Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
In addition to creatine, another supplement that may help with muscle mass and performance is called . It has been shown to improve performance and exercise capacity as well as to permit greater intensity and volume of exercise training. Professor Ormsbee explains.
Essentially, beta-alanine, which is an amino acid made in the liver, combines with another amino acid called histidine to form a new protein molecule called carnosine in the muscle. Carnosine then acts to buffer or soak up the acidity or hydrogen ions that are created during very difficult exercise.
When accumulated, hydrogen ions cause muscle pain and fatigue. So, if the hydrogen ions are controlled, theoretically, you could exercise longer and at a higher intensity. Higher intensity exercise for longer should help to improve body composition.
For example, one study had men take 3.2 grams (g) per day of beta-alanine with 10.5 g per day of creatine, or 10.5 g per day of creatine only, or 10.5 g per day of dextrose—a sugar placebo— for 10 weeks during a resistance training program. It was found that the beta-alanine plus creatine group had the greatest improvement in muscle mass and the largest decrease in fat mass over the course of the study.
Other research has tested 4 g of beta-alanine per day compared to a placebo for eight weeks during a high-intensity, interval sprinting, and resistance training program in young men. The results showed that despite both groups losing weight, the composition of the weight was different.
On average, the group taking beta-alanine gained more muscle mass. Other studies are beginning to pile up too—many that support the use of beta-alanine to increase performance and body composition in both men and women.
Doses and Side Effects
About 3 g to 6 g per day for four weeks can increase intramuscular carnosine and improve performance. Typically, this dose should be split up throughout the day for best results—for example, taking 1.5 g three times per day.
One side effect to note is that beta-alanine is often associated with a tingling feeling or numbness in your extremities called paresthesia. This, sometimes, is temporary but annoying. Not all people experience this side effect, but it is reported in many of the research studies.
As a result, some companies have made extended-release capsules to allow a slow release of beta-alanine. This slow release can help reduce or diminish any of the paresthesia effects.
Beta-Alanine for Physical Conditions
“My lab has completed two small pilot studies with the use of beta-alanine in both Parkinson’s [disease] and Multiple sclerosis patients to see if it improved their physical function,” Professor Ormsbee said.
That data is still being analyzed, but in a short four-week study, performance was not improved any more than a placebo. Thus, while there is cross-over from sports science to diseased populations, much more work will be needed to see what products will work for each condition.
“It is a very exciting time to be in this field for sure,” Professor Ormsbee said. “With all this being said, it seems that beta-alanine improves performance by being converted to carnosine, but more work is underway to pinpoint exactly how beta-alanine improves performance.”
Other great muscle building or muscle maintenance supplements exist, including amino acids like leucine and whole proteins. Another supplement called HMB or beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate also shows some promise to help build muscle strength, particularly in non-athletes—but more research is needed.
Overall, some supplements like caffeine, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), creatine, and beta-alanine have been studied repeatedly over the years in many different populations. They have been shown to be effective in many different types of exercise modalities, too.
Increasingly, these traditional sports performance supplements are crossing over into the clinical world and being used to assist with improving or preventing chronic diseases. The most prevalent examples to date include creatine for neurological disorders to improve nerve function and muscle strength.
“In an ideal world, I could put things simply and say, these supplements I’ve discussed will work for you,” Professor Ormsbee said. “But, this area, along with the entire field of sports nutrition, is not so clear cut. There are a lot of gray areas.”
With supplementation, individual factors such as training status, gender, age, and performance goals all play a large role in the efficacy of these products. Thus, Professor Ormsbee recommends that you focus first on high-quality nutrition and exercise quality as a whole as the best strategy for improving your lifestyle and attaining your initial goals.
You most likely take supplements already. They are in most of the common packaged foods that you eat or beverages that you drink.
However, sports supplements are a bit different, and you should understand that supplements are intended to be added to a nutritious diet and not to replace the foods that we eat.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.