L-Carnosine for Health and Fitness
L-Carnosine for Health
I will first cover the use of L-carnosine for general health. Incidentally, just to clear up possible confusion: L-Carnosine has nothing to do with the much better known L-Carnitine, despite its very similar name.
L-Carnosine is a dipeptide, which means two amino acids chemically joined together. In this case, the two amino acids concerned are alanine and histidine. It is found naturally in many body tissues, including muscles, heart, liver, kidneys and brain. As might be expected from this, L-carnosine is produced naturally in the body.
The usefulness of L-carnosine as a supplement stems from the fact that under some circumstances the natural production might become inadequate. Those circumstances include advancing age (like everything else, production of L-carnosine gets less efficient as one gets older) and particularly high requirement, which is more relevant for its use in fitness training – of which more later.
L-carnosine is an antioxidant, known to act together with other antioxidants (vitamin E, vitamin C, zinc and selenium) and with antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase. The effect of the combination is considerably greater than the effects of the individual components added together. This is quite a common phenomenon in biology, called synergy.
L-carnosine also mops up other toxic by-products of metabolism, specifically including aldehydes. This matters because aldehydes tend to be formed whenever a compound with a hydroxyl group is oxidised; such compounds are quite common in the body and include all sugars and also glycerol (a part of all fat molecules) as well as the more familiar alcohols, including the very familiar ethanol – which is the main alcohol in alcoholic drinks.
This matters because aldehydes tend to react with all manner of body structures such as proteins and the fats in cell membranes, in a process called carbonylation. This process is irreversible except by completely destroying the molecule in question, and renders these cell components useless.
Sugars cause similar damage to proteins, particularly when the sugars are present in excess as in diabetes. In the case of sugars, the reaction is called glycation and, again, it is irreversible. Incidentally, this is thought to be the main route whereby diabetes causes damage to the blood vessel walls and other structures.
L-carnosine reduces the extent to which both of these destructive processes occur.
L-carnosine also acts as a chelating agent, which means that it mops up toxic metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury. It also removes copper and zinc when either or both are present in excess. The particular relevance of this last point is that Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by high levels of both these minerals in the affected parts of the brain. While it is not yet known whether the high mineral levels cause Alzheimer’s or vice versa, getting rid of them can’t hurt! A second route by which L-carnosine protects against Alzheimer’s is that it protects the proteins in question from damage, and hence reduces the production of toxic prions.
In short, L-carnosine reduces the rate of all manner of degenerative processes in the body, by several means including some that are only relevant to L-carnosine. In other words, L-carnosine slows down the rate of physical aging.
L-Carnitine for Fitness
The reasons why L-carnosine is excellent as an aid for fitness and strength training are very similar to the reasons why it is good for health in general; only the emphasis is different.
One route by which L-carnosine works for fitness is distinct from its use for general health. To explain it, I need to take a step back. When doing intense training of the sort often used for bodybuilding and strength sports such as weightlifting, as well as in sprinting (as opposed to long-distance running) the body is unable to get enough energy from oxidising food. It makes up the difference by breaking down glucose into simpler substances, which produces much less energy but has the advantage of not needing any oxygen to do it.
Unfortunately, the end product of this process is lactic acid, and the production of large quantities of this substance is the reason why nobody can run at sprint speeds for very long or do repeated maximum-effort weightlifting indefinitely. Lactic acid accumulation changes the acid/alkali (pH) balance of the muscles, and biological systems don’t work well outside their optimum range of pH. This is also the reason for the muscle “burn” that occurs when you do heavy exercise.
L-carnosine helps to buffer the acidity caused by this accumulation of lactic acid. The result of this might be to make it possible to do an extra “rep” or two or run an extra few metres.
L-carnosine also helps in training by a different route. The whole point of athletic training is to push your body beyond what it can easily do; this forces changes in the body including growth of skeletal muscle but also including growth of blood vessels and improvements in the efficiency of the heart. Unfortunately, none of this happens unless some damage is done to body structures during exercise, which is why most people will feel stiff and sore the day after an intense workout.
The damage is at least partially done by the increased throughput of oxygen during exercise. A small proportion of this extra oxygen is inevitably diverted into causing damage to cell walls in a process called lipid peroxidation; this reduces the efficiency of the affected cells, particularly in the muscles, and also the peroxides produced go on to form toxic aldehydes and they in turn damage body proteins.
L-carnosine reduces damage by all these routes, because its antioxidant properties reduce peroxidation in the first place and it also reduces the damage that the toxic aldehydes do.
In short, L-carnosine reduces the damage done during exercise and therefore makes recovery from exercise easier and more efficient. L-carnosine can therefore help during both training and actual competition.