In the locker room things start to...tingle. First your lips...then your entire face. One minute, you’re looking like Tyrone Biggums and the next you feel like you just picked up a Super Star. Is this it...are you finally leveling up?! Not quite; you’re feeling the effects of acute paresthesia, brought on by the beta-alanine in your pre-workout. With almost every pre-workout supplement containing it, we’re going to look at what the science says about beta-alanine and if it is safe for your athletes to consume.
What is beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is produced in the liver, and can also be found in animal proteins. What is more important to know is that beta-alanine is a precursor to carnosine synthesis. Carnosine is an important player in the maintenance of your muscle’s pH, acting as a buffer against loose hydrogen ions that create an acidotic state in the tissue. Increase your beta-alanine and you’ll increase your carnosine (1). Increase your carnosine and you’ll be able to ward off the metabolic acidosis a bit longer when taking a walk down Jacked Street or when you’re six sprints deep on a volume sprint day. While beta-alanine supplementation hasn’t been as well studied as creatine, there is a large enough body of literature to stake claim to its effects.
What does beta-alanine do?
As mentioned, beta-alanine is the precursor to carnosine synthesis. You might be thinking, “if it’s carnosine we’re after, why wouldn’t we just supplement with that?” While L-carnosine is a widely purchased supplement, our bodies aren’t set up to effectively absorb oral dosages of carnosine. Your gut would break it down before entering the skeletal muscle (2), and you would end up literally flushing it down the toilet. Instead, supplementing with beta-alanine will give you all the building blocks you need to increase your carnosine levels. With no known upper limit to the amount of muscle carnosine humans can have (3), you might as well turn the dials to 11!
In terms of physical performance, beta-alanine isn’t for everyone. If your outcome goals revolve around things like PRing your marathon or other purely aerobic feats, beta-alanine could be of modest benefit (4). Similarly, if your events consist of single bouts less than 60 seconds with plenty of recovery, the juice might not be worth the squeeze (5). But, if you live in the world of glycolysis, hanging around that 4-6 minute mark (6), or if success in your world relies on a combination of high-performances in both physical and cognitive tasks...like say you needed to sprint while carrying a heavy load and sending accurate fire down range (7), beta-alanine supplementation might be your jam. However, beta-alanine strongest benefits may come when used as a training aid, demonstrating a reduced rate of perceived exertion scores, as well as increases in athlete’s time to exhaustion (4,12,13). While these two components could impact game day performance, they will surely increase ability to train at a high intensity which would result in an accelerated adaptation.
How much beta-alanine is enough beta-alanine?
With most of the data on beta-alanine coming in the last decade, dosage guidelines are still being worked out. What is widely accepted right now is a 4-week loading phase looks better than a 2-week phase (8). During the loading, you’ll want to take in anywhere from 4-6g divided up into 2-4 equal doses (9). If you’re a vegetarian or vegan...stop. If you can’t stop, you may see significant effects from the lower end of this dosage recommendation (10). Though it’s known that washout periods (the time it takes to return to baseline) for beta-alanine supplementation can vary anywhere from 6-15 weeks (11), there isn’t enough research to recommend an optimal amount for maintenance dosages.
What kind of beta-alanine should I take?
Beta-alanine has recently become one of the most common ingredients in many pre-workout formulas (3). And it has been shown that beta-alanine may further augment performance when combined with other ergogenic aids, but that list is a short one: sodium bicarbonate and creatine. Sodium bicarbonate because its ability to increase blood pH as well as high-intensity performance, and creatine for...well...for the same reasons you’re already taking it. When combined with sodium bicarbonate, there have been increases in high-intensity cycling capacity (think: condardio) (14), repeated 30s sprints (think: condo) (15), and overall sprint speed (think: intensity sprints) (16). But, not everyone has been able to replicate these positive results (17,18,19). Similar results have been seen when combined with creatine (20, 21), with similar issues of reproducibility (22, 23). Some research suggests taking a sustained-release formula may decrease the likelihood of the most common side effect, paraesthesia (i.e., tingling) (1).
Is it dangerous for youth athletes?
With the relative novelty of beta-alanine supplementation, there just simply hasn’t been enough research on adult humans to justify studies on children. Because of that, the safety and efficacy of beta-alanine supplementation on children is unknown.
Research has documented some of the common side effects on adults. As mentioned, the primary one felt by most is paresthesia, a tingling sensation in the face, neck, and/or hands. Though people misinterpret this as a negative reaction to the supplement, scientists see this as a low safety concern despite no long term data (3). The second major potential side effect is a decrease in Taurine, an amino-acid that has a role in muscle function. Though it has been shown in animal models (24), there are conflicting results in the limited human studies (1).
Similar to creatine, beta-alanine’s role as a supplement is just that: supplemental to proper nutrition, recovery, and consistent training. If those components are in place, the use of beta-alanine may serve greater benefit as a training aid rather than a performance enhancer on game day. While there are side effects, there isn’t a current concern on health despite no long-term data.
- Harris, R. C., Tallon, M. J., Dunnett, M., Boobis, L., Coakley, J., Kim, H. J., ... & Wise, J. A. (2006). The absorption of orally supplied β-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino acids, 30(3), 279-289.
- Gardner, M. L., Illingworth, K. M., Kelleher, J., & Wood, D. (1991). Intestinal absorption of the intact peptide carnosine in man, and comparison with intestinal permeability to lactulose. The Journal of physiology, 439(1), 411-422.
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Hoffman, J. R., Wilborn, C. D., Sale, C., ... & Campbell, B. (2015). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 30.
- Stout, J. R., Cramer, J. T., Zoeller, R. F., Torok, D., Costa, P., Hoffman, J. R., ... & O’kroy, J. (2007). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women. Amino acids, 32(3), 381-386.
- Derave, W., Ozdemir, M. S., Harris, R. C., Pottier, A., Reyngoudt, H., Koppo, K., ... & Achten, E. (2007). β-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters. Journal of applied physiology, 103(5), 1736-1743.
- Baguet, A., Bourgois, J., Vanhee, L., Achten, E., & Derave, W. (2010). Important role of muscle carnosine in rowing performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 109(4), 1096-1101.
- Hoffman, J. R., Landau, G., Stout, J. R., Hoffman, M. W., Shavit, N., Rosen, P., ... & Ostfeld, I. (2015). β-Alanine ingestion increases muscle carnosine content and combat specific performance in soldiers. Amino Acids, 47(3), 627-636.
- Stellingwerff, T., Anwander, H., Egger, A., Buehler, T., Kreis, R., Decombaz, J., & Boesch, C. (2012). Effect of two β-alanine dosing protocols on muscle carnosine synthesis and washout. Amino acids, 42(6), 2461-2472.
- Stellingwerff, T., Decombaz, J., Harris, R. C., & Boesch, C. (2012). Optimizing human in vivo dosing and delivery of β-alanine supplements for muscle carnosine synthesis. Amino acids, 43(1), 57-65.
- Harris, R. C., Wise, J. A., Price, K. A., Kim, H. J., Kim, C. K., & Sale, C. (2012). Determinants of muscle carnosine content. Amino acids, 43(1), 5-12.
- Baguet, A., Reyngoudt, H., Pottier, A., Everaert, I., Callens, S., Achten, E., & Derave, W. (2009). Carnosine loading and washout in human skeletal muscles. Journal of applied physiology, 106(3), 837-842.
- Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.
- Smith, A. E., Walter, A. A., Graef, J. L., Kendall, K. L., Moon, J. R., Lockwood, C. M., ... & Stout, J. R. (2009). Effects of β-alanine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on endurance performance and body composition in men; a double-blind trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 6(1), 5.
- Sale, C., Saunders, B., Hudson, S., Wise, J. A., Harris, R. C., & Sunderland, C. D. (2011). Effect of β-alanine plus sodium bicarbonate on high-intensity cycling capacity. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(10), 1972-1978.
- Tobias, G., Benatti, F. B., de Salles Painelli, V., Roschel, H., Gualano, B., Sale, C., ... & Artioli, G. G. (2013). Additive effects of beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate on upper-body intermittent performance. Amino acids, 45(2), 309-317.
- de Salles Painelli, V., Roschel, H., De Jesus, F., Sale, C., Harris, R. C., Solis, M. Y., ... & Artioli, G. G. (2013). The ergogenic effect of beta-alanine combined with sodium bicarbonate on high-intensity swimming performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 38(5), 525-532.
- Mero, A. A., Hirvonen, P., Saarela, J., Hulmi, J. J., Hoffman, J. R., & Stout, J. R. (2013). Effect of sodium bicarbonate and beta-alanine supplementation on maximal sprint swimming. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 10(1), 52.
- Ducker, K. J., Dawson, B., & Wallman, K. E. (2013). Effect of Beta alanine and sodium bicarbonate supplementation on repeated-sprint performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(12), 3450-3460.
- Saunders, B., Sale, C., Harris, R. C., & Sunderland, C. (2014). Effect of sodium bicarbonate and Beta-alanine on repeated sprints during intermittent exercise performed in hypoxia. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 24(2), 196-205.
- Hoffman, J., Ratamess, N., Kang, J., Mangine, G., Faigenbaum, A., & Stout, J. (2006). Effect of creatine and ß-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 16(4), 430-446.
- 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, 35(5), S218.
- Stout, J. R., Cramer, J. T., Mielke, M., & O'kroy, J. (2006). Effects of twenty-eight days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on the physical working capacity at neuromuscular fatigue threshold. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 20(4), 928.
- Kresta, J. Y., Oliver, J. M., Jagim, A. R., Fluckey, J., Riechman, S., Kelly, K., ... & Kreider, R. B. (2014). Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine supplementation on muscle carnosine, body composition and exercise performance in recreationally active females. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 55.
- Murakami, T., & Furuse, M. (2010). The impact of taurine-and beta-alanine-supplemented diets on behavioral and neurochemical parameters in mice: antidepressant versus anxiolytic-like effects. Amino acids, 39(2), 427-434.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.