How Beta-alanine works, explained via Harry Potter

There are plenty of articles on beta-alanine, but this is the only one you’ll need in order to remember what beta-alanine does, thanks to Harry Potter.

Remember that part in the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dumbledore battles Voldemort?

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT HAPPENS from 1:53-2:22!!!

In particular, focus on the part where Voldemort is poised to hurl shards of broken glass at Dumbledore. Dumbledore quickly casts a spell which makes some sort of sieve that turns the glass to sand.

Here’s how beta-alanine works:

Dumbledore’s spell creates a sieve that breaks down the glass from Voldemort.

Your beta-alanine creates carnosine that neutralizes the acid from intense exercise.

Yep, I just compared Voldemort to cardio. And you, dear reader, get to be Dumbledore! What’s important here is that beta-alanine (the spell itself) doesn’t do anything: it’s what the spell becomes. It gives Dumbledore enough “oomph” to keep fighing a little longer…

Beta-alanine is the building block of carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide – two amino acids put together (beta-alanine and histidine). Carnosine’s job is to maintain the acid/base* equilibrium in muscle cells.

*See this VERY HELPFUL INFOGRAPHIC on Acids, Alkalis and the pH Scale from Compound Interest

the-ph-scale

You know that burning sensation you get in your muscles when you do High-Intensity Interval Training or do Max Reps with weights? That burning is “exercise-induced lactic acid production”. Beta-alanine’s ability (as carnosine) to neutralize that acid and the resulting muscle burn is why people say things like,

“Beta-alanine reduces the perception of fatigue during exercise to near-exhaustion.”

This burning-and-buffering is also why beta-alanine DOES NOT WORK for certain kinds of exercise.

lift-weights-faster

If you’re doing high-intensity interval training or lifting weights where you max out in the 8-15 rep range, beta-alanine can help! Otherwise, don’t count on it for any of the following:

X Increase in 1 Rep Max

X Improved 400-meter sprint

X Power Output

X Anti-aging (unless you’re a fruit fly in a controlled environment)

Conclusion: Beta-alanine is more like Dumbledore’s glass-breakdown spell than Captain America’s Super Soldier Serum

According to meta-analysis (a review of several different studies), beta-alanine works best for activities lasting 60 – 240 seconds.

  • LESS THAN 60 SECONDS: beta-alanine is no more effective than placebo
  • MORE THAN 240 SECONDS: beta-alanine is not reliable and study results are inconsistent

So where does it come from?

Carnosine and beta-alanine are most abundant in skeletal muscle, so they’re naturally found in meat products like beef (~1.8 mg / g meat), pork (~2.5 mg / g meat), and poultry (~0.67 mg / g meat). Generally speaking, the more active the animal, the higher the carnosine levels.

Carnosine can’t enter the muscle cell; it has to be created from within. Carnosine supplements won’t do any good, but beta-alanine is an effective way to increase carnosine stores, just like citrulline is an effective way to increase arginine stores. The key is to get the right pieces in place, then the pieces come together and magic happens.

How much to take / side-effects

A standard dose ranges from 2-5 grams but doses 0.8-1 gram are small enough to avoid the tingling sensation (paresthesia). Some people are more sensitive to the tingling than others, but this side-effect is harmless. I always tell people, “that’s how you know it’s working!” It’s also a great incentive to work out within 30 minutes after your beta-alanine supplement. This time window is recommended for maximum benefit, and also because the tingles won’t bother you as much if you’re moving around.

Is Dumbledore a vegetarian?

Vegetarians and Vegans typically have lower carnosine levels than omnivores. Remember, carnosine and beta-alanine are naturally occurring in meat! That said, vegetarians and Vegans would probably benefit from beta-alanine supplements. There has been one study examining the benefits of beta-alanine supplementation in omnivores versus vegetarians, but it was a really small study that shouldn’t be taken as solid proof.

What about creatine?

Sorry – I have neither a Harry Potter metaphor nor any promising news regarding a creatine/beta-alanine synergy. There have only been a few small studies looking at the two, and the data has been inconsistent or incomplete. Besides, creatine is meant for a different kind of workout than beta-alanine (1 rep max versus 8-12 reps; sprint versus HIIT). It seems implausible one person would benefit from both of them in the same workout. The data suggests it’s a better idea to match your supplement with the workout you’re planning that day.

References and Related Reading:

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