Can You Train Your Muscles with Beta-Alanine?

Be wary of high intensity exercise, especially if you’re getting on in years. Such activity can result in the formation of reduced substrate levels and accumulation of metabolites in the skeletal muscle. Among these metabolites are adenosine diphosphate, inorganic phosphate, and hydrogen ions, and they can have harmful effects on muscle function and force generation, thus adding to fatigue. Coping with fatigue and its sources is a challenge to sport and exercise performance, so any intervention capable of reducing the negative effects of these metabolites would be useful indeed. Two recent reviews have delved into the question of the value of β-alanine to reduce fatigue and enhance physical performance, arriving at similar conclusions.

Carnosine (β-alanyl-L-histidine) is a cytoplasmic dipeptide found in high concentrations in the skeletal muscle of non-vertebrates, as well as vertebrates (a class to which we belong). As can be seen from its structure, carnosine is formed by bonding β-alanine and histidine, via a reaction that is catalyzed by carnosine synthase. β-alanine is also an osmolyte. (See “Beta-Alanine Fights Alzheimer’s Amyloid” in the September 2009 issue.)

The concentration of histidine in muscle and plasma is high, whereas β-alanine exists in low concentration in muscle. It is the availability of β-alanine that is the rate-limiting factor to the synthesis of carnosine in skeletal muscle. For that reason, it is possible to increase muscle carnosine concentrations either through dietary intake of carnosine, or through chemically related dipeptides that release β-alanine on absorption. Alternatively, supplementing with β-alanine could offer a method of increasing intracellular buffering capacity during exercise, the consequence of which could increase high-intensity exercise capacity and performance.1

Concurrent Conclusions of β-alanine’s Benefits

In many studies, β-alanine supplementation has been found to augment muscle carnosine concentrations in man. That’s important because carnosine’s role as an intracellular buffer is indisputable given its location within the skeletal muscle of humans. As a result, there is a high prospect that supplementation with β-alanine will result in improved exercise performance, especially if one is involved with high-intensity exercise.

Carnosine (β-alanyl-L-histidine)
It is apparent, owing to a growing body of evidence, that β-alanine supplementation of 4 weeks or longer produces significant exercise capacity improvements. This benefit increases in high-intensity exercise tests lasting between 1.5 and 4 min. Bear in mind that not all studies examining the influence of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance are positive, yet the argument can be made that the more rigorous studies clearly demonstrate the potential of β-alanine supplementation to increase muscle carnosine, especially when combined with high-intensity training.

The Effects of Carnosine and
β-alanine on Exercise Performance

In the second review, researchers also discuss what they currently know about carnosine and β-alanine metabolism, together with the effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance.2 They state that intramuscular acidosis is one of the main causes of fatigue during intense exercise. Also, that the peptide carnosine plays a significant role in muscle pH regulation, and when one supplements with beta-alanine, the result is increased muscle carnosine content. Consequently, there is an increase in total muscle buffer capacity, along with the potential to obtain improvements in physical performance during high-intensity exercise.

Many studies on β-alanine supplementation and exercise performance have shown significant performance improvements during numerous bouts of high-intensity exercise, as well as in individual bouts of exercise lasting more than 60 seconds. At the same time, β-alanine supplementation has been found to delay the onset of neuromuscular fatigue.

While β-alanine doesn’t improve either maximal strength or VO2max, it has been found to improve certain features of endurance performance, including a higher anaerobic threshold and a longer time to reach exhaustion. While flushing (paresthesia) may be experienced when a dose a single dose higher than 800 mg is ingested, symptoms are transient and not consequential. There are no significant side effects related to β-alanine use. Its use appears to be a safe strategy that can help improve high-intensity anaerobic performance.

  1. Sale C, Saunders B, Harris RC. Effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine concentrations and exercise performance. Amino Acids. 2009 Dec 20. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Giannini Artioli G, Gualano B, Smith A, Stout J, Herbert Lancha A Junior. The Role of beta-alanine Supplementation on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Dec 9. [Epub ahead of print]

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