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 Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

What Does The Perfect Post-Workout Protein Shake Look Like?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Post-Workout Protein ShakeIf you work out on a regular basis and read any of the “muscle magazines”, you’ve seen the ads. “Explode Your Muscles.” “Double Your Gains.” They all claim to have the perfect post-workout protein shake, backed by science. They all sound so tempting, but you know that some of them have to be scams.

I told you about some of the sports supplements to avoid in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor”. In this issue, I’m going to ask “What does the perfect post-workout protein shake look like?”

For years athletes have been using protein beverages containing branched chain amino acids after their workouts to maximize muscle gain and recovery. There was some science behind that practice, but the major questions were unanswered. Nobody really knew:

  • How much protein is optimal?
  • What kind of protein is optimal?
  • What amount of branched chain amino acids is optimal?
  • Are some branched chain amino acids more important than others?
  • Does the optimal amount of branched chain amino acids depend on the amount of protein?

As a consequence, after workout protein supplements were all over the map in terms of protein source, protein amount, branched amino acid amount and type of branched chain amino acids. Fortunately, recent research has clarified many of these questions.

How Much And What Kind Of Protein Do You Need?

  • Recent research has shown that the optimal protein intake for maximizing muscle gain post workout is 15-20 gm for young adults (Katsanos et al, Am J Clin Nutr 82: 1065-1073, 2005; Moore et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 89: 161-168, 2009) and 20-25 gm for older adults (Symons et al, Am J Clin Nutr 86: 451-456, 2007).
  • More protein isn’t necessarily better. The effect of protein intake on post workout muscle gain maxes out at around 25 gm for young adults and 30 gm for older adults (Symons et al, J Am Diet Assoc 109: 1582-1586, 2009).
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after a workout. Other protein sources (soy, casein, chicken) are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours.

Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

  • It turns out that leucine is the only branched chain amino acid that actually stimulates muscle protein synthesis (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006). And protein is what gives muscles their strength and their bulk.
  • Recent research has shown that 2-3 gm of leucine (2 gm for young adults; 3 gm for older adults) is sufficient to maximize post workout muscle gain if protein levels are adequate (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006).

Unanswered Questions About Optimizing Muscle Gain Post-Workout

  •  Do the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role, or is leucine alone sufficient to drive post-workout muscle gain?
  • Can leucine still help maximize post-workout muscle gain if protein intake is inadequate? If so, how much leucine is needed?

Does Leucine Enhancement Improve Low Protein Shakes?

Lrg Extension ExercisesA recent study (Churchward-Venne et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 99: 276-286, 2014) seems to answer those two questions. The authors compared the effect of 5 protein-amino acid combinations on muscle protein synthesis in 40 young men (~21 years old) following unilateral knee-extensor resistance exercise. The protein shakes contained:

  • 25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 3 gm of leucine (high protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 0.76 gm of leucine (low protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 3 gm of leucine (low protein, low leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine (low protein, high leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine + added isoleucine and valine (the other branched chain amino acids). (low protein, branched chain amino acids).

The results were clear cut:

  • The high protein shake (25 gm of protein) was far superior to the low protein shake (6.25 gm of protein) at enhancing post workout protein synthesis. This is consistent with numerous other published clinical reports.
  • Adding 3 gm of leucine to the low protein shake had no effect on post-workout protein synthesis, but 5 gm of added leucine made the low protein shake just as effective as the high protein shake at supporting post-workout protein synthesis.

In short, leucine can improve the effectiveness of a low protein shake, but you need more leucine than if you chose the high protein shake to begin with.

  • Adding extra branched chain amino acids actually suppressed the effectiveness of leucine at enhancing post-workout protein synthesis. These data suggest:
    • Leucine probably is the major amino acid responsible for the muscle gain reported in many of the previous studies with branched chain amino acids.
    • If the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role in the muscle gain, the quantities that occur naturally in the protein are probably enough. Adding more may actually reduce the effectiveness of leucine at stimulating muscle gain.

While this is a single study, it is consist with numerous other recent clinical studies. It simply helps clarify whether leucine can increase the effectiveness of a low protein supplement. It also clarifies the role of branched chain amino acids.

Also, while this study focused on protein synthesis, numerous other studies have shown that optimizing post-workout protein and leucine intake results in greater muscle gain (for example, Westcott et al., Fitness Management, May 2008)

The Bottom Line

Research on post-workout nutrition to optimize muscle gain from the workouts has come a long way in recent years. It is now actually possible to make rational choices about the best protein supplements and foods to support your workouts.

  • If you are a young adult (17-30), you should aim for 15-20 gm of protein and about 2 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are an older adult (50+), you should aim for 20-25 gm of protein and 3 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are in between you are on your own. Studies haven’t yet been done in your age group, but it’s reasonable to assume that you should aim for somewhere between the extremes.
  • If you are getting the recommended amounts of whey protein, the leucine level will also be optimal. If you are using other protein sources you may want to choose ones with added leucine.
  • The research cited above shows that you can make a low protein supplement effective by adding lots of leucine, but that’s going to require artificial flavors and sweeteners to cover up the taste of that much leucine. I would recommend choosing one that provided adequate protein to begin with.
  • While the research in this area is still somewhat fluid, I would avoid protein supplements with added branched chain amino acids other than leucine. If the paper I cited above is correct you probably get all of the other branched chain amino acids you need from your protein and adding more may actually interfere with the effect of leucine on muscle gain.
  • I’d pretty much forget all the other “magic ingredients” in post-workout supplements. If you’re a novice there is some evidence that arginine and HMB may be of benefit, but if you have been working out for more than 6 months, the evidence is mixed at best. As for the rest, the clinical studies are all over the map. There’s no convincing evidence that they work.
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after your workout. Soy and casein are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours. If you’re looking at meat protein, chicken is a particularly good choice. Four ounces of chicken will provide the protein and leucine you need to sustain muscle gain for several hours.
  • Even if you are not working out, recent research on dietary protein and leucine has important implications for your health. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared research showing that optimizing protein and leucine intake helps to increase muscle retention and maximize fat loss when you are losing weight.

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.

Are High Protein Diets Your Secret To Successful Weight Loss?

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

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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