The Basics of Beta-Alanine
Beta-alanine is a core supplement for improving exercise-related endurance – it plays a role in enhancing your exercise capacity and reducing muscular fatigue, allowing you to work out harder, for longer. Read on for a rundown on how beta-alanine works and how you may be able to benefit from its effects.
What is beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. Most amino acids are used as the building blocks for protein synthesis, however beta-alanine is instead important as a precursor to the dipeptide carnosine. Carnosine is comprised of both beta-alanine and histidine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine) and is stored in muscle cells, where it plays a role in buffering the acidity produced by high intensity exercise.1,3
How does beta-alanine work?
When you engage in high intensity exercise, the degree to which you can continue to push your body before you start to feel an activity-limiting “burn” is related to the build up of hydrogen ions (H+) in the muscle cells. Your body uses glucose as the primary source of energy during high intensity exercise, and as it breaks this glucose down lactic acid is produced. Lactic acid subsequently disassociates to lactate and hydrogen ions (H+), and these ions cause the reduction in pH level (increase in acidity) that makes your muscles burn. High levels of acidity also reduce your ability to further break down glucose, leading to a reduction in your muscles’ ability to contract and an increase in fatigue.5
Our bodies have inbuilt mechanisms designed to counteract or buffer these increases in muscular acidity - an extracellular bicarbonate mechanism where bicarbonate neutralises the increased H+ ions as they leave the cell, and an intracellular carnosine mechanism where the buffering occurs within the muscle cell. So, if we can increase muscle buffering capacity, then we should see an increase in the time it takes fatigue to set in and an increased period over which we can continue to exercise at high intensity before our muscles feel like they’re on fire.1
Some athletes supplement with sodium bicarbonate to improve extracellular buffering of H+ ions, however this can be met with unpleasant side effects such as gut discomfort.1 The other option is to increase intracellular buffering capacity by raising muscle carnosine levels, and this is where supplementation with beta-alanine comes in. In the carnosine dipeptide, it is the beta-alanine that is the limiting amino acid (that is, we typically have plenty of histidine but less beta-alanine available).1,3,4 Therefore, by increasing beta-alanine with supplementation, we can increase carnosine levels to improve the buffering of acidity and subsequently enhance performance.
What are the benefits of taking beta-alanine?
Supplementing with beta-alanine is primarily beneficial for shorter, high intensity exercise that lasts anywhere between 30-60 seconds and 10 minutes. This includes exercise that is completed in repetitive short, sharp bursts (for example, sprints or heavy lifts) as well as continuous exercise during this timeframe.1,2,3,4 Studies have shown that increased beta-alanine results in an increased time to exhaustion, allowing you to push hard for longer before you tire.3 In short, although there are individual differences in the response to beta-alanine supplementation, you can expect to be able to complete a greater volume of work, work at a higher intensity, and experience a reduction in perceived exertion, leading to an overall enhancement of your exercise capacity and performance and increased training adaptations.
How much beta-alanine should I take?
Beta-alanine occurs naturally in food sources including meat, seafood, and poultry. However, it is typically difficult to cause a significant increase in carnosine stores with dietary sources of beta-alanine alone, and high-quality beta-alanine supplementation may raise carnosine levels more effectively.3 The usual recommendation for beta-alanine dosage is between 4 and 6 grams per day3, or some protocols have suggested around 65mg per kilogram of body weight daily.2,4 Taking beta-alanine with a source of carbohydrates can increase muscular uptake, and when the dosage of beta-alanine is at the higher end of the range, splitting the total dose into several smaller doses separated by 3-4 hours each may minimise any side effects.3
Are there any side effects of taking beta-alanine?
The most commonly reported side effect of beta-alanine is paraesthesia, which refers to a sensation of prickling or tingling particularly in the hands, face, and neck. Paraesthesia seems to be more common with higher doses of beta-alanine, and may be mitigated to some extent by splitting a larger dose into several smaller doses and ensuring that the recommended dosage is not exceeded. The sensation usually arises 10-20 minutes after taking beta-alanine and may last for 60-90 minutes. Although some people find the tingling to be uncomfortable, there is no evidence that it is harmful, and overall beta-alanine appears to be a safe supplement for most healthy individuals.1,3
- Lancha Junior, A.H., de Salles Painelli, V., Saunders, B. & Artioli, G.G. (2015). Nutritional Strategies to Modulate Intracellular and Extracellular Buffering Capacity During High-Intensity Exercise. Sports Medicine, 45, 71–81. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0397-5
- Saunders, B., Elliot-Sale, K., Artioli, G.G., Swinton, P.A., Dolan, E., Roschel, H., Sale, C. & Gualano, B. (2017). β-alanine supplementation to improve exercise capacity and performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51, 658-669.
- Trexler, E.T., Smith-Ryan, A.E., Stout, J.R., Hoffman, J.R., Wilborn, C.D., Sale, C., … Antonio, J. (2015). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,12, 30. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y
- Maughan, R. J., Burke, L. M., Dvorak, J., Larson-Meyer, D. E., Peeling, P., Phillips, S. M., … Engebretsen, L. (2018). IOC Consensus Statement: Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(2), 104-125.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-011-1200-z