Beta-Alanine is one of the core supplements I recommend everyone include in their regimen because it is safe and very effective. Rather than just assuming you will take my word for it, I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you exactly how it works, what and how to take it, and what to expect when you do supplement with beta-alanine. Let’s start from the beginning.
What Is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is the sole naturally occurring beta-amino acid. Beta-alanine is not readily available in foods commonly eaten when compared to alpha-alanine and often needs to be supplemented to obtain the necessary requirements. Furthermore, there are no known symptoms of beta-alanine deficiency, so the need for supplementation in normal individuals has not been established.
What Does It Do And How Does It Work?
It is important to know that beta-alanine is not an amino acid that promotes protein synthesis or metabolism, as alpha-alanine does. It is actually a breakdown-product of the dipeptide (two amino acids) molecule carnosine – which is made up of beta-alanine and l-histidine. Beta-alanine helps to increase intramuscular carnosine levels when it recombines with l-histidine. It has been shown to promote increased:
- Anaerobic capacity in muscle cells
- Aerobic endurance
- Functional strength and power
- Capacity for exercise (by delaying fatigue)
- Hypertrophy (muscle growth)
Exercise, especially high-intensity workouts, has the ability to produce high concentrations of H+ ions in muscle tissue. H+ ions are known to cause acidic changes in the body, or to lower the pH of cells, leading to physiological changes. This process of H+ ion generation is normal, and cannot be prevented, but it can be significantly reduced.
H+ ions are made as a by-product of several processes in the body. For example, during the process of glycolysis (breakdown of sugar), lactic acid is produced which is the main contributor of H+ ion levels in the body. The increased production of H+ ions causes a rapid reduction in the pH of muscle cells.
This is significant because research shows that muscle cells function best through a very narrow pH range, and the ability to perform contractions suffers as pH drops. This leads to impaired muscle gains through failure to adequately overload the muscle (meaning you’re feeling tired and weaker faster than you would without the H+ buildup).
Interestingly, beta-alanine does not directly contribute to solving this problem. What it DOES do is help increase the levels of the dipeptide carnosine. Carnosine exhibits multiple beneficial effects on performance, but perhaps its most important is its ability to buffer muscular pH. Buffering simply means it can help keep the pH changes in the cell to a minimum.
Carnosine has been shown to be able to absorb excess H+ ions floating around, nullifying the effect they would have on pH. This directly helps to keep the muscles contracting efficiently for a longer time. So why not skip the beta-alanine and go right for the carnosine since it’s doing the ‘heavy lifting’ anyway?
Carnosine itself cannot be supplemented effectively because the gastrointestinal tract destroys most of it. However, it can be raised significantly by supplementing with the precursors, beta-alanine, and l-histidine which must combine to form carnosine. Furthermore, research shows that supplementation with beta-alanine can increase levels of carnosine by 64% which means the desired end result H+ scavenging is achieved through taking beta-alanine.
How Much Beta-Alanine Do You Need?
Beta-Alanine supplementation has a widely accepted daily dosage; ranging from anywhere between 3.2g and 6.4 grams. Research has shown that a daily dose of 4-6 g is optimal, but slightly more shouldn’t be detrimental. A loading dose is optional, in which case 6 g is taken daily for about 6 days (in divided doses), followed by the normal dosing schedule.
It is important to note that beta-alanine needs to be taken for a period of at least 4 weeks to see the effect, and a period of 10 weeks for optimal effect. Another important note: when beta-alanine is supplemented with creatine, the synergy of effect achieved is substantial. It is not unreasonable to expect greater increases in lean mass and strength when taken together than one might see while supplementing with either one alone.
In fact, a study was done to determine the relative increases in power output and muscle mass using either creatine alone, a combination of creatine and beta-alanine, or a placebo. The results obtained for the placebo group was a 2% increase, for the creatine group 7.5% and for the combination group, an amazing 37.5% increase!
For this reason, many pre-workout formulations contain both creatine and beta-alanine. However, none of the other pre-workouts I’m aware of contain enough of each supplement that you wouldn’t need to take a separate product outside of the pre-workout.
Invincible is the exception, but it’s still a good idea to supplement with BA outside of a PWO simply because it’s something you want to saturate your system with…and if you’re only taking your PWO before your workout, you’re likely not going to get enough BA to keep at the required elevated levels for the desired result. Just FYI.
Why The Tingling Feeling?
A natural part of consuming a sufficient dose of beta-alanine is a skin-tingling reaction once the beta-alanine is absorbed into the bloodstream. This tingling/prickling sensation begins approximately 15-20 minutes after ingesting and usually continues for 1-1.5 hours. Some people mistakenly assume this feeling means they are having an allergic reaction. This is not the case.
The prickling, called paresthesia, is caused by beta-alanine binding to nerve receptors, activating them and causing them to discharge/fire. Since many of these nerves are just below the skin, the resulting feeling is one of prickling or ‘pins-and-needles’.
The intensity of the sensation depends on individual sensitivity, dosage taken, and potentially from activators of Ca2+ channels, such as caffeine (another common ingredient in pre-workout formulations). Carbohydrates/food may also blunt the prickling effect from beta-alanine, and for most people, the sensation tends to subside over a few weeks of continued use.
Based on my anecdotal evidence, most people enjoy the sensation produced by beta-alanine if they know to expect it (and after they get used to it). For me, it’s a signal that it’s “go time” and I need to get to the gym and hit it hard.
However, for a select few the feeling is too intense to be comfortable. For those folks, I recommend taking the same total dosage spread throughout the day in smaller individual dosages. There are studies that suggest this approach is as effective as taking it all at one time…the point is you get a stable amount in your cells and then keep it there.
Ok, if you’ve made it this far you should consider yourself educated on why beta-alanine is such a popular and effective supplement. My recommendation is to combine beta-alanine with pH-balanced creatine because of the synergistic effects. Because who doesn’t want 37.5% in power and muscle mass?!