What is beta alanine? The new creatine?

Beta alanine
Beta alanine

Having just written a “What is ..” on creatine, it was quite natural for me to transition into writing about the other supplement, I use regularly; beta alanine. This is also one of those, where if people asked what it does, I would end up giving them an explanation, that was complicated enough for them to say OK – but really just reflected my own lack of knowledge, about what it does.

I have always read that beta alanine should work well together with creatine, but my understanding of this fact, was that this was because it did something similar, as creatine – which in fact it does not. They work in quite different ways actually.

To understand what beta alanine does, we need to get familiar with carnosine. Not getting into too much detail, carnosine comes into play with anaerobic metabolism. During intense exercise, your body will use all the oxygen locally in your muscles to run the aerobic metabolism and then switch predominantly to anaerobic once the oxygen supply is used. The anaerobic turnover of carbohydrates, results in the release of lactate and hydrogen ions. Buildup of hydrogen ions, then leads to drop in muscle ph. All this quickly becomes a little scientific, but what you need to get from this is; drop in muscle ph = muscle fatigue.

Quite cleverly, our bodies have “buffers” in place, to help in high demand situations. In this case, it is carnosine that comes to the rescue. Carnosine binds the free hydrogen ions, thereby keeping them from building up inside the muscles and causing drop in ph. The higher the concentration of carnosine inside the muscles, the bigger this “buffer” is.

This could sound like the effect is somewhat similar to creatine. And you could perhaps say that creatine acts as a “buffer” as well, but where they really differ is in the energy systems they act upon. Creatine aids in short, max effort work; maximum deadlift, very short max effort sprints etc. Beta alanines effect does not kick in, before hydrogen ions starts to be released and it can act as a buffer. Therefore it is said that the “working window” of beta alanine is somewhere from 60-240 seconds.[1]

Now you would probably have noticed, that in the section about how it worked, all I wrote about was carnosine. This is because carnosine is what does the magic, but carnosine is made up by two amino acids – L-histidine and beta alanine. L-histidine is rather abundant in the muscles, so in order to bump up concentration of carnosine we need to add – you’ve guessed it – beta alanine.

But why not just take carnosine directly? It has been shown, that taking in carnosine directly causes very little of it to reach the actual muscles. It is broken down, or used elsewhere in the body before it actually reaches the muscles. Beta alanine on the other hand, have shown to go almost directly to the muscles, where we need it to produce the extra carnosine.[2]

We have now covered the performance aspect of beta alanine, but a few studies has shown rather interesting effects on muscle mass as well. One of them performed on wrestlers and football players, which are especially interesting, since we are people who already work out and not untrained individuals. They performed some HIIT and resistance training over a period of 8 weeks. The wrestlers all lost body weight, both placebo and beta alanine group, but the beta alanine group gained 1,1 lb lean muscle mass and the placebo group lost 1 lb  lean muscle mass – that’s a 2 lb net difference! The footballers all gained lean mass, the beta alanine group 2,1 lb and the placebo group 1,1 lb. Again quite significant net gain for the beta alanine group.[3]

These studies were however on a rather small group of individuals, 37 all together, so it cannot be considered as any real evidence of beta alanines effect. But still very interesting!

As with creatine, one of the great things about beta alanine is the rather low price. It is more expensive than creatine, but still very affordable. I tend to stick to powder, which enables me to mix it into morning coffee, shakes etc.

This is one of the cheapest offers I have been able to find on beta alanine: NOW Foods Beta Alanine Powder 500Gbut feel free to search around and find your own. Just stick to traditional beta alanine – to the best of my knowledge, there are not anything you can mix it with to increase absorption, so no need to buy any fancy products, just for the sake of beta alanine.

So to end of this post with answering my question from the title; Is beta alanine the new creatine? In some ways you could say it is. It is one of those rare supplements, that seems to back up its claims in studies. And perhaps even better, you can use it together with creatine and get the best of both of them.

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20479615
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17690198
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21659893
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