Are Carnitine Supplements Good For You Or Bad For You?

What Is The Truth About Carnitine And TMAO?

BodybuilderIf you are a weightlifter or bodybuilder, chances are you are taking an L-carnitine supplement or a protein shake fortified with L-carnitine. That is because L-carnitine has been promoted for increasing muscle mass and physical performance for so long that most people have come to believe it must be true. Is it true, or is it just another food myth?

If you visit Dr. Strangelove’s website, you may also be told that carnitine supplementation is beneficial for weight loss, migraines, baldness, ADHD and autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, and/or low energy, muscle loss, and cognitive decline in older adults. Are these claims fact or fiction?

On the flip side, recent studies have suggested that the carnitine in red meat might be bad for your heart. Could the same be true for carnitine supplements? Could they also be bad for your heart?

A recent systematic review (AG Sawicka et al, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 17: 49, 2020) of L-carnitine supplementation answers these important questions. The authors called their study “The bright and dark sides of L-carnitine supplementation” because they set out to systematically investigate the benefits and potential risks of L-carnitine supplementation.

But before I share the results of this study, I need to give you a little background on L-carnitine. It is time for another Biochemistry 101 segment.

Biochemistry 101: What You Need To Know About Carnitine

professor owlCarnitine plays an essential role in human metabolism. It is required for transport of fatty acids into our mitochondria so they can be used to generate energy. Without carnitine we would be unable to utilize most of the fats in our diet as an energy source.

As you might expect, carnitine is essential for any tissues that have mitochondria, but it is particularly important for high energy tissues like skeletal and heart muscle.

For most of us, our liver and kidneys make all the carnitine we need. So, we don’t really need carnitine from food or supplements.

However, we do get significant amounts of carnitine from red meat, much smaller amounts of carnitine from other animal foods, and almost no carnitine from plant foods. Adults consuming diets with red meat and other animal foods get about 60-180 mg of carnitine a day from their diet, whereas vegans only get around 10-12 mg/day.

Uptake of carnitine from the blood into muscle tissues requires insulin. Thus, carnitine uptake into muscle is significantly less on a low-carbohydrate or keto diet than it is on a mixed diet containing carbohydrates.

Finally, our kidneys do an excellent job of regulating blood carnitine levels, with excess carnitine being excreted into the urine. Thus, total body carnitine levels are virtually the same with high-carnitine and low-carnitine diets.

Question MarkThis raises the question: “Are L-carnitine supplements good for you?”

Now, let’s talk about the dark side of carnitine. I have discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is a brief summary:

  • People who eat a lot of red meat harbor a species of bacteria in their intestine that converts carnitine to trimethylamine (TMA). We don’t know whether this species of gut bacteria is favored by the presence of red meat in the diet or the absence of certain fruits, whole grains, and legumes from the diet of meat eaters.
  • The TMA is reabsorbed into the bloodstream, and the liver converts TMA to TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide).
  • TMAO is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.

When you think about it, this is a perfect example of double jeopardy. Red meat is high in carnitine, and red meat eaters have gut bacteria that result in carnitine being converted to a compound that may increase the risk of heart disease.

This raises the question: “Are L-carnitine supplements bad for you?”

Let’s look at these two questions. First, I will discuss the recent review. Then I will put the conclusions of that review into perspective by looking at what other health experts say.

Are Carnitine Supplements Good For You Or Bad For You?

good news bad newsMost previous studies of carnitine supplementation have lasted only two or three weeks, which may not be long enough to measure an effect of carnitine supplementation on performance. So, the authors of this review paper selected studies that lasted 11 weeks or more for their review.

The review included 11 studies. They lasted either 12 or 24 weeks. Participants received doses ranging from 1 gm to 4.5 gm of L-carnitine per day. Here are the conclusions of the review:

  • Participants receiving L-carnitine alone had no increase in muscle carnitine content.
  • Participants receiving L-carnitine + 80 grams of carbohydrate had around a 10% increase in muscle carnitine content. [To put that into perspective, 80 grams of carbohydrate is roughly equivalent to 2 cups of white rice or two medium potatoes.]
  • One study compared male vegetarians with male omnivores. The omnivores had no increase in muscle carnitine content, but the vegetarians did. [The study did not analyze the diets of the omnivores and vegetarians, but it is probably safe to assume that the carbohydrate content was higher on the vegetarian diet.]
  • There was no significant effect of L-carnitine on muscle mass or physical performance. [This is logical, given the minimal effect of L-carnitine supplementation on muscle carnitine levels.

Thus, this review found little evidence that L-carnitine supplementation was good for you. It resulted in little or no increase in muscle carnitine levels or in physical performance.

  • Two of the 11 studies measured plasma TMAO levels. These studies found that L-carnitine supplementation resulted in a significant increase in plasma TMAO levels.

Thus, this review found some evidence that L-carnitine supplementation might be bad for you.

What Is The Truth About Carnitine And TMAO?

the truth signIs carnitine good for you? With respect to this question, the conclusions of this review are similar to the conclusions of other health experts. For example, in their Fact Sheet On Carnitine For Health Professionals the NIH states “Some athletes take carnitine to improve performance. However, twenty years of research finds no consistent evidence that carnitine supplements can improve exercise or physical performance in healthy subjects—at doses ranging from 2–6 grams/day administered for 1 to 28 days. For example, carnitine supplements do not appear to increase the body’s use of oxygen or improve metabolic status when exercising, nor do they necessarily increase the amount of carnitine in muscle.”

The NIH fact sheet goes on to list some diseases causing muscle loss or muscle weakness, for which L-carnitine supplementation is appropriate. However, in these cases, the carnitine supplementation should be recommended by health professionals.

Is carnitine bad for you? The TMAO story is a bit more complicated. As I mentioned above, there is an association between red meat consumption and blood TMAO levels and an association between blood TMAO levels and heart disease.

Is it TMAO that increases the risk of heart disease or is it some other component (saturated fat, for example) of red meat that increases the risk of heart disease? Nobody knows. More research is needed.

There is also a “red herring” that complicates the TMAO story. It turns out that TMAO helps fish survive the high pressures they encounter in the deep ocean. Thus, many fish are high in TMAO, and fish consumption also increases blood TMAO levels.

Are the bad effects of TMAO in fish outweighed by the heart healthy components in fish (omega-3s, for example)? Nobody knows. More research is needed.

To summarize:

  • There is no reason to take L-carnitine supplements unless directed by your health professional. There is little evidence they will help your physical performance. There is also no good evidence to support the other benefits of L-carnitine you find listed on Dr. Strangelove’s blog or the website of your favorite supplement company.
  • L-carnitine supplements may be bad for your heart, but much more research will be needed to be sure. [Note: Based on what we know about the role of gut bacteria in TMAO production, vegans could probably take l-carnitine supplements without causing an increase in TMAO levels. However, that is probably a moot point. There is no evidence that L-carnitine is more effective for vegans than it is for omnivores.]

The Bottom Line 

If you are a weightlifter or bodybuilder, chances are you are taking an L-carnitine supplement or a protein shake fortified with L-carnitine. That is because L-carnitine has been promoted for increasing muscle mass and physical performance for so long that most people have come to believe it must be true. Is it true, or is it just another food myth?

On the flip side, recent studies have suggested that the carnitine in red meat might be bad for your heart. Could the same be true for L-carnitine supplements? Could they also be bad for your heart?

A recent review looked at these questions. Here are the conclusions of the review:

  • Participants receiving L-carnitine alone had no increase in muscle carnitine content.
  • Participants receiving L-carnitine + 80 grams of carbohydrate had around a 10% increase in muscle carnitine content. [To put that into perspective, 80 grams of carbohydrate is roughly equivalent to 2 cups of white rice or two medium potatoes.]
  • There was no significant effect of L-carnitine on muscle mass or physical performance. [This is logical, given the minimal effect of L-carnitine supplementation on muscle carnitine levels.

Thus, this review found little evidence that L-carnitine supplementation was beneficial. It resulted in little or no increase in muscle carnitine levels or in physical performance.

  • This review also found that L-carnitine supplementation resulted in a significant increase in plasma TMAO, a compound that has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Thus, this review found some evidence that L-carnitine supplementation might be bad for you.

The NIH has also issued a fact sheet for health professionals summarizing research on L-carnitine over the past 20 years. The conclusions from their fact sheet can be best summarized as:

  • There is no reason to take L-carnitine supplements unless directed by your health professional. There is little evidence they will help your physical performance. There is also no good evidence to support the other benefits of L-carnitine you find listed on Dr. Strangelove’s blog or the website of your favorite supplement company.
  • L-carnitine supplements may be bad for your heart, but much more research will be needed to be sure.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Does Carnitine Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Carnitine: Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Hyde?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart HealthIt’s both interesting and confusing when one Journal article appears talking about the dangers of a particular supplement and just a couple of weeks later another article appears talking about the benefits of that same supplement – especially when the conclusions of both articles are misrepresented in the media.

But that’s exactly what has just occurred with the supplement L-carnitine. Media reports of the first article trumpeted the headline “Cleveland Clinic study links L-carnitine to increased risk of heart disease”. Media reports of the second article featured the headline “Mayo Clinic review links L-carnitine to multiple health heart benefits”. As you might suspect, neither headline was completely accurate. So let me help you sort out the confusion about L-carnitine and heart health

What is Carnitine?

But first let me give you a little bit of background about L-carnitine. L-Carnitine is an essential part of the transport system that allows fatty acids to enter the mitochondria where they can be oxidized and generate energy. So it is an essential nutrient for any cell that has mitochondria and utilizes fatty acids as an energy source.

L-carnitine is particularly important for muscle cells, and the hardest working muscle cells in our body are those that pump blood through our hearts. So when we think of L-carnitine we should think of heart health first.

But that doesn’t mean that L-carnitine is an essential nutrient. In fact, our bodies generally make all of the L-carnitine that we need. There are some metabolic diseases that can prevent us from making L-carnitine or utilizing L-carnitine efficiently. People with those diseases benefit from L-carnitine supplementation, but those diseases are exceedingly rare.

There is some evidence that supplemental L-carnitine may be of benefit in individuals suffering from congestive heart failure and other diseases characterized by weakened heart muscles. Other than that there is little evidence that supplemental L-carnitine is beneficial for healthy individuals.

Does Carnitine Increase Heart Disease Risk?

fatty steakLet’s look at the first study (Koeth et al, Nature Medicine, doi:10.1038/nm.3145, April 7, 2013) – the one that purportedly linked L-carnitine to increase risk of heart disease. The authors were trying to gain a better understanding of the well-established link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease risk. The classical explanation of this link has been the saturated fat and cholesterol content of the red meat.

However, several recent studies have questioned whether saturated fat and cholesterol actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (see last week’s article “Are Saturated Fats Good For You?”)

Since red meat is also high in L-carnitine, the authors hypothesized that it might be the L-carnitine or a metabolite of the L-carnitine that was associated with increased risk of heart disease in people consuming red meat.

The authors honed in on a metabolite of L-carnitine called trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO that is produced by bacteria in the intestine and had been previously shown to accelerate atherosclerosis in mice. They developed what they called an L-carnitine challenge. Basically, they gave their subjects an 8 ounce sirloin steak, which contains about 180 mg of L-carnitine, and measured levels of L-carnitine and TMAO in the blood one hour later and the urine 24 hours later. [I’m guessing they didn’t have much trouble finding volunteers for that study.]

When the subjects were omnivores (meaning meat eaters) they found a significant increase in both L-carnitine and TMAO in their blood and urine following the L-carnitine challenge. When they put the same subjects on broad-spectrum antibiotics for a week to wipe out their intestinal bacteria and repeated the L-carnitine challenge, they found an increase in L-carnitine but no increase in TMAO. This simply confirmed that the intestinal bacteria were required for the conversion of L-carnitine to TMAO.

Finally, because previous studies have shown that omnivores and vegetarians have very different populations of intestinal bacteria, they repeated their L-carnitine challenge in a group of vegans and found that consumption of the same 8 ounce sirloin steak by the vegans did not result in any significant increase in TMAO in either their blood or urine.

Armed with this information, the authors measured L-carnitine and TMAO concentrations in the fasting blood of 2595 patients undergoing cardiac evaluation in the Cleveland Clinic. They used an established protocol to assess the three-year risk for major adverse cardiac events in the patients they examined. They observed a significant association between L-carnitine levels and cardiovascular event risks, but only in subjects who also had high blood levels of TMAO.

Now it’s time to compare what the headlines said to what the study actually showed. The headlines said “L-carnitine linked to increased risk of heart disease”. What the study actually showed was that there were two things that were required to increase the risk of heart disease – L-carnitine and a population of intestinal bacteria that converted the L-carnitine to TMAO.

The major source of L-carnitine in the American diet is red meat, and habitual red meat consumption is required to support a population of intestinal bacteria that is capable of converting L-carnitine to TMAO. So the headlines should have read “red meat consumption linked to increased risk of heart disease”. But, of course, that’s old news. It doesn’t sell subscriptions.

Does Carnitine Decrease Heart Disease Risk?

Heart AttackThe second study (DiNicolantonio et al, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.02.007) was a meta-analysis. It reviewed 13 clinical studies involving 3629 people who had already had heart attacks and were given L-carnitine or a placebo after the heart attack.

In evaluating the results of this study it is useful to remember that a heart attack generally kills some of the heart muscle and weakens some of the surviving heart muscle. When the data from all of the studies was combined the authors reported a 27% reduction in all cause mortality, a 65% reduction in arrhythmias, and a 40% reduction in angina. However, there was no reduction in a second heart attack or the development of heart failure.

So perhaps the headlines describing this study were a little closer to being on target, but they failed to mention that these effects were only seen in people who had already suffered a heart attack and had weakened heart muscles. They also failed to mention that there was no decreased risk of a second heart attack or congestive heart failure.

The Bottom Line:

1)     The first study should be considered preliminary. It needs to be confirmed by other studies. If it is true, it is not ground breaking. It merely gives us a fuller understanding of why red meat consumption may be linked to increased risk of heart disease and gives you yet another reason to minimize red meat consumption.

The study does raise the possibility that use of L-carnitine supplements may increase your risk of heart disease if you eat red meat on a regular basis, and that this same risk may not be associated with L-carnitine supplementation if you are a vegan. But the study did not directly test that hypothesis, and much more research is required before I would give it any weight.

2)     The second study suggests that if you have already had a heart attack, you may want to consult with your physician about whether L-carnitine supplementation might be of benefit. Once again, this study is not ground breaking. We already knew that L-carnitine supplementation was helpful for people with weakened heart muscle. This study merely confirmed that.

Contrary to what the headlines suggested, this study provides no guidance about whether L-carnitine supplementation has any heart health benefits in people without pre-existing heart disease – and the bulk of existing literature suggests that it does not.

3)     Finally, I realize that the major use of L-carnitine in the US market is in sports supplements purported to increase strength and endurance. The literature on that is decidedly mixed, but that’s another subject for another time.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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