by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN and Jack Norris, RD
- beta-Alanine and Carnosine Research in Vegetarians
- beta-Alanine and Carnosine Research using a Vegetarian Diet
Athletic performance of some individuals, especially vegetarians, might benefit from supplementation with beta-alanine.
Carnosine (also known as beta-alanyl-L-histidine) is a molecule made up of two amino acids, alanine and histidine. It is synthesized in animal tissues, especially muscle and brain (Hipkiss, 2005), and isn’t found in any plant foods.
Carnosine is thought to inhibit advanced glycation end (AGE) products, among other glycosylation products. This could be valuable in preventing or treating a range of diseases affected by AGE products, such as diabetes and diseases that can be caused by diabetes such as cataracts. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s might also be improved by carnosine.
Most of the early research on carnosine has been in vitro and in animal models, with more recent studies conducted in humans. Most of the research has looked at carnosine as an anti-glycation/anti-glycosylation agent and for athletic performance. There are also studies investigating carnosine’s relationship with glucose metabolism, cognitive function, and more.
Beta-alanine is the limiting amino acid for carnosine synthesis, and beta-alanine supplements have been shown to increase muscle levels of carnosine. Beta-alanine supplements appear to be the most efficient way to increase carnosine synthesis in the body, rather than carnosine supplements (since the body breaks down dietary carnosine into beta-alanine and histidine during digestion) (Perim, 2019). In fact, only beta-alanine supplements, rather than carnosine supplements, have been tested on athletic performance in human subjects.
In the American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada’s 2016 Joint Position Statement on nutrition and athletic performance, beta-alanine was included in the list of supplements with evidence-based uses in sports nutrition (Thomas, 2016). As evidence, they cite a 2014 systematic review of randomized controlled trials looking at carnosine’s impact on performance (Quesnele, 2014).
While beta-alanine has potential to positively impact athletic performance, side effects have been underreported (only 7 of 19 studies in the Quesnele, et al. systematic review reported adverse events) and therefore safety has not yet been determined.
For those wishing to take them, there are numerous manufacturers of vegan beta-alanine supplements.
beta-Alanine and Carnosine Research in Vegetarians
One very small cross-sectional study found that a sample of 6 vegetarians had 50% or less carnosine in muscle tissue compared to participants who ate meat (Harris, 2007). The groups in this study were not matched for age and sex, which are important variables related to carnosine (Baguet, 2012).
Another cross-sectional study (n=149; 12 vegetarians all of whom had been vegetarian for at least 8 years and some of whom were vegan) found vegetarians had significantly lower muscle carnosine content than meat-eaters (Everaert, 2011).
A randomized controlled trial of 20 vegetarian men investigated the impact of exercise on muscle carnosine content without beta-alanine supplementation (DE Salles Painelli, 2018). Ten participants engaged in high-intensity interval training 3 times per week for 12 weeks while the other 10 served as controls. After 12 weeks, those in the exercise group experienced a significant 35.7% increase in muscle carnosine content (P=0.012) while those in the control group did not experience a significant change. Therefore, it appears vegetarians can increase muscle carnosine content through exercise without consuming beta-alanine supplements.
beta-Alanine and Carnosine Research using a Vegetarian Diet
A 5-week intervention study tested the impact of sprint training and a vegetarian diet on 20 omnivorous young adults (Baguet, 2011). Half of the group was instructed to eat a beta-alanine-rich diet including meat and fish while the other half ate a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (containing virtually no beta-alanine). Both groups took a daily creatine supplement and completed sprint training 2 to 3 times per week. At the end of the 5 weeks, muscle carnosine content was not significantly different between groups.
A 6-month intervention study had 40 omnivorous women follow one of three diets: lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet without supplementation, lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet plus daily beta-alanine and creatine supplement, and a continued omnivorous diet as a control (Blancquaert, 2018). The vegetarian plus beta-alanine group experienced a significant increase in muscular carnosine at the end of the study. At 3 months, muscle carnosine content didn’t change in the vegetarian group that didn’t take beta-alanine or in the control group suggesting that a vegetarian diet does not result in decreased carnosine in the body (muscle carnosine wasn’t measured at 6 months in these groups). Three months might not be enough time to find a difference in carnosine muscle content for a given dietary intervention; longer, high-quality studies are needed.
We don’t know of any studies on beta-alanine supplementation or carnosine levels in vegans.
Updated December 2020
Baguet, 2011. Baguet A, Everaert I, De Naeyer H, Reyngoudt H, Stegen S, Beeckman S, Achten E, Vanhee L, Volkaert A, Petrovic M, Taes Y, Derave W. Effects of sprint training combined with vegetarian or mixed diet on muscle carnosine content and buffering capacity. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Oct;111(10):2571-80.
Baguet, 2012. Baguet A, Everaert I, Achten E, Thomis M, Derave W. The influence of sex, age and heritability on human skeletal muscle carnosine content. Amino Acids. 2012 Jul;43(1):13-20. doi: 10.1007/s00726-011-1197-3. Abstract
Blancquaert, 2018. Blancquaert L, Baguet A, Bex T, Volkaert A, Everaert I, Delanghe J, Petrovic M, Vervaet C, De Henauw S, Constantin-Teodosiu D, Greenhaff P, Derave W. Changing to a vegetarian diet reduces the body creatine pool in omnivorous women, but appears not to affect carnitine and carnosine homeostasis: a randomised trial. Br J Nutr. 2018 Apr;119(7):759-770.
DE Salles Painelli, 2018. DE Salles Painelli V, Nemezio KM, Pinto AJ, Franchi M, Andrade I, Riani LA, Saunders B, Sale C, Harris RC, Gualano B, Artioli GG. High-Intensity Interval Training Augments Muscle Carnosine in the Absence of Dietary Beta-alanine Intake. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Nov;50(11):2242-2252
Derave W, Ozdemir MS, Harris RC, Pottier A, Reyngoudt H, Koppo K, Wise JA, Achten E. beta-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters. J Appl Physiol. 2007 Nov;103(5):1736-43. Epub 2007 Aug 9. Not cited.
Everaert, 2011. Everaert I, Mooyaart A, Baguet A, Zutinic A, Baelde H, Achten E, Taes Y, De Heer E, Derave W. Vegetarianism, female gender and increasing age, but not CNDP1 genotype, are associated with reduced muscle carnosine levels in humans. Amino Acids. 2011 Apr;40(4):1221-9.
Hill, 2007. Hill CA, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Harris BD, Sale C, Boobis LH, Kim CK, Wise JA. Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity. Amino Acids. 2007 Feb;32(2):225-33. Epub 2006 Jul 28.
Kendrick IP, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Kim CK, Dang VH, Lam TQ, Bui TT, Smith M, Wise JA. The effects of 10 weeks of resistance training combined with beta-alanine supplementation on whole body strength, force production, muscular endurance and body composition. Amino Acids. 2008 May;34(4):547-54. Epub 2008 Jan 4. (Abstract) Not cited.
Kendrick IP, Kim HJ, Harris RC, Kim CK, Dang VH, Lam TQ, Bui TT, Wise JA. The effect of 4 weeks beta-alanine supplementation and isokinetic training on carnosine concentrations in type I and II human skeletal muscle fibres. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2009 May;106(1):131-8. Epub 2009 Feb 12. (Abstract) Not cited.
Perim, 2019. Perim P, Marticorena FM, Ribeiro F, Barreto G, Gobbi N, Kerksick C, Dolan E, Saunders B. Can the Skeletal Muscle Carnosine Response to Beta-Alanine Supplementation Be Optimized? Front Nutr. 2019 Aug 27;6:135.
Quesnele, 2014. Quesnele JJ, Laframboise MA, Wong JJ, Kim P, Wells GD. The effects of beta-alanine supplementation on performance: a systematic review of the literature. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Feb;24(1):14-27.
Smith AE, Walter AA, Graef JL, Kendall KL, Moon JR, Lockwood CM, Fukuda DH, Beck TW, Cramer JT, Stout JR. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on endurance performance and body composition in men; a double-blind trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Feb 11;6:5. Not cited.