In the last few months, the number of published studies using beta-alanine has increased impressively. Of course, when you consider it may take 18 – 24 months for a study to go from data collection to a peer-reviewed published report, this isn’t as surprising. While beta-alanine studies have been trickling from a few of the top researchers in this area for the last 5 – 6 years, it usually takes a while before the idea gets picked up by people all across the world. The same thing was witnessed with creatine monohydrate supplements in the early 1990s as essentially one European group and one or two North American groups was publishing their work and then an explosion of studies occurred from the late 1990s until around 2005.
One thing that appears to be important for would-be beta-alanine users is that you use it for activities or exercise stimuli that it is best suited to exert its physiological effect (Abe 2000; Artioli, Gualano et al. 2010). Beta-alanine is widely known as a cellular buffer (Artioli, Gualano et al. 2010), but it is important to understand that it is not the beta-alanine that is actually doing the buffering. Ingestion of beta-alanine increases intramuscular levels of carnosine and it is carnosine that has the powerful buffering ability which can result in an increase in exercise performance through beta-alanine use. If you’re thinking, I’ll just supplement with carnosine, you better reconsider because the human body readily breaks down carnosine through the digestive process and renders it non-functional. But scientists have discovered that beta-alanine can adequately survive the digestive process. Therefore, supplementation with beta-alanine supports an increase in carnosine levels in the muscle. Greater carnosine levels increase the buffering ability of the muscle cells which allows then to function optimally in a cellular environment such as intense exercise.
Before this topic delves too much further into beta-alanine, a few chemistry-related terms need to be discussed to ensure you understand exactly what is going on? Now if you’re thinking, “Chemistry”, I gave up on chemistry back in high school, bear with me, because if you don’t understand these concepts you may be using beta-alanine in situations where it is just not set up to work as well as it could or not at all. Then you think beta-alanine is junk when in fact it might have been used in the wrong manner. This is kind of like using creatine monohydrate to increase half-marathon times or using essential amino acid supplementation to improve jumping performance.
When the human body performs exercise a number of components interact to produce (and reproduce) substrates that our cells can use for energy. The harder you exercise the greater the demand for energy, thus the greater demand these substrates are available and stay in a favorable balance. These are all considered good things relative to exercise and performance. On the negative side, several factors also begin to be produced and if exercise intensity is high, they will accumulate in our cells that make it more difficult for the cell to function. Collectively, people often talk about the cell getting acidic in these situations and frankly muscle cells, brain cells, etc. don’t function well when it becomes acidic.
This is where buffers enter the picture. Buffers, like carnosine (linked to beta-alanine supplementation) and phosphocreatine (linked to creatine supplementation) aid the cell in promoting a more favorable balance between good things and bad things. When more of the buffer is in cell, the more the cell is able to resist fatigue. If fatigue can be resisted, you can run (or cycle) faster and harder over a longer period of time or you can complete more repetitions in the same amount of time, etc. In this respect, several review articles have illustrated that beta-alanine supplementation seems to work best in exercise situations that exhibit significant acid production (Abe 2000; Artioli, Gualano et al. 2010). Characteristic running events would be an 800m run, the event some elite level male runners have told is the closest a man can experience to having a baby. Hmmm, does not sound fun. In the next few months, this discussion will be expanded by further discussing several of these recent studies that used beta-alanine and highlight some reasons for their conclusions.
Abe, H. (2000). “Role of histidine-related compounds as intracellular proton buffering constituents in vertebrate muscle.” Biochemistry. Biokhimiia 65(7): 757-765.
Artioli, G. G., B. Gualano, et al. (2010). “Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 42(6): 1162-1173.