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Just Beet It

Formerly known as a health supplement, betaine is gaining some real muscle.

Betaine started its humble existence on supplement store shelves as just a general health ingredient. But new research shows that this supplement can help athletes gain more muscle power and strength and even build more muscle. If betaine is not part of your supplement regimen, it will be after you read this.

Betaine Basics
Betaine is a modified amino acid known scientifically as trimethylglycine. It’s referred to as betaine due to the fact that it was originally isolated from beets, known by their Latin name Beta vulgaris. It was given the chemical name trimethylglycine because it simply is the amino acid glycine with three methyl groups attached. It’s these three methyl groups that provide betaine its health-promoting properties and possibly its performance-enhancing properties, as well.

In the human body, betaine is naturally derived from the breakdown of a nutrient called choline. But humans also get betaine from dietary sources. Although betaine in supplements is often derived from beets, other foods — like wheat germ, quinoa and spinach — are much richer sources. In fact, 3 ounces of wheat germ contain more than 1,000 milligrams of betaine, more than four times that found in the same amount of beets. Even spinach and quinoa provide more than 500 milligrams of betaine in 3 ounces, more than twice the betaine content in the same amount of beets.

Healthy Beginnings
Because one of betaine’s jobs is to donate methyl groups in the body, it is involved in numerous critical processes that promote overall health. Clinical studies confirm that betaine can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of the damaging amino acid homocysteine. It does this by donating a methyl group, converting homocysteine into the amino acid methionine.

Betaine supplementation also has been found to raise levels of S-adenosylmethionine. Having higher levels of SAMe can fight depression, enhance liver health (especially in those who drink alcohol and take certain drugs) and aid joint recovery. Betaine has even been found to reduce cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.

Feel the Power
Although betaine is best known for its health-promoting properties, in the last few years numerous studies have shown that it also aids athletic performance. One of the first studies to look into betaine’s performance-enhancing effects was done at the University of Connecticut. UConn researchers had 12 trained men complete two different 14-day trials in which they received either betaine mixed in a sports drink or a placebo sports drink twice per day. They reported at the 2007 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine that betaine supplementation resulted in a 25 percent greater increase in strength on the bench press and a 15 percent greater increase in bench-press power. In a later study, the same researchers reported in a 2010 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that trained subjects taking betaine for two weeks increased their upper-body muscle power by 20 percent and upper-body muscle strength by 25 percent.

Researchers from The College of New Jersey reported similar findings. They also had trained subjects take betaine in a sports drink or a placebo sports drink twice a day for two weeks. During the experiment, they measured the number of reps the subjects could perform in the squat with a weight that limited them to about 15 reps. After two weeks of supplementing with betaine, the subjects were able to complete eight more reps with the same weight, while those taking the placebo only increased their squat strength by three reps. A boost in strength was seen with betaine after the first week, as well. The scientists reported that the group consuming the betaine supplement increased its reps on the squat by four reps, while those taking the placebo only increased by two reps. This suggests that you can expect to start seeing strength increases from supplementing with betaine in as little as one week. They also mean that betaine can help muscle growth because the more reps you can do with a given weight, the more overload you can place on the muscle, and that leads to muscle growth in the long run. 

Another study on betaine’s performance benefits comes from Ithaca College researchers. They had male and female subjects perform all-out 12-second sprints on a stationary cycle. In one trial, they took a carb and electrolyte drink containing betaine before the workout, while in the other trial, they drank a carb and electrolyte drink without betaine. The researchers reported at the 2010 annual meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that when the subjects drank the betaine-containing drink, they were able to peddle with about 5 percent more power than with just the carbs and electrolytes. Because this study only provided one dose of betaine just before the workout, it suggests that betaine can provide performance-boosting benefits immediately.

Although the mechanism by which betaine increases muscle strength and power is not confirmed, there are a few theories. For starters, supplementing with betaine actually promotes the natural production of creatine in the body. The College of New Jersey researchers suggested that this was likely the mechanism for the increase in reps completed in the squat with betaine supplementation. Of course, having higher levels of creatine in the muscle also can lead to greater muscle growth.

Another way that betaine may increase muscle strength and power is by lowering lactate levels. In a different study by UConn researchers, subjects taking betaine in water were able to sprint for almost 40 seconds longer than those drinking just water. This may be due to the significantly lower levels of lactate the subjects experienced when consuming betaine. Because high lactate levels lead to higher acidity in muscle, which leads to fatigue, keeping lactate levels low can prevent fatigue.

Still, another way that betaine may work to increase muscle strength and power, as well as build more muscle, is via the production of anabolic hormones. Yet another UConn study reported that weight-trained men taking betaine twice a day for two weeks not only had an increase in squat strength but also a significantly greater boost in levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 as compared to the placebo. With higher levels of these important growth factors, it’s no surprise that betaine would boost muscle strength and muscle power, in addition to muscle growth and even fat loss.

Betaine Dosing
It is estimated that most people consume 1 to 2 grams of betaine in their daily diet. However, research does show that supplementing with extra betaine provides distinct health and performance benefits. Plus, research confirms that a good deal of betaine is lost in sweat during exercise. This further supports the notion that you should supplement with betaine daily. To maximize the health, performance and physique benefits of betaine, take 1.5 to 2 grams of betaine twice per day with meals. On workout days, take those two doses with your preworkout and postworkout meals.

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