What is the Beta-Alanine Itch?
As we’ve discussed previously, beta-alanine is a popular nutritional supplement that is used by bodybuilders and exercising athletes to help improve performance and enhance their ability to train. The end result of supplementation with beta-alanine is thought to be an increase in muscle carnosine levels as carnosine is known to be one of the primary active buffers located in muscle. Because the available supply of beta-alanine is known to be the rate-limiting substrate of building more carnosine, supplementation with beta-alanine has recently been considered for this purpose.
In what many people view as the initial study performed on beta-alanine supplementation for exercise purposes, Dr. Roger Harris and his colleagues (the same group that led the charge for creatine) had people supplement with three different dosages of beta-alanine: 10, 20 and 40 milligrams of beta-alanine for every kilogram of body mass . For the average 80-kilogram or 175 pound athlete, this dosage is equivalent to 800, 1,600 and 3,200 milligrams of beta-alanine. As one would expect, the highest dosage resulted in a sharp peak in the amount of beta-alanine in the blood, but severe symptoms of parasthesia (i.e. tingling) was reported. The symptoms were described by the participants as intense and unpleasant and they started approximately 20 minutes after beta-alanine ingestion and ended approximately 60 minutes after ingestion. The middle dosage (20 mg/kg or 1,600 mg) still led to a peak in blood beta-alanine, but to a lesser extent than the highest dosage, and the tingling sensation was still present. Finally, the lowest dosage (10 mg/kg or 800 mg) resulted in no symptoms of tingling or numbing, but still yielded a discrete peaking of blood levels of beta-alanine. Resulting from this study, researchers concluded that the optimal single dosage of beta-alanine should be around 800 mg .
Once increased in the bloodstream, blood levels of beta-alanine reach peak levels approximately 30 – 40 minutes after capsule ingestion and stayed at these peak levels for another 25 minutes (approximately 60 minutes after ingestion). Increased serum levels returned to undetectable baseline values around three hours after ingestion. The results from this one study tell us quite a bit about beta-alanine . First off, more is not better or at least is this instance, not tolerable. Large amounts of beta-alanine (>1,600 mg per dose) were not able to be tolerated as severe, painful symptoms of tingling, numbing and parasthesia were reported. Smaller doses (800 mg per dose) still nicely increased beta-alanine levels in the blood, but without the negative side effects. Furthermore, this study showed it takes around 30-40 minutes for blood levels to peak and they remain elevated for around 20 – 25 minutes before returning back to non-detectable baseline levels after three hours of ingestion. From this information, the first dosing suggestions were developed. If the total daily dose was to be maximized, four to six 800 mg doses need to be taken throughout the day with each dose being approximately three hours apart from each other. Early critics to this dosing regimen keyed on its practicality as having to take multiple doses on an interval throughout the day are not the most convenient of scenarios for those people who work, travel, etc.
Some of you may be thinking, “It’s great that blood levels of beta-alanine can be increased, but you still haven’t told me anything to show that carnosine levels in my muscles will increase. If muscle carnosine is ultimately what will make the difference then I’m not taking beta-alanine until I know it increases muscle carnosine levels. Otherwise, I’m going to spend my money elsewhere.” This thought was also answered by the same study where they had two groups ingest either 3.2 grams of beta-alanine each day separated into four 800 mg doses at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm and 6 pm for a total of four weeks. In another group, they increased to eight daily doses and started at 4 grams per day during the first week and increased to 6.4 grams per day by week 4. The key aspect was that no single dose exceeded 800 mg (remember the tingling you asked about?). In a somewhat expected fashion, both protocols increased the amount of carnosine in the muscle, with a 40% increase happening after the first protocol (3.2 g/day for 4 weeks) and a 65% increase in the other protocol and these results were soon replicated by later studies [2-3]. So there you have it. Daily supplementation with beta-alanine at an individual dosage of 800 mg in four daily doses for a total of 3.2 grams per day increases muscle carnosine levels by 40% after four weeks of supplementation. An additional 25% increase in muscle carnosine can be achieved (an estimated 65% increase) if the total daily dosage is increased to 6.4 grams per day by taking up to eight daily doses. A key factor with this information is that: 1) symptoms of uncomfortable tingling, numbing and parasthesia can be avoided by taking less than 800 mg per dose and 2) muscle carnosine levels can be increased by taking multiple daily doses to a total daily dose of 3.2 to 6.4 grams per day. While this is exciting news, it kind of has a dark cloud cast over it as taking four to eight daily doses is not the most convenient means of supplementation.
Recently, however, time-released formulations have been developed which has somewhat changed how beta-alanine can be used. Several studies [4-7] have reported that when a 1,600 mg dose of a time-released formulation is used, the symptoms of parasthesia were avoided altogether and the greater total daily dosage (6.4 grams, which was found to increase muscle carnosine by 65%) was able to be reached with only four daily doses instead of eight daily doses. For those skeptics out there, follow-up studies also confirmed that using this dosing regimen with time-released formulations also increased muscle carnosine levels by 40% after four weeks of supplementation. In closing, if you’re experiencing tingling and other signs of parasthesia after you take beta-alanine studies suggest it’s very likely you are taking more than 800 milligrams in one dose. If not, it’s likely you respond much greater to increased beta-alanine availability than others. To maximize muscle carnosine levels and thus maximize its potential to aid your muscles during your workouts, you need to increase your total daily dosage of beta-alanine. If you are using a non time-released formulation, then studies suggest that taking 800 mg doses four times each day will increase muscle carnosine levels by 40% after four weeks. Muscle carnosine can be increased by 65% if you take even more daily doses and increase your total daily dosage to 6.4 grams per day after four weeks. If you’re like me and the thought of being a slave to your beta-alanine is unsettling, I recommended taking a 1,600 mg dose of a time-released formulation and taking this twice each day. After four weeks, muscle carnosine will be increased by 40%  and this amount is enough to positively impact your performance and training. After all, this is why you are taking it, to increase your training and performance, isn’t it?
- Harris, R.C., et al., The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids, 2006. 30(3): p. 279-89.
- Hill, C.A., et al., Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity. Amino Acids, 2007. 32(2): p. 225-33.
- Kendrick, I.P., et al., The effects of 10 weeks of resistance training combined with beta-alanine supplementation on whole body strength, force production, muscular endurance and body composition. Amino Acids, 2008. 34(4): p. 547-54.
- Derave, W., et al., beta-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters. J Appl Physiol, 2007. 103(5): p. 1736-43.
- Hoffman, J., et al., Beta-alanine and the hormonal response to exercise. Int J Sports Med, 2008. 29(12): p. 952-8.
- Stout, J.R., et al., Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women. Amino Acids, 2007. 32(3): p. 381-6.
- Zoeller, R.F., et al., Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on aerobic power, ventilatory and lactate thresholds, and time to exhaustion. Amino Acids, 2007. 33(3): p. 505-10.
- Harris, R.C., et al., Changes in muscle carnosine of subjects with 4 weeks supplementation with a controlled release formulation of beta-alanine (Carnosyn), and for 6 weeks post. FASEB J, 2009. 23: p. 599.4.