Does Beta-Alanine Supplements Make You Itch?
Does Beta-Alanine Make You Itch?
If you take pre-workout supplements, there is a good chance you have experienced what is commonly known as the beta-alanine itch (or paraesthesia). Usually affecting the neck, arms, and shoulders, the beta-alanine itch is not usually a cause for concern. Still, it is likely to occur, particularly if you are taking the supplement in large quantities. But what causes the itch? Is it harmful, and can it be avoided?
In this article, we’ll be answering the following questions:
- What is beta-alanine?
- Why does it make you itch?
- What does beta-alanine do to your body?
- What are the benefits of beta-alanine?
- How long does the beta-alanine itch last?
Want to find out more? Let’s see what science has to say.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essental amino acid. However, unlike the majority of amino acids, beta-alanine is not used to synthesize proteins. In fact, in regards to performance supplements, beta-alanine is one of the supplements with scientific evidence proving its effectiveness.
In recent times, beta-alanine has become one of the most popular ingredients in sports nutrition supplements. Although relatively new - the first human study was only published in 2006 - beta-alanine use is now common among most pre-workout formulas on the market, as well as numerous daily and recovery formulas. 1
Why the Itch?
There is plenty of research regarding the workout-enhancing benefits of beta-alanine, but why does this amino acid make you itch in the first place? According to some studies, beta-alanine activates sensory neuron-specific G-protein coupled receptors in the body. Simply, this group of receptors is directly responsible for causing itchiness in the skin. While other mechanisms can cause itchiness, the area of study is still in its infancy. 2
To date, no evidence confirms this itching is harmful in any way. Also, not all individuals will experience this tingling sensation, and the side-effect is relatively dose-dependent. As such, if you cannot stand the paraesthesia, you can take a lower dose.
Interestingly, recent research suggests that men of Asian descent will experience a reduced itchiness effect, while Asian women are more like to experience worse symptoms. However, there is no known reason to explain why some people experience paraesthesia more than others.3
What Does Beta-Alanine Do to Your Body?
So, How Does Beta-Alanine Work?
On its own, the ergogenic properties of beta-alanine are somewhat limited. However, the amino acid has been marked as the rate-limiting precursor to carnosine synthesis. Research has shown that beta-alanine increases levels of carnosine in skeletal muscle. As a result, you experience significant improvements in physical performance.
But What is Carnosine?
Carnosine is a naturally occurring dipeptide that offers numerous potential physiological benefits. It is formed by combining the amino acids L-histidine and beta-alanine. Carnosine was first discovered in skeletal muscle, where it exists in higher concentration than any other tissue in the human body.
This dipeptide (and its relation to beta-alanine supplementation) has become the subject of much research. Interestingly, studies have shown that oral carnosine supplementation is an ineffective way to increase muscle carnosine levels because it is usually metabolized before ever reaching the skeletal muscle, making beta-alanine the best way to increase carnosine levels in your muscle and improve physical performance.4 5
In addition, research suggests that another effect of beta-alanine supplementation may decrease taurine concentrations in the body. Both taurine and beta-alanine share the same transporter. As such, beta-alanine inhibits taurine uptake within skeletal muscle.
Studies have shown that, in animal models, beta-alanine reduces taurine levels by roughly 50%. However, there is currently no research to support taurine decrease following beta-alanine supplementation. Also, when the data is applied to human anatomy, the taurine decrease would not be of any real physiological significance.6 7
What are the Benefits of Beta-Alanine?
According to research on beta-alanine conducted by the International Society of Sports Nutrition and published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, there are numerous benefits of beta-alanine supplementation and increased muscle mass carnosine concentrations.
The most common benefit for athletes who take beta-alanine supplements is improved anaerobic exercise performance, particularly in open end-point tasks or time trials lasting up to four minutes. For example, a meta-analysis on beta-alanine supplementation suggested improved exercise capacity in workouts ranging from 60 to 240 seconds. However, beta-alanine proved to be ineffective in tasks that lasted less than a minute. Two studies reported no significant improvements in repeated five-second exercise bouts or during a 400m sprint session - both of which lasted under 60 seconds.8 9 10
Another benefit of beta-alanine is that many athletes experience less neuromuscular fatigue. In one 2006 study, researchers saw a 16.9% increase in physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold (PWCFT) in men after four weeks of beta-alanine supplements. They also reported similar results of 14.4% for women the following year.11 12
Another study showed a substantial 20.4% improvement in electromyographic fatigue threshold in participants who used beta-alanine supplements on an interval training program. However, the same survey also saw the control group improve by 25.5% through interval training alone. That being said, other studies have shown a modest improvement in PWCFT in young men and women taking beta-alanine, as well as a more pronounced improvement in older subjects. For example, one study showed that 1200mg of beta-alanine improved PWCFT in subjects aged between 64 and 76 years old, while another study showed a 37.3% improvement in subjects aged between 62 and 84 years old.13 14 15
Some studies have proved the benefit of beta-alanine supplementation is tactical athletes and military personnel. For example, researchers supplemented military personnel with beta-alanine over four weeks. They found that, while cognitive performance was not improved, there were moderate improvements in marksmanship, peak power, and target engagement speed compared to placebo. A follow-up study also showed increased muscle carnosine and cognitive function on a test simulating casualty carries.16
Evidence suggests that increased carnosine levels can enhance cognitive performance and increase your resilience to stress. Researchers theorize that this is due to carnosine’s possible role as an antioxidant.17
Research has also been conducted into the effect of beta-alanine supplementation on strength-based training. According to the results of numerous studies, the supplement does appear to increase overall training volume. However, there is no indication that beta-alanine leads to additional strength gains during resistance exercises.18 19 20
Most research suggests that beta-alanine supplementation is not beneficial for aerobic exercise bouts lasting more than four minutes. However, one study concluded that beta-alanine improved performance in exercise tests greater than four minutes compared to a control group who were given a placebo. However, the effect size was still small compared to workout sessions between one and four minutes.9
Other research suggests similar results in fixed end-point exercises lasting over four minutes. A study of rowers showed that subjects who added the supplement beta-alanine performed a 2,000-m time trial 4.3 seconds faster than the control group, despite being marginally slower at baseline. While these may only seem like modest improvements, they could be important for competitive sportspeople. 21
How Long do the Beta-Alanine Tingles/Itch Last?
Studies have shown that non-sustained release beta-alanine supplements will cause paraesthesia 15 minutes after consumption. Generally, these symptoms will disappear within 60 to 90 minutes after they first arise.
However, science suggests that taking a sustained-release beta-alanine supplementation results in substantially reduced symptoms. 22
As you can see, beta-alanine does indeed make you itch. However, it is not something you should worry about too much. The benefits greatly outweigh the limited drawback, which can even be attenuated by adjusting the dose.
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