Beta-alanine has slowly become one of the few supplements that have developed a good reputation for consistently producing positive outcomes for performance, up there with the likes of creatine and caffeine. It is used as a performance aid mostly because of its ability to improve muscular endurance.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is not used in the production of protein. It is naturally produced by the liver.
The benefits from beta-alanine supplementation mostly don’t come from the beta-alanine directly; they come from the increase in muscle carnosine that occurs.
When beta-alanine is consumed it is converted into carnosine by joining histidine.
How Does Carnosine Work?
The main function of interest for carnosine is that it helps to maintain the acid-base equilibrium. It helps prevent pH from dropping by buffering H+ ions, which in turn helps to reduce feelings of fatigue.
A simpler way of explaining it is to say that it helps prevent lactic acid build-up.
It also aids vasodilatation, which could help improve the muscular supply of oxygen and nutrients.
Carnosine also has antioxidant properties although it’s questionable as to whether this is partly responsible for its improved outcomes.
When you look at it with a focus on the main beneficial properties, you can see how increased carnosine levels could be useful for improving performance in intense exercise lasting 60-240 seconds.
Why Can’t You Just Directly Supplement Carnosine or Histidine?
There’s no benefit to supplementing histidine since typically there is already enough histidine stored in muscle cells.
Research on carnosine supplementation indicates that carnosine can’t enter muscle cells in a great amount. This is because it is metabolised prior to reaching the muscles.
While I wouldn’t completely rule out the potential application of carnosine supplementation, there isn’t much promising research at this stage that identifies dosing protocols that appear to be effective.
Meanwhile, beta-alanine supplementation is the way around this, since it is the rate-limiting factor in carnosine production. It has consistently been shown to boost carnosine levels.
Since we know for sure that this is effective, it makes sense to supplement beta-alanine if the goal is to increase carnosine levels.
How Effective Is It?
Supplementing daily for a minimum of 4 weeks has been linked with improved performance in exercise efforts lasting anywhere between 1-6 minutes.
For gym-goers, it also appears that individuals are able to perform one or two additional reps in the gym when training in a range of 8-20 reps.
From an insightful meta-analysis on the subject, “the median effect of beta-alanine supplementation is a 2.85% improvement in the outcome of an exercise measure when a median total of 179g of β-alanine is supplemented (over an average of 42 days).”
A median improvement of 2.85% is well worth paying attention to when it comes to supplements. To consistently provide benefits around that level is rare. Athletes are always looking for ways to improve performance, so any improvement is of value.
Typically, beta-alanine appears to be most beneficial in time-to-exhaustion (TTE) style trials. Two cycling TTE trials with total beta-alanine dosages over time equalling 145g and 179g resulted in improvements of 11.8% and 12.1% respectively. Seeing multiple studies with results that are that significant is worth paying attention to.
TTE exhaustion isn’t exactly replicated in a lot of sporting events since most endurance events have a specified distance instead. Regardless, it is interesting to see that it is consistently effective.
Beta-alanine is most beneficial if training to near maximal capacity. This is when the pH buffering will play a role best.
Effects also become less significant with longer rest periods between bouts of exercise, which might be relevant for certain gym-goers.
Is It Safe?
Beta-alanine supplementation appears to be safe in healthy populations at recommended doses.
The most commonly reported side effect of beta-alanine is paraesthesia. This is a tingling sensation felt on the face, neck and arms. While this can be alarming for some, it is completely harmless.
Hypothetically, mild paraesthesia could produce a placebo effect that might help people perform better, but current research doesn’t seem to support that idea. At the other end of the spectrum, large dosages of beta-alanine could produce paraesthesia to the point that it harms performance.
Keeping dosages to <2g at a time should limit paraesthesia to a comfortable level in most people.
The other main documented side effect is that beta-alanine might decrease taurine levels in cells. This is due to utilising a shared transporter. But at this stage, there does not seem to be strong evidence of this occurring in humans and no physiological downsides have been identified due to this.
Another aspect I look at when it comes to safety is the timeframe that a supplement has been studied for. While the first human study of beta-alanine was in 2006, there are no long-standing safety studies beyond one year of duration. Based on all the evidence available, concerns about safety should be minimal, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on.
How to Take It?
The dosages that appear to be most consistently used in research are 2-5g, which has been shown to raise carnosine levels. The ISSN position stand is slightly higher than this and recommends 4-6g daily, for at least 4 weeks.
Due to the paraesthesia, if using a larger dosage like 6g, it would be ideal to split the dosage over multiple dosages throughout the day to minimise that symptom.
Timing is mostly irrelevant since the goal is for carnosine to build up in the muscles over time.
That being said, consuming beta-alanine with meals can help increase carnosine further than when consumed alone. Consistency is the key, but if you are looking to optimise the process it could be worthwhile timing your beta-alanine with your meals.
This is important since a lot of pre-workouts feature beta-alanine, which could make this misleading. Taking it pre-workout offers no advantage, since it’s a cumulative effect, not intermittent. Plus having it in pre-workout could encourage you to take it 4-5x per week based on your training schedule, instead of every single day.
There is no evidence that you need to cycle beta-alanine either. Since most trials are only a maximum of 12-weeks long, it is possible that this recommendation could change in the future.
One thing that is unknown is how long it takes for carnosine levels to reach their peak. Most studies end before this potential ceiling is found. It appears as though carnosine levels are still rising 10 weeks into supplementation.
Once you stop taking beta-alanine, the time it takes for your carnosine levels to return to their baseline appears to be between 6 and 15 weeks.
Current Dosing Protocols Are Arguably Too Low
A 2020 Meta-Analysis highlighted that current dosages used in studies potentially are not high enough for optimising muscle carnosine levels in a time-efficient fashion.
This was something I had personally noticed when I was reading the research individually. At the end of almost every study, muscle carnosine levels were still rising.
This raises a few questions:
- How high is the optimal dosage?
- How long does it take to maximise muscle carnosine levels?
- If this dosage is found, is there any downside?
There is also the possibility that the performance benefits of beta-alanine are reaped before muscle carnosine levels are maximised.
Another perspective is that part of the reason the dosing protocols are designed the way they are is to minimise paraesthesia.
But not everybody experiences that to the same level. Some people will experience that at lower levels than others, indicating that differing dosing strategies could be utilised.
And from a long term safety perspective, it seems as though current dosages are safe and have no real downsides.
But there is theoretical potential for high dosages to impact things like taurine and histidine stores. Aspects such as this would be something that I would be interested in seeing future research on before experimenting with higher dosages long-terms.
Does It Affect Everybody in the Same Way?
The individual response can vary significantly, although it looks like there aren’t complete non-responders like there are with some other supplements. In response to 5-6 weeks of beta-alanine supplementation at 4.8g per day, carnosine increased by 55% on average for high responders and 15% for low responders.
Differences in baseline carnosine content and muscle fibre composition could potentially explain the differences in responses. Beta-alanine supplementation will still increase carnosine concentrations, even in those who already have high baseline levels though.
Since carnosine rich foods include beef, pork, poultry and fish, vegetarians and vegans average around 50% less carnosine in their muscles. Based on this, vegetarians and vegans typically see greater increases in carnosine levels while supplementing beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine appears to be particularly effective for middle-distance endurance sports with significant improvements in performance.
When it comes to resistance training, there is evidence that it can help with sets above 8 reps. But the big question that should pop into people’s minds, is whether that translates to results that matter for strength athletes or body composition.
Theoretically, the way in which it could help improve body composition is due to the increase in exercise volume, rather than any direct mechanism. This is the same explanation as to why some studies show an increase in one-rep-max that could be applicable for strength athletes like powerlifters.
In summary, if you’re a middle-distance endurance athlete doing events that take anywhere between 1 minute and 6 minutes, beta-alanine is extremely likely to be beneficial. Arguably it could be beneficial for events up to 10 minutes in duration.
For people who are looking to improve body composition or strength performance, it could be worthwhile taking. But I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have a lot of spare money since it isn’t guaranteed to help.