What is Beta-Alanine?

Beta-alanine is one of the two amino acids (histidine being the other) that make up the protein carnosine. Carnosine is found primarily in skeletal muscle, it's a non-essential amino acid and is the only naturally occurring beta-amino acid. Beta- alanine is classified as a non-proteinogenic amino acid because it is not used in the building of proteins. Many of the effects of beta-alanine happen by boosting the synthesis of carnosine, a dipeptide (two amino acids) intracellular (inside the cell) buffer. To understand how beta-alanine works, you should first understand how it connects to carnosine:

The Russian scientist Gulewitsch was the first to identify carnosine back in 1900. In 1911 he would discover and identify its constituent amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine.. It wasn’t until 1938 that the first research on carnosine and its effects on muscle buffering were published.

Carnosine is found in both type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers, though in higher concentrations in the type 2 fibers (the fibers we mainly use in weight training and which are the most responsive to growth).

Also, carnosine helps stabilize muscular pH by soaking up hydrogen ions (H+) that are released at an accelerated rate while we exercise. Our bodies work to keep our pH in balance by using various buffering systems. Buffers largely work by soaking up H+ to maintain optimal pH balance, which our muscles need to function at their best. When pH drops below that range, so does muscular performance. By helping to keep us in a more optimal pH range, our muscles can continue to contract forcibly for a longer period of time.

There are several buffering systems that work in our bodies. Some maintain pH in extra cellular fluids outside of the cell, while others work in intracellular fluids inside the cell and some perform in both. The primary source of H+ released during exercise is from lactic acid and ATP breakdown. This breakdown and release of H+ is occurring inside our muscles. As a result, the first line of defense in absorbing the H+ is going to be the cell from intracellular buffers such as carnosine.

Aside from carnosine buffering H+ inside our cells, it has additional attributes: carnosine is unique; in that other natural buffering systems our bodies use are also used in many other cellular reactions in effect watering down much of their buffering abilities. However, by supplementing with extra beta-alanine, we can dramatically increase carnosine levels.

So, why not just take carnosine instead of beta-alanine? When you ingest carnosine it's 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. Only about 40% of the carnosine you take actually contains beta-alanine, making it an inefficient source at best. You are better off taking beta-alanine directly. You would have to take much more carnosine just to approach the increased concentrations of carnosine achieved by taking the usual recommended dose of beta-alanine.

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Benefits of Beta-Alanine

  • Boosts explosive muscular strength and power output
  • Increases lean muscle mass
  • Boosts muscular anaerobic endurance
  • Increases aerobic endurance
  • Increases exercise capacity so you can train harder and longer

So, based on the section above, we see that it's much more effective to take beta-alanine instead of carnosine. Looking at the benefits we can also begin to see the reasons for the excitement that surrounds this newer product.

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Let's Look at Some Studies Supporting Beta-Alanine:

In 1992 Dr. Roger Harris conducted a breakthrough study on creatine supplementation, showing that you can take creatine monohydrate orally and it will be absorbed by your muscles.

Dr. Harris conducted a new study with beta-alanine. He showed that you can take it orally and boost your muscles' carnosine synthesis by 64%, occurring after just four weeks of supplementing 4 to 6 grams per day of beta-alanine.

After ten weeks, however, carnosine levels had risen 80%. (Similar to creatine, beta-alanine takes a little time to build up in muscle.) Interestingly, the sharp rise in carnosine levels was present across all muscle fiber types – Type I, IIa, and IIb (slow and fast twitch). This would lend further credibility to the belief that beta-alanine can benefit all types of athletes, regardless of their mode or intensity of exercise.

The researchers compared this to an actual "infusion" of intact L-carnosine and found that taking beta-alanine was just as effective, meaning that adding intact carnosine adds no further increase than what beta-alanine can give you alone.

What about histidine? They also confirmed that an infusion has no effect on carnosine synthesis. It appears to be strictly the availability of beta-alanine that determines the amount of carnosine in the muscles.

Recently, scientists have demonstrated that high intensity- high volume training can significantly increase muscle carnosine concentrations in untrained subjects. In 2004, Dr. Suzuki and colleagues discovered a strong relationship between carnosine concentrations in muscle and high intensity exercise performance — the more carnosine you have in your muscle, the more you can lift, run, or bike.

Another study, by Dr. Hill and colleagues, examined the effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine levels and exercise performance in untrained men. In double-blind fashion, twenty male subjects (19-31years) supplemented either 4.0g beta-alanine or a sugar placebo for the first week, then up to 6.4g for an additional nine weeks.

By week four, mean carnosine levels increased by 58%. Six weeks later, they rose another 15%. As for performance, the researchers also recorded a 16% increase in total work capacity during cycle ergometry.

Another study:

“The Effects of Adding Beta-Alanine to Creatine on Muscle Mass, Fat Loss, Strength, and Performance”

Dr. Hoffman and colleagues assembled a highly trained group of 33 college football players and split them into three groups: a creatine group that took 5g twice daily; a creatine and beta-alanine group that took the same amount of creatine but with 1.6g of beta-alanine twice daily; and a placebo group, who took nothing.

Prior to and following the 10-week study, the researchers measured the athletes' body composition, body weight, one-repetition maximum in the bench press and squat, and had them keep a log of their dietary intake.

All were placed on a weight training program that included all the usual suspects: bench press, squat, deadlift, power clean, incline press and fly, row, etc.

Here's what they found:

  • When you combine creatine and beta-alanine, your training volume goes up and you get stronger. The athletes were able to knock out more reps with the same weights, and although this was the case with the other groups, it happened to a greater and more significant extent in the creatine plus beta-alanine group.
  • One-rep max, the strength measure, climbed significantly higher in both the supplemented groups. In the bench press, the athletes taking only creatine increased their one-rep max by an average of over 30 pounds while the creatine plus beta-alanine group saw it rise by roughly 25 pounds. The placebo group experienced an insignificant 12 pound bump.
  • Increases in one-rep squat max were similar. Both supplemented groups experienced significant gains: roughly 50 pounds for the creatine plus beta-alanine group and just under 50 pounds for the creatine group. For comparison, the placebo group pushed up their max a meager 10 pounds.

The most impressive results of beta-alanine, at least in this study, were its effects on lean mass gains and fat loss, effects not seen in either of the two other groups.

Only in the creatine plus beta-alanine group did the investigators record a significant increase in muscle mass, with percentage of fat dropping roughly 1.2%. This adds promise to a supplement that, until this study, could only be viewed as a performance enhancer.

Beta alanine has been compared to creatine since it first hit the market, in some cases being referred to as the “next creatine” or the “new creatine” . However, it's now very common to see beta-alanine stacked not only with creatine but also with nutrients such as nitric oxide, to name just one. These three especially seem to work very well together.

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Beta-Alanine Supplements, Timing and Dosage

This is perhaps the hottest new supplement currently on the market, coming in powder, tablets, capsules and caplets, as a stand alone product or as part of various formulas. Many of the formula products are pre workout supplements but some are intra workout. Pre workout supplements will typically contain caffeine, creatine and nitric oxide as the core group of nutrients along with beta alanine. This combination ties into cell volumizing as well as extended muscular endurance and a increase in strength. In fact when you talk about cell volumizing these type of products are the most popular choices available. If caffeine is a problem, which it can be if you train late in the day or simply just can't tolerate it, you can switch to a intra workout product as these typically do not contain caffeine. You may lose the benefits of the other cell volumizing nutrients, however. While you can create your own pre workout drink as I do, this can become costly because you have to buy each ingredient individually. Solid research on the products available will solve this dilemma and allow you to find the right choice for your needs.

Timing is typically pre workout even with the stand alone products. However, each product will give slightly different instructions so it's important to read the label before buying or using. The same is true regarding dosage. In general, it makes sense to read the label and buy to your goal. The last point to be made about this product is that it often cause a slight tingling effect when you use it – this is not in any way meant to be misinterpreted, it's simply an indication that the product is working. Again, understand what you buy before you buy and you won't find yourself surprised by any of the potential effects.

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