Why Beta-Alanine works

Beta-alanine is the hottest new supplement because it works. Sports nutritionist Gabrielle Maston explains why and how to take it.

Beta-alanine is a beta amino acid, which have a different chemical structure to the standard non-essential amino acids used to make up a protein. It’s created by the body from the breakdown of different protein compounds, one of which is carnosine.

Carnosine is a protein building block that is naturally produced in the body, and found in the heart and muscle cells. However, supplementation with carnosine has been shown to be ineffective when it comes to sports performance because it breaks down
in digestion.

How does it work?

Beta-alanine has become a popular supplement among endurance and strength athletes, as it has the potential to let you work harder for longer, which is useful if you’re in training.

During exercise, as the body breaks down ATP (an energy molecule), it produces hydrogen ions and lactic acid. Along with free hydrogen ions from glycolysis, lactic acid also produces hydrogen ions H+, that are acidic in nature. H+ quickly builds up during exercise, especially if the exercise is intense. It’s this acidic environment that causes problems with muscle contraction and, in turn, affects sports performance.

Beta-alanine works by increasing carnosine concentration in the muscle cells, which acts as a buffer, countering the acidic environment and allowing muscles to work efficiently.

A study looking at amateur boxers published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that boxers supplementing with beta-alanine in the weeks before a match were able to increase punch force and frequency compared to baseline levels.

The side-effects

As this is a fairly new supplement, its long-term effects are still unknown. While there is some evidence that beta-alanine may have a positive effect on body composition and muscle carnosine levels, these benefits are still under investigation.

The most predominant side effect of beta-alanine is that gives you the feeling of pins and needles just after taking it. In some supplement formulations, beta-alanine is added to give you the “feeling” of taking something that works, even though it may not be in a high enough dosage to give any sports performance benefit.

How to take it

Beta-alanine is a supplement that needs to saturate muscle cells. For it to be effective, it needs to be supplemented for weeks leading up to events. Taking it before exercise and expecting instant gains is fruitless — however, if you’re using a pre-workout supplement with beta-alanine daily, this could be enough for you to see improvements in the long run.