The past decade has seen an explosion in the supplement industry, with the new products seeming to crop up on a weekly basis. Of course these products eventually fade, making way for “the next big thing.” But despite dozens of these fly by night products appearing, and subsequently disappearing, in the past few years, we’re basically left with creatine as the only gold standard performance-enhancing supplement. I like to provide objective, scientific, often scathing reviews when it comes to supplements, and have left few survivors in my wake. This is why it is such an exciting time right now – the next gold standard may be upon us. It’s called beta alanine, and if you use supplements, you could be using it for the next 80 years of your life.
What Is This Stuff?
Beta alanine (BA) is a naturally-occurring amino acid in our bodies, and is fairly unexciting by unexciting. The part we’re interested in occurs when BA combines with another amino acid, histidine, to form a dipeptide known as Carnosine. This substance normally exists in our muscles, and acts primarily as a buffer to resist changes in pH. Over the past few years, research has been released showing additional benefits of Carnosine, which is what makes it intriguing for us. What’s really amazing is that much like creatine, we can “load up” our muscles with Carnosine by supplementing with BA, and reap even greater benefits (6,7).
Buffers and Muscle Growth/Recovery
At first glance, the buffering of lactic acid by Carnosine doesn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, some may dismiss the true benefits by assuming that this simply means less of a burning sensation will occur when training. But of course, if it were as simple as that, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. The reality is that increasing buffering capacity can not only improve performance, but has the potential to increase muscle growth and strength gains. While it is intuitive that muscle fatigue and momentary muscular failure are a consequence of limited ATP (i.e. running out of energy), we can only deplete our ATP stores by a maximum of 20% (5)! It is actually a buildup of ****bolic waste that limits our muscle contraction, with H+ being the worst offender.
This is particularly true of our fast fibres, which are most sensitive to H+ and therefore highly susceptible to fatigue (5). If we were able to buffer the H+, we could maintain muscle strength for a longer time before fatigue sets in. This has implications for athletic performance where you’d have an edge of being better able to outlast opponents, and push harder before fatiguing. In fact, this ability to work harder for longer has been demonstrated to correlate directly with muscle Carnosine levels (6,13)! As far as training, the ability to push harder means a greater stimulus for adaptation for strength and muscle growth. This is especially true for the high threshold fast fibres, because these are the fibres that have the greatest capacity for Carnosine storage (8).
Carnosine and Fiber Type
Intramuscular Carnosine levels are largely fiber type dependent, in that; the faster the muscle, the more Carnosine it has (14). Taking this one step further, Carnosine itself contributes some of the contractile properties responsible for fiber typing. In other words, fast muscles may have specific contractile properties because they have a lot of Carnosine; and it is Carnosine that helps make them fast. This is supported by several studies showing that Carnosine enhances maximum contraction speed of fibres, meaning that our muscles can contract more quickly (1,15).
From this, it stands to reason that fast athletes like sprinters are known to have more muscle Carnosine than endurance athletes (9). The proper application of this concept is of critical importance, so let’s look at it in another way. It is often cited that humans have three main fiber types, which are (slowest to fastest): “Type I”, “Type IIA”, and “Type IIB” (12). Unfortunately, this is a bit of a misrepresentation, because humans do not actually have the lightning fast and powerful IIB fibres. Instead, our fastest type is a slower version called “IIX” (12).
Due to its ability to enhance contraction speed, increasing muscle Carnosine levels could conceivably move us closer to that IIB ideal! You can imagine the implications of this in everything from football to Combat Sports. Additionally, fiber type is associated with the nerve that stimulates the muscle. Meaning that fast twitch muscles are associated with “fast nerves” and vice versa. This is true to the extent that if you “hook up” a slow nerve to a fast muscle, the muscle will actually transform into a slow type (11)! One of the contributing factors to making a nerve fast is the activity of an enzyme called the Na+-K+-ATPase.
This is the enzyme responsible for maintaining the propagation of the signal down the nerve to its effector organ (such as muscle). Carnosine has been shown to not only enhance the activity of this enzyme (2), which could cause quicker muscle contraction, but also protect it against oxidative damage (3). Why do we care about this? Studies have shown the specific susceptibility of this enzyme to oxidative damage, which has been theorized to contribute to the observed decrease in Na+-K+-ATPase activity following exercise (4). This decrease in enzyme activity is associated with decreased force output and contributes to muscle weakness following exercise (4).
Exercise -> Oxidative Damage -> Decreased Na+-K+-ATPase Activity
Decreased Na+-K+-ATPase Activity -> Decreased Force Output -> Decreased Performance
If Carnosine levels are elevated, they may protect against damage to our nerves, allowing them to fire at a faster rate then if damaged. Practically speaking, instead of performing at 90% the day after exercise, Carnosine may help you perform closer to optimum level. This is particularly useful for athletes who are repeatedly using the same muscles, without the ability to simply rest and recover for a few days.
It is often thought that the recovery of the nervous system is slower than that of the muscle itself, which is why we occasionally need up to a week between training sessions on the same muscle group. Unfortunately, this discrepancy between recovery times could mean that our muscles are fully healed, adapted, and ready to go again, but the delayed recovery of our nervous system is holding us back. Because muscle tissue only maintains this hyper-adapted state for a short time, waiting for our nervous system to catch up could mean that we miss an opportunity to train when our muscle tissue is at its peak.
By protecting nerve cells against oxidative damage, Carnosine may lead to synchronous muscle and nervous system recovery, and ultimately facilitate training while each tissue is optimized. This could not only provide a more powerful training stimulus (6,13), but the advantages of being able to train more frequently are clear. Granted, this is purely theoretical, but it is best to explore every theory when trying to understand a new supplement. In terms of direct practical application, strength athletes and powerlifters are most concerned with neural recovery. This makes BA supplementation perfect for these athletes who want to keep the nervous system running quickly and efficiently.
Creatine and Carnosine
Although BA and creatine have been compared, it is often wondered how these two supplements would interact with one another. In actuality, these two supplements complement each other extremely well for enhancing performance. In fact, they fit together so well that there may be a synergistic interaction between them – that is that their combined effect may be greater than the sum of their individual effects. Additionally, both allow a person to work harder: creatine provides more energy and BA buffers the metabolic waste, which ultimately results in enhanced performance.
One of the lamest marketing ploys used by supplement companies was the claim that their product would yield “steroid-like effects.” No one is moronic enough to us this term now… but then again, does Carnosine supplementation yield steroid-like effects? By definition, YES it does! Now, does this mean that you’ll quickly throw 50lbs on your bench or gain 10lbs of muscle in a week? Well not exactly, because the effects or BA supplementation are “steroid like” in terms of type of effects, not in magnitude. This effect similarity is evidenced by the fact that BA will allow for increased work capacity and resistance to anaerobic fatigue. Again, revisits the idea that you can push harder to get a stronger stimulus for muscle adaptation (6,13).
With regard to on-field performance enhancement, being able to resist fatigue while maintaining a high muscle force output will optimize the overall execution of your task – and your opponents. Taking this one step further, it is interesting to note that among the factors influencing muscle Carnosine concentrations, androgens are critical. It has been shown that Testosterone levels regulate Carnosine concentration, with higher Testosterone resulting in greater muscle Carnosine (10). This means that the effects of androgens can be partially attributed to increasing Carnosine levels! Based on the similarity between types of benefits from both BA supplementation and androgen use, it shouldn’t be surprising that the two are so closely related. Even if you don’t use BA during your cycle of anabolics, its necessity in Post Cycle Therapy is evident.
As with any new product, there is always concern about side effects, and rightly so! Fortunately, as a naturally occurring substance in our body, enhancing Carnosine levels has a predominantly positive effect. The only reported “side effect” is an initial tingling feeling in the hands and feet when too much is taken. This temporary effect is not unhealthy at all, but rather involves the mild stimulation of sensory nerves that dissipates with continued use. Interestingly, many athletes report that they enjoy this feeling for one reason or another, while some feel nothing at all. Taking smaller, more frequent, doses have been shown to completely abolish this effect (8).
Who Uses Beta-Alanine
Much like creatine, one of the strong points of BA is that its use as a supplement is widely applicable, by both athletes and those interested in changing their physique. The people who benefit most from BA supplementation are the same as those who benefit from creatine. These athletes play sports including: football, hockey, wrestling/MMA, track etc. The ability of BA supplementation to enhance contraction speed, even makes it useful for sports like table tennis, where quickness and agility are paramount. Of course, BA is perfect for people looking to gain muscle and strength – just like creatine. Finally, due to the potential of enhancing neural recovery, beta alanine supplementation works well for strength athletes and powerlifters.
Summary of Effects
In summary, the following effects are noted due to Beta Alanine supplementation:
- Faster muscle contraction
- Resistance to anaerobic fatigue
- Increased stimulus for strength/muscle recovery
- Enhanced neural protection and recovery
There are few supplements around these days that we can actually trust, so it’s pretty exciting when something like Beta Alanine comes around. With the numerous benefits to the human body, coupled with the observed increase in athletic performance, Beta Alanine is sure to be around for years to come!
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Author: David Barr