β-alanine in a nutshell

β-alanine is one of the few supplements with reputable evidence for its direct effect in enhancing performance. Indeed, it was recently recognised by the International Olympic Committee as an ergogenic supplement with "good to strong evidence of achieving benefits to performance when used in specific scenarios.” (1)

When combined with histidine, this non-essential amino acid is a building block for carnosine. Carnosine (found in meat, poultry and fish) cannot readily enter muscle cells. β-alanine (produced in the liver and also found in meat, poultry and fish) is the rate-limiting step in carnosine synthesis and supplementation is thus effective at increasing intramuscular carnosine stores.

β-alanine has been shown to benefit high-intensity intermittent exercise (one to four-minute range, i.e. sprint endurance) because hydrogen ions begin to accumulate in this kind of event, leading to a drop in intramuscular pH. The increased carnosine levels through β-alanine supplementation buffer these hydrogen ions and may therefore help the muscle better withstand fatigue, improve exercise capacity and support training adaptations.

A recent study also showed that β-alanine supplementation can also be an effective supplement in the weights room (2). Twenty-six young and healthy, resistance-trained men were randomly assigned to either β-alanine supplementation or a placebo. The participants in the former group took 6.4 g/day of β-alanine as eight daily capsules (800mg each), at least one and a half hours apart. This was to avoid the main side effect of paresthesia, a harmless pins-and-needles feeling. The participants conducted three weekly strength-training sessions for five weeks. They were guided in terms of the number of repetitions for each exercise and increases in load and training volume.

The main finding at the end of the five-week period was the significant improvement in average power output measured during a 1-RM back squat in the group that supplemented with β-alanine. That group also revealed a greater training load and more total weight lifted compared to the placebo group.

In terms of dosages, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends β-alanine loading of 4-6 g/day for two to four weeks (3). Paresthesia typically occurs when too large a dose of β-alanine is taken in one go. Dividing the dosages over the day, like in the study above, or using a sustained-release formula may help to reduce the pins-and-needles feeling.

Intramuscular carnosine levels have been shown to be lower in vegetarians and vegan athletes due to their lack of meat consumption. Despite a lack of research, this supports the notion that β-alanine supplementation might be even more pertinent in these athletes compared to their omnivore counterparts.

The long-term use of β-alanine has not been adequately studied in humans, but in animal studies it has been shown that consistent use of β-alanine may induce a taurine deficiency - taurine is an important amino acid for bile production and detoxification. As this negative effect cannot be ruled out in humans, a proper supplementation regime should always be followed under professional guidance.

In my view, β-alanine supplementation is worth trying if you’re an athlete who engages in high-intensity intermittent exercise or who wants to improve your resistance-training performance, provided you’re already doing a great job with your baseline diet and lifestyle. With any supplement, I always carry out a risk analysis to see if the extra edge outweighs the risks and also advise testing it in training before using it during a competition phase. As always, if you are an elite athlete under the guidance of a nutrition practitioner and UKAD advisor, go for reputable brands that have been batch-tested to minimise the risk of inadvertent doping.

References

  • 1. Maughan R et al (2018). IOC consensus statement: dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete. Br J Sports Med. 52(7):439-455.
  • 2. Maté-Muñoz JL et al (2018). Effects of β-alanine supplementation during a 5-week strength training program: a randomized, controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutrition. 15:19.
  • 3. Texler ET et al (2015). International Society of Ssports Nutrition Position Stand: Beta-Alanine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 12:30.