Wednesday, December 7, 2011

3.2g of Beta Alanine Reduce Rate of Perceived Exertion, Increase Time to Exhaustion and Ventilatory Threshold. Vegetarians, Older People and Diabetics May Benefit Most.

Image 1: If you are into running, ladies, beta alanine is for you ;-)
Those of you who make sure that they are getting their highly educative daily dose of the SuppVersity *rofl* will be aware that today's blogpost is, once again, dealing with beta alanine. Contrary to yesterday's post, which dealt with its pharmacokinetics, we are today going to have another look at what kind of real world performance outcomes the average (female!) physical culturist can expect from taking at least 3.2g of the beta amino acid per day - a dosage that has been shown in previous studies to increase intra-muscular carnosine levels by 27–39% in fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, respectively (Baguet. 2009). And though I do not want to spoil things, I can already tell you that the results make it quite clear why beta alanine is not the next creatine.

Somehow ergogenic, yet not really antioxidant

For the study that was conducted at the Applied Physiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, study that was conducted by A.E. Smith recruited 24 "recreationally active" women, of which the authors state that they "engag[ed] in 3–7 days per week of aerobic, resistance or recreational activities, but were not highly trained competitive athletes". With a mean age of 21.8 years, a height of 165cm and a body weight of 61.5kg the subjects are thusly representative of the average young woman who goes to the gym to either get or keep in shape. I am specifically emphasizing this, because - at least in the early days - beta alanine was heavily marketed as "the creatine for women" who fear the water retention people still claim was an inevitable side effect of creatine supplementation.
Image 2: If you retain water, this is not due to creatine monohydrate. Either you are taking to much (creatine loading is a thing of the past) or you have bought a product with shitloads of carbs in it - in that case, chances are its not only water you are gaining ;-)
Does creatine supplementation inevitably lead to water retention and weight gain? Just because this myth is still perpetuated, especially among female figure competitors, I thought it may be worth addressing this again: Pure creatine monohydrate without the sugar and the other bullshit you will find in many creatine supplements does not necessarily lead to increases in either total body or water weight. A study by Rawson et al. showed only recently that the consumption of 0.03g/kg creatine for six weeks did not result in statistically significant changes in body weight or water in men or women, despite significantly increased plasma creatine concentration and enhanced resistance to fatigue during repeated bouts of high-intensity contractions (Rawson. 2011).
The women were advised to simply stick to their usual routine and to refrain from taking any supplements and medications except from their 2x800mg beta alanine tablets. The latter were to be taken 3x a day... so according to Cocker, they should have consumed 2x0.8g x3/day = 4.8g/day and not, as the scientists state "3.2 g daily". Now, according to Smith et al. this was the "required dosage" all participants met. I can however not say, whether this means that the third dose was optional... and this is not the only oddity in this study, where it is well worth to look beyond the assessments and conclusions of the authors.

At the beginning and the end of the 28-day supplementation period, the women had to perform a graded oxygen consumption test (VO2max) to evaluate VO2max, time to exhaustion, ventilatory threshold and establish peak velocity (PV), as well as a "non-damaging treadmill run (oxidative stress run) for 40 min at 70% PV [peak velocity]". Before, immediately after and in the 2-6h post running window total antioxidant capacity (TAC), superoxide dismutase (SOD), 8-isoprostane (8ISO) and reduced glutathione (GSH) were measured. In addition to that, heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion were recorded during the 40 min run. The two main metrics of the study were thusly the potential anti-oxidant effects (TAC, SOD, 8ISO, GSH) and the anticipated immediate ergogenic effects (VO2Max, time to exhaustion, heart rate and perceived exertion) of beta alanine supplementation.
Figure 1: Effect of 28 days of beta alanine supplementation on maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max), time to exhaustion during a graded exercise test (VO2TTE) and ventilatory threshold (VT) and qualitative practical significance (data and caption adapted from Smith. 2011)
If you now have a look at the my graphical rehash of the scientists own evaluation of the effect beta alanine supplementation had on VO2Max, the time to exhaustion (VO2TTE) and the ventilatory threshold (VT), you will have to concede that mean improvements of 0.28%, 6.6% and 3.7%, respectively, as well as the large discrepancies among the subjects (from beneficial over negligible to harmful) do not actually speak for beta alanine.
Figure 2: Effect of beta alanine supplementation on oxidative stress markers measured as total
antioxidant capacity (TAC) and glutathione (GSH) and the qualitative practical significance
for women (data and caption adapted from Smith. 2011)
Things get even more confusing when we take a look at the antioxidant effects of beta alanine. Not only were the levels of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and 8-isoprostane (8ISO) not different between groups, and the effect of beta alanine on the total antioxidant capacity (TOC) of the subjects negligible, the scientists' summary of the effects does even suggest that, after an initial amelioration of the negative effect of treadmill running on GSH, there was some sort of a "likely harmful" rebound 6h after the 40 min exercise bout. Before you do now flush your beta alanine stores down the toilette, I suggest you first take a look at the actual (absolute) effects beta alanine supplementation had on the exercise induced changes in GSH levels:
Figure 3: Absolute GSH levels (in ┬ÁM) immediately before (pre), post, 2h and 4h after treadmill running in the placebo and beta alanine supplemented women before (pre) and after (post) the 28-day supplementation period (compiled based on data from Smith. 2011)
As you can see in figure 3, there was an (unexplained) increase in GSH in the course of the 28-day supplementation period in both groups. With 2%, the latter was statistically non-significantly greater in the beta alanine group, and the "likely harmful" effect of beta alanine supplementation 6h after the end of the treadmill-run is simply the result of a smaller increase in GSH, when you compare the pre- to post-supplementation levels at the 6h mark - and I guess, you would agree that a +27% increase in GSH is not exactly something that deserves to be called "likely harmful", wouldn't you?

All-clear: Beta alanine is not ergolytic ;-)

Now that we have gotten that straight, let's get to the last (and most) significant benefit the women in the beta alanine group had from taking the supplement: a statistically significant reduction in the rate of perceived exertion during treadmill running (cf. figure 4).
Figure 4: Rates of perceived exertion during 40 min treadmill running before (pre) and after (post) 28 days of supplementation with beta alanine or placebo; small graph: relative difference post supplementation in women receiving BA vs. placebo (data calculated based on Smith. 2011)
It goes without saying that being 18% less fatigued is something that could well be worth spending the roughly 7$ for a 28-day supply on (calculation based on a dose of 3.2g per day taken over 28 days and assuming you buy your beta alanine in bulk at one of the major suppliers). This, by the way, could be particularly true if you belong to one of the following groups, who have been found to have low intra-muscular carnosine levels, to begin with:
    Image 3: Older people are only one of the three groups who are "at risk" of low carnosine levels and are thusly most likely to benefit from beta alanine supplementation.
  1. vegetarians - a 2011 study by Evaraert et al. found that "Vegetarians have a lower carnosine content of 26% in gastrocnemius compared to omnivores" (Everaert. 2011); and according to another recent study, the soleus carnosine content of vegetarians was "non-significantly" reduced by -9% after 5 weeks of sprint training, while the same protocol elicited increases of +11% in omnivores (Baguet. 2011)
  2. older people - Evaraert et al. found a linear decline (ca. -10% in 20 years) in carnosine levels with age (correlation r=-0.26; Everaert. 2011); and Stout et al. report a highly significant +29% increase in physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold in twenty-six men (n = 9) and women (n = 17) (age ± SD = 72.8 ± 11.1 yrs) who  had been supplementing with 800 mg three times per day for 90 days (Stout. 2008)
  3. type-2 diabetics - according to Gualano et al. type-2 diabetics have "significantly lower carnosine content (−45%) in gastrocnemius muscle", a relative deficiency of which the scientists argue that it "may be partially associated with defective mechanisms against oxidative, glycative and carbonyl stress in muscle." (Gualano. 2011)
After all, it does yet not really matter whether you are a type-2 diabetic, a vegetarian or simply getting older, compared to many (if not most) of the other overpriced ergogenics that are advertised all over the web, beta alanine is certainly not only one of the cheapest, but also one of the most promising candidates for the 3rd place on your list of staples, where (whey) protein and creatine should nevertheless still occupy position 1 and 2, respectively. And the fact that it did not prove to be a potent antioxidant in this study need not really be a disadvantage, after all, we still do not know whether the exercise-induced oxidative "damage" is not what actually triggers the highly desirable adaptive responses (cf. previous posts on "hormesis"), we are all looking for, when we are hitting the gym.