Beta-Alanine: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

Beta-alanine has emerged as one of the most popular dietary supplements with the purpose of increasing exercise performance. It is a relatively new star on the supplement sky, with the first human study published as late as in 2006, but its popularity has steadily increased. It can be found in many so-called pre-workout products, but is also available as a stand-alone supplement.

Beta-alanine improves exercise performance by mitigating fatigue and increasing work capacity through increased levels of carnosine in the muscles. This reduces muscle acidosis and allows for better performance, mostly in high-intensity exercise lasting from 1 up to 10 minutes. According to some research, beta-alanine can improve strength and enhance endurance performance over longer periods of time, too, but more research is needed.

Daily supplementation with 3.2–6.4 grams of beta-alanine over the course of 2–4 weeks loads the muscles with carnosine and improves performance. After that, you can reduce your daily intake to 1.2 grams per day and still keep your muscle carnosine levels elevated.

In this guide, you’ll learn what beta-alanine is, how it works, and how it applies to you as a lifter or athlete in other sports.

What Is Beta-Alanine?

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. This means that the body can produce it as needed. With beta-alanine, this happens in the liver. You can also find beta-alanine in regular food, the top sources being meat, fish, and poultry.

Unlike the amino acids that are incorporated into muscle, organ, and tissue protein (called proteogenic amino acids), your body won’t use beta-alanine to build muscle. Instead, it can help you perform better during training. Not so much by itself, but by increasing the content of carnosine in your muscles. 

How Does Beta-Alanine Work?

As previously stated, beta-alanine works by increasing the amount of carnosine in your muscles.

Carnosine has two main functions that can help improve exercise performance:

  • Buffer. It acts as an intracellular proton buffer, meaning that it offers buffering mechanisms that can help maintain pH homeostasis during high-intensity exercise. Muscular acidosis can limit performance by interfering with muscle contractions and phosphate synthesis. Increasing muscle carnosine content through beta-alanine supplementation mitigates the fall of blood pH during high-intensity exercise.1
  • Anti-oxidant. Carnosine can also reduce oxidative stress through its function as an antioxidant.2 High-intensity exercise elevates oxidative stress, and according to animal research, these oxidative processes might contribute to muscle fatigue.3

Carnosine is a dipeptide formed by the combination of beta-alanine and another amino acid, histidine. It needs a little help from an enzyme called carnosine synthetase to form. Carnosine is primarily stored in the muscles, especially in the fast-twitch muscle fibers.4

Beta-alanine is the limiting factor for carnosine synthesis.5 In your muscles, histidine is abundant, while beta-alanine levels are comparatively low. This means that maximum amounts of carnosine cannot be formed unless you can somehow increase muscle beta-alanine content.

Enter beta-alanine supplements.

The Effects of Beta-Alanine Supplementation on Muscle Carnosine Content

As mentioned earlier, beta-alanine can be found in regular food, primarily meat, fish and poultry. For normal muscle function, a normal diet is perfectly adequate. However, you need 10 times as much beta-alanine per day to increase muscle carnosine to levels that benefit exercise performance.6 As a result, supplementation is necessary for an athlete who wants to take advantage of the performance benefits beta-alanine has to offer.

Baseline levels of muscle carnosine are highly variable from individual to individual, with athletes who engage in high-intensity exercise and strength training generally having higher contents. Muscle carnosine levels in bodybuilders can be twice as high as in untrained individuals.7

Carnosine content of bodybuilders

The fact that foods that come from animals contains the most beta-alanine means that vegetarians and vegans only have 25–50 % of the muscle carnosine content compared to omnivores.8 9 People who eat a lot of meat have the highest carnosine levels in their muscles. 

Supplementing with 4–6 grams of beta-alanine per day will increase muscle carnosine content by 20–30% in 2 weeks, and by 40–60% in 4 weeks.

Carnosine increase after loading with beta-alanine

The washout period of beta-alanine is 6 to 15 weeks, depending on whether you are a high responder or a low responder.10 The washout period is the time it takes for muscle carnosine content to return to normal levels if you stop taking the supplement.

Beta-alanine supplementation increases muscle carnosine content in both untrained and trained persons, regardless of individual baseline levels.11 12 13 In addition, no studies have been able to establish an upper limit to muscle carnosine content as of yet.

Effects of Beta-Alanine on Exercise Performance

Will you perform better by using beta-alanine? The scientific evidence says yes, as long as we are talking about high-intensity, shorter duration exercise in particular.

Various individual studies have demonstrated positive effects of beta-alanine on exercise performance. It increases total work done in cyclists,14 improves rowing times in highly trained rowers,15 and increases back squat 1RM and power output in strength-trained individuals.16

To date, two meta-analyses combining the results of individual beta-alanine studies have been published.

2012 Meta-Analysis

The first of these, from 2012, analyzed the results of placebo controlled, double blinded trials with human subjects, which had a beta-alanine only group and a placebo group.17

The results indicate a relatively minor, but statistically significant, effect of beta-alanine on performance. Supplementing with a total dose of 179 grams of beta-alanine resulted in a 2.85% increase in exercise performance, on average. This means a daily dose of 6 grams of beta-alanine over the course of a month, for example. Translating those 2.85% into real-life performance means that the last-place finisher in an Olympic 1,500 meter final would instead win the bronze medal. While the effects are minor on paper, they could potentially translate into big differences under certain athletic conditions.

Looking at the intensity and duration of the exercise types examined in this meta-analysis, it seems like beta-alanine has the greatest effect on high-intensity exercise. This is especially apparent when the exercise task lasts at least 1 minute but no more than 4 minutes. Based on the results from the first meta-analysis, beta-alanine seems to exert some benefits in tasks lasting longer than 4 minutes. For tasks shorter than a minute in duration, however, any benefits dwindle into non-significance.

The meta-analysis also found that beta-alanine has a significant effect on exercise capacity, but not exercise performance. This could have been due to the small number of studies available for analysis in 2012.

2017 Meta-Analysis

The second meta-analysis is from 2017, and it reviewed the effects of beta-alanine supplementation on exercise capacity and performance in healthy humans. It included males and females of all ages and training experiences, from recreationally active men and women to professional athletes.18

The results of this meta-analysis showed that beta-alanine has significant performance-enhancing effects. It replicated some results from the 2012 meta-analysis, confirming the benefits of beta-alanine when the exercise lasts between 1 and 4 minutes in duration. Exercise tasks lasting less than a minute did not benefit at all from beta-alanine.

Using adapted criteria, this newer meta-analysis further examined how exercise duration influences the performance-enhancing benefits of beta-alanine. This allowed the researchers to conclude that exercise lasting longer than 4 minutes also benefits from beta-alanine supplementation. In fact, beta-alanine improves exercise performance in tasks lasting up to 10 minutes.

Unlike the 2012 meta-analysis, this one found that beta-alanine improves both exercise performance and exercise capacity. The effect sizes were greater for exercise capacity than for exercise performance, though.

This analysis showed effect sizes only for non-trained individuals, not for trained. That suggests that you can expect less of an effect from beta-alanine supplementation if you are already well trained. After years of training, you probably already have an increased buffer capacity. This could reduce the effects of increasing muscle carnosine content further.

Effects of Beta-Alanine on Strength and Power

Will beta-alanine make you stronger? Probably not directly. Maybe in the long run, by increasing your capacity for a higher training volume and by reducing fatigue, but studies on strength outcomes have not yielded any consistent evidence.19 20

A recent study showed that beta-alanine supplementation improved 1RM and power output in the back squat in trained individuals over the course of 5 weeks of strength training.21

Strength and power increase after beta-alanine

Effects of Beta-Alanine on Long-Distance Performance

The effects of beta-alanine are most apparent in high-intensity exercise lasting only a few minutes. However, a study too recent to be included in either of the meta-analyses suggests that it might also benefit long-distance athletes. Beta-alanine supplementation improved 10-kilometer running performance and lowered blood lactate concentrations over the course of a 23-day loading protocol.22 

In Summary

Beta-alanine can increase exercise performance by increasing time to exhaustion, and by reducing fatigue. The effects are most pronounced in high-intensity types of exercise lasting from 1 to 10 minutes. Resistance training also benefits from beta-alanine, resulting in less fatigue and increased training volume. The effects of beta-alanine on strength are uncertain.

Effects of Beta-Alanine on Body Composition

It would be very hard to attribute any gains made during a certain period of time to a single factor, including beta-alanine supplementation. Beta-alanine does not have any known anabolic properties. Therefore, any extra gains you might experience when supplementing with beta-alanine will likely be the result of a slightly increased capacity for training volume or less fatigue at the end of sets. If you can perform a little better in the gym, you might see larger biceps in the mirror down the road.

Having said that, there are a few studies that examine the effects of beta-alanine in combination with exercise on body composition, with positive outcomes.

Resistance Training

In the first study, college wrestlers and college football players received either 4 grams of beta-alanine or a placebo supplement during 8 weeks of combined interval, sprint and resistance training. All performance-related results favored the beta-alanine groups, although the differences were not statistically significant. 

The football players all gained lean body mass during the training period, but the beta-alanine group gained almost twice as much. The wrestlers in the beta-alanine group increased their lean body mass, while the placebo group actually lost lean mass.23

High-Intensity Interval Training

Forty-six men, divided into two groups, received either placebo in the form or dextrose or beta-alanine during six weeks of HIIT. Both groups improved their aerobic performance, but beta-alanine appeared to further enhance the training adaptations. In addition, only the beta-alanine group increased their lean mass during the training period.24

The second HIIT-study examine the effects of six weeks of high intensity interval training on maximal oxygen uptake and body composition, with or without beta-alanine supplementation. The resesarchers divided forty-four women into in three groups. Two groups exercised, and the third acted as a control group. The first exercise group received beta-alanine, and the second placebo. The interval training improved maximal oxygen uptake in both exercise groups, but only the beta-alanine group saw an increase in lean body mass.25

In Summary

The research is limited, but it cannot be ruled out that beta-alanine could have some, unknown, positive effects on lean mass. It could very well be that the exercise itself caused the extra gains observed in the studies, and that the performance benefits of beta-alanine are what drive the increases in lean mass. Increases in muscle mass should probably not be the main goal of your beta-alanine supplementation, but may be a welcome bonus.

Hormonal Effects of Beta-Alanine

There are no indications that beta-alanine will affect your hormones.

In one study, experienced resistance-trained men received 4.8 gram of beta-alanine per day over the course of a month of strength training. They significantly improved their muscular performance, but without affecting the hormonal response to the training. Beta-alanine did not influence testosterone, growth hormone or cortisol response.26

Another study gave 33 male collegiate football players placebo, creatine or a combination of creatine and beta-alanine during a 10-week resistance-training program. This study analyzed resting blood samples, not the endocrine response to the workouts themselves. The researchers measured testosterone, cortisol, growth hormone, IGF-1, and sex hormone binding globulin, but found no significant endocrine changes in the creatine plus beta-alanine group.27

In Summary

Beta-alanine won’t mess with your hormones. This means that any performance benefits you get from beta-alanine are not hormone-related.

Health Benefits of Beta-Alanine

Carnosine has a number of potential therapeutic roles in health and disease. Possible positive health effects include improving muscle function and quality of life in the elderly, improving cognitive function, and protecting against insulin resistance.

In addition, carnosine might play a role as an adjuvant treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and inhibit the growth of neoplastic cells.

Whether or not beta-alanine supplementation can increase carnosine levels in other tissues than muscle to the extent of clinical relevance is uncertain, but it is an interesting concept for future research.28

Dosage of Beta-Alanine

As with every dietary supplement, it is important that you know the proper dose to take. Take too little, and you might not get the effects you want. Take too much, and any side effects might become all too apparent.

Case in point: beta-alanine. 

Since beta-alanine does not confer any immediate benefits, the goal is to build up the levels of carnosine in your body over time. To accomplish this, you need a minimum dose per day. On the other hand, overdosing on beta-alanine can make your skin tingly and even painful at larger doses. A harmless effect, but certainly an unpleasant one.

Much like with creatine, where you load the muscles with creatine during a loading phase and then maintain those levels with a lower dose, you can utilize the same strategy with beta-alanine.

Current recommendations advise athletes to take 3.2–6.4 grams of beta-alanine per day. You should spread this total daily amount out over the day in 0.8–1.6 gram doses every third or fourth waking hour to avoid side effects. If this looks too much of a chore to you, an alternative is to use a time-release supplement of beta-alanine for the same total daily amount.29

You should follow this “loading phase” for at least 2–4 weeks. After that, if you want to continue supplementing with beta-alanine, you can lower the daily dose to around 1.2 grams per day. This will keep your muscle carnosine content elevated at 30–50% above base levels.30

In Summary

A daily beta-alanine intake of 3.2–6.4 grams will load your muscles with carnosine in 2–4 weeks time. After that, you can reduce your daily intake to 1.2 grams per day and still keep your muscle carnosine levels elevated.

Timing of Beta-Alanine Intake

The performance-enhancing effects of beta-alanine are dependent on the muscle content of carnosine you have built up over time. Therefore, the acute timing of a particular intake is not particularly important. Beta-alanine is often part of pre-workout supplements (PWO), perhaps with the intention of giving the user a feeling that the PWO is working by inducing paresthesia, or skin tingling. This tingling does not enhance performance, but it might give the illusion of some effect kicking in. 

Beta-alanine intake with meals enhance muscle carnosine content more effectively than taking it in between meals.31 Therefore, the one thing to keep in mind is that it might be a good idea to try to time your beta-alanine supplement intake to your meals. This method increased muscle carnosine content by 64% in one study, compared to 41% when taken in between meals. This suggests that simultaneous insulin release stimulates the muscle loading of carnosine.

In Summary

You can take your beta-alanine supplement pretty much any time you like, but taking it with a meal is a good idea.

Co-Ingestion of Beta-Alanine with Other Supplements

Beta-alanine can be combined with other dietary supplements, for example in pre-workout products. The two most common and most studied of these combinations are beta-alanine together with either creatine or sodium bicarbonate.

In both cases, you can expect a small but significant additive effect, but there are caveats. In the case of creatine, study limitations make the results inconclusive, while sodium bicarbonate might have adverse side effects that could eliminate any benefits of combining the two supplements.

Creatine

Creatine stands in a class of its own as a dietary supplement for strength athletes, with well documented performance benefits.

Several studies suggest additive effects when beta-alanine is combined with creatine.32 33 These additive effects range from improved exercise performance and strength to gains in lean mass and loss of body fat. 

The problem with these studies is that they did not include any beta-alanine-only groups, only groups ingesting placebo, creatine by itself, or the combination of creatine and beta-alanine. This makes it hard to say for certain if the results would be any different with beta-alanine taken by itself. Therefore, you should interpret these results with caution.

Other studies have failed to reveal any significant additive effects of beta-alanine and creatine supplementation, either in aerobic or anaerobic tasks.34

Sodium Bicarbonate

Sodium bicarbonate has a significant, if modest, documented effect on exercise performance. It acts as an extracellular buffer and can help increase blood pH.35

Several studies indicate an additive effect of sodium bicarbonate when taken together with beta-alanine.36 37 38 This effect is moderate at best, but it could provide some additional benefits, especially when muscle acidosis is the limiting factor for performance. 

However, you must weigh these benefits must against the risk of the adverse side effects of sodium bicarbonate. These are not harmful, but include gastrointestinal distress, which might result in decreased exercise performance rather than any additive positive effect.39

In Summary

Combining beta-alanine with creatine or sodium bicarbonate might offer some additive benefits, but the evidence is backed by studies with limitations. It can also increase the risk of uncomfortable side effects that might decrease performance rather than improve it.

Beta-Alanine Supplementation in the Elderly

Several studies have demonstrated that beta-alanine may improve the physical working capacity, muscle function, and muscle quality in an elderly population in the age range of 60–80.40 41 42

However, beta-alanine did not enhance the effects of resistance training in one study with elderly subjects.43 The resistance training itself improved 1RM and power, but the beta-alanine group did not receive any additional benefits compared to a control group.

In Summary

Beta-alanine seems to improve muscle function and working capacity in the elderly. More research is needed to determine if it offers any benefits during resistance training in advanced age, maybe using other exercise- or supplementation protocols.

Safety of Beta-Alanine

Research shows that beta-alanine is safe to take. It does have one unpleasant side effect, but it is not dangerous.

Paresthesia

The most common and certainly most noticeable side effect of beta-alanine is paresthesia, or skin tingling. It usually manifests itself in the form of a tingling sensation in the face and ears, but it can also affect the rest of the upper body. Beta-alanine does not affect everyone in this way, but it is fairly common. The larger the dose, the greater the risk of paresthesia.

The tingling sensation associated with an acute beta-alanine overdose, while considered quite unpleasant by some, is harmless and usually disappears within 60–90 minutes.

We don’t completely understand the mechanisms responsible for this tingling sensation. The activation of various receptor sites in the brain and nervous system by beta-alanine seems to be prevailing theory.44

Single doses of beta-alanine greater than 800 mg increase the risk of paresthesia. The higher the dose, the more noticeable the tingling. From a sensation of tingling or tickling at lower doses to burning sensations at higher doses. With a dose of 3.2 grams of beta-alanine in a single intake, studies have described the side effects as outright unpleasant.45

You can minimize or eliminate the tingling side effects by using a time-release supplement. Taking your beta-alanine spread out in smaller doses over the course of the day would also be an alternative.46 47

Taurine Deficiency

Animal studies suggest that a large intake of beta-alanine over long periods of time can result in a deficiency of the organic compound taurine. Beta-alanine and taurine share the same transporter to the cells. This competition can reduce circulating taurine levels with up to 75% in rats.48 Taurine deficiency could lead to heart issues and accumulation of fat in the liver.

No human data suggests such an effect on taurine levels from beta-alanine supplementation in the doses usually recommended. However, no long-term human trials have examined it either. Therefore, we cannot rule it out, with high dose beta-alanine supplementation over long periods of time. Having said that, it seems doubtful, and there have been no reports of any such incidents over the years. A short-term study actually showed increased levels of plasma taurine and no decrease in muscle taurine following 40 mg of beta-alanine per kilogram of body weight and day.49

In Summary

The only reported side effect of beta-alanine is paresthesia, according to a systematic risk assessment and meta-analysis covering all animal and human studies.50

The safety data on beta-alanine that exists suggests that it is a safe supplement when taken in recommended doses. The one documented side effect can be unpleasant, but is transitory and harmless.

Conclusions

  • Beta-alanine improves exercise performance by mitigating fatigue and increasing work capacity through increased levels of carnosine in the muscles. This reduces muscle acidosis and allows for better performance in a variety of tasks.
  • The benefits of beta-alanine are most apparent in high-intensity exercise lasting from 1 up to 10 minutes. According to some research, beta-alanine can improve strength and enhance endurance performance over longer periods of time, too, but more research is needed.
  • Beta-alanine appears to be safe, with the only reported side effect being benign and transient skin tingling.
  • Daily supplementation with 3.2–6.4 grams of beta-alanine over the course of 2–4 weeks loads the muscles with carnosine and improves performance. After that, you can reduce your daily intake to 1.2 grams per day and still keep your muscle carnosine levels elevated.
  • Combining beta-alanine with creatine or sodium bicarbonate may offer additional benefits, but could introduce adverse side effects in the case of sodium bicarbonate.

That’s it! You’ve reached the end of our guide on beta-alanine.

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