performance.
This is excellent news for those training to see maximum results.
In as few as just four weeks, it is possible to boost muscle carnosine concentration by 42-65%.
In 12 weeks, carnosine can be raised by a significant 80%, thanks to beta-alanine supplementation.
Possible Fat Reduction
Above, we saw that a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres is associated with a higher concentration of carnosine.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have followed this path one step further and found that increasing the mass of type 2 muscle fibres leads to a significant fall in the mass of fat in the body.
While this effect could be brought about as a consequence of beta-alanine supplementation, further studies will shed more light on the exact mechanisms involved.
Short bursts of exercise (typically lasting less than 60 seconds or about 5 reps) rely on the breakdown of ATP for fuel, and this process is mainly unaffected by levels of either beta-alanine or carnosine.
For endurance training, the body will turn to the fat system for its energy, and carnosine levels will again not have a great effect here.
It is in a high-intensity exercise program such as interval training, circuits, or high-intensity body-building with exercise to exhaustion where beta-alanine will make the biggest difference.
How Much Beta-Alanine Should You Consume?
After hearing all about the great effects you’re no doubt ready to get started with the supplement…
But what beta-alanine dosage is safe?
In the previous studies that we mentioned, most began with smaller doses building up to a ‘maintenance’ dose – the dose they would stick at – over a period of about a week.
A lot of you reading this will be taking beta-alanine as part of your preworkout supplement, perhaps without even realising it, so be sure to look at how much beta-alanine is included in each serving.
Around 2.4g per day, split into four smaller doses of 600mg is a good starting point.
This may not be suitable for the way you train, but there can be some side effects of the supplement – especially if you go straight in at a high dosage. We explore these beta-alanine side effects later in this post.
After two-to-four days this can be increased to 3.6g. Finally, increasing to 4.8g per day in total can be done after five-to-seven days.
Some studies did increase to a final maintenance dose of 6.4g per day, but recent research is showing that this is no more effective than a lower intake of 4-5g.
There is no reliable information available on what may happen when using more than this maximum of 6.4g per day, and with lower doses offering significant performance gains it isn’t really necessary to go any higher.
What Foods Contain Beta-Alanine?
We do not get much beta-alanine from the foods we eat.
Instead, we get other substances which are broken down by the body and turned into beta-alanine and other amino acids.
These substances are readily available (in low quantities) in meats such as pork, chicken, fish and beef.
This may sound like bad news for vegetarians.
It is true that vegetarians have reduced amounts of the enzyme carnosine synthase, which produces carnosine. As a result, muscle carnosine is generally significantly lower in vegetarians as opposed to meat eaters.
There are no plant-based sources of carnosine, meaning supplementation is the only way.
However, there is some good news.
In order to build proteins, our bodies use 21 different amino acids as basic building blocks. Of these 21 amino acids, 9 are ‘essential amino acids’ meaning that they cannot be made in the human body and must be taken in through the diet.
All plant sources of protein contain all 9 of these essential amino acids in varying ratios.
Plant sources of protein include edemame, soya, lentils, beans, nuts, chickpeas, pumpkin and chia seeds, spinach, broccoli and avocados, plus many more.
The best way to ensure adequate supplies of all the necessary amino acids is through consumption of a varied and healthy diet.
When to Take Beta-Alanine
The main benefits of beta-alanine come from the increase of muscle carnosine it contributes to.
As this process takes a while, it is more important to take the supplement consistently than to take it at particular times of the day.
Because this supplement can provide an acute stimulant response similar to caffeine, a lot of people get good results from taking it pre-workout.
The increased blood-flow that occurs during exercise is also thought to contribute to higher amino acid uptakes seen in studies of supplements taken before and after workouts.
Taking beta-alanine with carbs has also shown an increase in uptake speed as the body activates to deal with the insulin spike caused by the food. This will have no effect on the ultimate goal of increasing carnosine, however.
Side Effects of Beta-Alanine
Beta-alanine studies on humans have shown that taking the supplement in doses of up to 6.4g per day for up to 12 weeks is safe.
None of the participants in these studies were reported to have experienced any serious side effects.
However, little is documented about the effects on humans beyond 12 weeks consumption.
There are, however, two recognised side effects of taking the supplement – one observed in humans, and the other documented in animal studies.
The first of these side effects is paraesthesia and the second is taurine deficiency.
Why Does Beta-Alanine Tingle? Paraesthesia Explained…
Paraesthesia is a tingling sensation which can be uncomfortable (very uncomfortable for some people) which is described as feeling similar to ‘pins and needles’.
When you take a preworkout product and feel the tingling – it’s the beta-alanine.
Paraesthesia is commonly felt in the scalp and face, limbs, extremities and abdomen, but has reportedly been felt all over the body. Despite the discomfort this causes, it is thought to be harmless.
This feeling is caused by the beta-alanine binding to nerve receptors in the body, causing them to send signals to the brain.
Most of the nerves are located under the skin, so that is where the effects are most noticeable.
The paraesthesia can be accompanied by a flushed or hot feeling and redness of the skin, particularly of the face and ears.
Paraesthesia often occurs when too large a dose of beta-alanine is taken all at once…
This is why it can be important to slowly increase your dosage over time – to build up a slight tolerance.
Doses of greater than 10mg per kg of body weight have been shown to produce the side-effect, with more severe symptoms occurring as dosage increases.
These tingling episodes begin about 15-20 minutes after ingestion and should disappear entirely within three hours, as by then the substance will have been removed from the bloodstream.
Taking beta-alanine on an empty stomach can increase the severity of a paraesthesia episode, but some people won’t experience it at all.
Splitting a large dose into smaller amounts – if you’re supplementing it alone – and taking it at least three hours apart will help to lower the chances of paraesthesia occurring.
Human studies on beta-alanine consumption up to 6.4g per day have not indicated any problems with taurine deficiency, but they are limited in scope by their relatively short durations, and none of them tested for this effect specifically.
Studies in mice and rats have shown that it is possible for beta-alanine supplementation to cause taurine deficiency, which then has repercussions of its own.
Taurine is needed for cognitive, lung and neuromuscular function.
It works as an anti-oxidant, and it helps the blood to utilise glucose. When rats were continuously given beta-alanine in their drinking water at a three percent concentration, taurine levels in their cells were reduced by as much as 77%.
Another study observed cardiac remodelling in mice who were taurine deficient after being given high doses of beta-alanine over a long period. This change in size, shape or structure of the heart is usually only seen as the result of exercise or injury.
In humans, severe muscle cramps can be an indicator of taurine deficiency.
As none of the human studies reported this symptom, it is unlikely that any signs of taurine deficiency will occur in periods shorter than three months, although experts agree that the likelihood of experiencing it at all is low.
The reason beta-alanine can cause taurine deficiency is that both substances bind to the same receptor in the blood. In theory, if the system is flooded with too much of one substance, the other will have a hard time getting a ride into the body.
Whether to choose to supplement with taurine alongside beta-alanine is debatable.
Studies have found that muscle carnosine concentrations show little difference between groups who have ingested one supplement or both. This implies that taking taurine as well had no effect on the amount of beta-alanine which was eventually available in the body to be turned into carnosine.
The logical conclusion here is that if the amount of taurine did not effect beta-alanine take up, then extra beta-alanine will not affect taurine take up.
Until further studies are completed, we cannot say for certain what the likelihood of taurine deficiency is in humans as a result of long term beta-alanine supplementation.
Do You Need to Cycle Beta-Alanine?
If you are concerned about possible taurine deficiency, or you don’t like the tingling sensations, then you could choose to cycle beta-alanine without losing too many of its benefits.
Once you have taken beta-alanine consistently for a short period of time, you will have quickly (and significantly) built up carnosine levels in your muscles.
However, this will start falling at a rate of just one percent each week after supplementation is stopped, meaning a cycle wouldn’t be too damaging to your progress.
This means that cycling beta-alanine for a period of 4 weeks on and then 9 weeks off should still be an effective way of supplementing.
There have not yet been any studies on cycling beta-alanine, so this information is based on evidence pieced together from other studies.
If you choose not to cycle beta-alanine, it may be sensible to combine it with a taurine supplement, as discussed in the side effects section.
We hope this article has given you the information you need to start supplementing beta-alanine safely.