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Power your workouts and aid recovery with carnitine

Power your workouts and aid recovery with carnitine

It doesn’t seem quite fair: we exercise in the hopes of attaining better health - yet exercising can place stress on the body.  Although exercise confers important mental and physical benefits over the long run, engaging in arduous physical activity (such as lifting weights or jogging long distances) can disturb the body’s antioxidant balance, which can create free radicals and cause oxidative damage.  You may also pay the price for your ambitious workout with a bout of muscle soreness and stiffness the next day.

Many athletes and exercise buffs endorse carnitine to reduce fatigue, enhance workouts, and ease normal post-exercise muscle inflammation and soreness.  But, what do the studies show?  Does carnitine allow you to ramp up your exercise regime and ease after-workout discomfort?  Let’s look at some recent research.

But first, a few carnitine facts.

What is carnitine, anyway?

Carnitine, also known as L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine, is an amino acid found in animal products.  In fact, scientists originally isolated it from meat, and its name comes from the Latin word for meat (carnus).  Carnitine is heavily concentrated in the muscles, including the heart – the most important muscle of all.  As it turns out, carnitine has much to do with creating energy. 

Its primary function is to ferry long-chain fatty acids to mitochondria, the “energy centers” of the cells, allowing the fats to be burned for fuel.  It also helps rid mitochondria of toxic compounds which would otherwise accumulate.  Carnitine is not considered an essential nutrient because it is produced in the liver and kidneys from the amino acids lysine and methionine.  Although carnitine is found primarily in animal products, healthy people, including vegetarians and vegans, typically don’t suffer from shortages.

Even though most people have sufficient levels of this nutrient, some supplement with carnitine for various perceived benefits.

Study suggests that L-carnitine enhances exercise performance, causes quicker recovery

Although athletes may swear by carnitine supplementation, there hasn’t been much scientific research showing the benefit.  Until fairly recently, that is.

In a 2018 placebo-controlled study published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry, scientists found that nine weeks of supplementation with L-carnitine increased exercise performance, anaerobic capacity, and exercise-induced oxidative stress in healthy men who had trained in resistance exercise.  The researchers found that the men experienced significant increases in both bench press lifting and leg presses – meaning the participants increased their “reps.”  The team also reported increases in peak power, reduced post-exercise blood lactate levels, and beneficial changes in antioxidant capacity, beginning at week six.  In addition, the team called L-carnitine a “potent anti-inflammatory compound” that could decrease exercise-induced muscle damage while increasing levels of glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant.

Interestingly, while carnitine improved upper and lower body strength, it did not increase muscle mass.  “Despite the popularity of resistance training and increased exercise-induced muscle damage, little attention has been paid to the potential benefits of (acetyl-L-carnitine) when combined with resistance training and whether it might improve exercise performance by reducing muscle damage,” the team commented.  Maybe this study will mark the beginning of more “respect” for acetyl-L-carnitine as a natural pre-and post-workout intervention.

L-carnitine may have applications for heart and brain health 

Scientists are researching carnitine with an eye toward its potential benefits for the circulatory system and heart.  This versatile amino acid is currently thought to reduce the toxic effects of free fatty acids and improve the metabolism of carbohydrates, but more clinical research is needed.

Carnitine may also have anti-aging benefits.  Animal studies have shown that carnitine supplementation may improve performance on memory-related tasks.  And some earlier research indicates that it could also benefit humans.  For example, an older scientific analysis of controlled studies shows that supplementing with acetyl-L-carnitine could improve brain function and reduce deterioration in adults with mild age-related cognitive decline.  Studies to evaluate the effects of carnitine on brain health are ongoing.

Boost dietary intake with animal products

Meat, fish, and poultry are all rich in carnitine.  In general, the redder the meat, the higher the carnitine concentration.  So, it’s no surprise that beef steak - with up to 160 mg in a four-ounce serving - is among the top food sources.  Carnitine also exists, in lesser amounts, in dairy products that contain whey.

Supplemental carnitine is available in several forms, including L-carnitine, L-carnitine L-titrate, acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR), and proprionyl-L-carnitine.  Of these, acetyl-L-carnitine is considered the most absorbable form - and is most frequently used in research.  Most studies have used carnitine in amounts of 1.5 to 3 grams daily for periods ranging from three months to a year.  However, discuss carnitine with your trusted integrative doctor before supplementing.  You should also consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise regime.

While more study is needed, carnitine might have the “right stuff” to make healthy people experience even more successful workouts.

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