What is Betaine? Benefits, Signs of Deficiency and Food Sources

betaine

Betaine is an amino acid that has been shown to have potential benefits for fighting heart disease, improving body composition, and helping promote muscle gain and fat loss because of its abilities to promote protein synthesis in the body.

Never heard of betaine before? Betaine, also known as trimethylglycine, is becoming more popular in supplements recently, but is actually not a newly discovered nutrient. While it’s been studied for its positive impacts on preventing heart disease for quite some time, only recently has betaine been included more often in exercise-focused and energy supplements, protein powders and other products geared at improving exercise performance and body composition.

Betaine is a derivative of the nutrient choline; in other words, choline is a “precursor” to betaine and must be present for betaine to be synthesized in the body. Betaine is created by choline in combination with the amino acid glycine. Just like some B vitamins, including folate and vitamin B12, betaine is considered to be a “methyl donor.” This means it aids in liver function, detoxification and cellular functioning within the body. It’s most crucial role is to help the body process fats.

Probably the most extensively researched benefit of betaine? It’s used to convert homocysteine in the blood to methionine. Homocysteine is an amino acid that is produced by the body naturally. Amino acids are the building blocks of all the proteins in the body. Although amino acids are critical compounds needed for many body functions, studies show that high levels of the amino acid homocysteine can be harmful to blood vessels, potentially leading to the development of plaque buildup and the condition called atherosclerosis (clogged arteries).(1) (2)

This dangerous condition is one of the main contributors to heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases; as a result, betaine’s ability to lower homocysteine has been researched extensively. Early studies were conducted to investigate betaine’s potential benefits for boosting muscle mass and strength, aiding in improved endurance, and helping to lower fat. More studies are still needed to draw definitive conclusions about betaine in these regards, but preliminary research shows betaine has promising benefits.


Betaine Deficiency

A betaine deficiency is not thought to be common in western nations, mostly because betaine is present in high amounts in wheat products, which are a staple in most people’s diets. Although it’s not directly due to low betaine intake, diets low in betaine may contribute to high homocysteine in the blood. High homocysteine levels in the blood may be elevated for many reasons, including environmental factors, diet and genetics.

The biggest threat to consuming low betaine levels is experiencing symptoms related to high homocysteine in the blood. This is seen most often in either older populations above 50, those who have suffered from alcoholism, or in children who have genetic conditions that lead to high homocysteine. Although this condition is rare, severely elevated levels of homocysteine can cause developmental delay, osteoporosis (thin bones), visual abnormalities, formation of blood clots, and narrowing and hardening of blood vessels. (3)


Recommended Daily Amounts of Betaine

In adults, there’s not an established daily recommended amount of betaine at this time. Recommended doses of betaine vary depending on the conditions being treated, and more research is still being conducted to establish a set recommendation for the general public. (4) (5)

  • For people with alcohol-induced fatty liver disease, the recommended amount of betaine supplementation is normally between 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams, taken three times daily. This is a high dose and more than normally would be taken, but is needed to repair liver damage in certain cases, like with recovering alcoholics.
  • Lower doses are usually used for nutritional support in people who have healthy livers and no history of heart disease. To help with digestion, there are many betaine supplements (in the form of betaine HCI) that are available on the market that range in recommended doses between 650–2500 milligrams.
  • People who are looking to benefit from betaine in regards to exercise performance, improving body composition, or relieving body aches and pains may take between 1500–2000 milligrams of betaine, although a set recommendation doesn’t exist at this time.
  • It’s not recommended that pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding take betaine supplements without more reports being conducted first to show it’s safe.

If you suffer from heart disease, liver disease, muscle aches or pains, or want to discuss taking betaine to help with body composition changes such as fat loss and muscle gains, you can speak with your doctor to determine the right dose for you. (6)

Betaine is usually taken with folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. Betaine supplements are manufactured as a byproduct of sugar beet processing. They can be found in powder, tablet or capsule forms. Betaine isn’t recommended for children or infants, unless it’s specifically prescribed by a health care provider to treat certain conditions, normally genetic diseases that involve liver malfunctioning.

According to reports, wheat bran/wheat germ is the single highest source of naturally occurring betaine. Therefore, in the average American’s diet, baked products that contain wheat germ —including foods like breads, crackers, cookies and four tortillas — are thought to be major contributors to betaine intake. These are not necessarily the healthiest sources of betaine, but because these types of processed products are unfortunately eaten in high quantities in the U.S diet, they are usually how people obtain enough betaine on a daily basis. (7)

Alcoholic beverages, such as wine and beer, also contain low to moderate levels of betaine, so their high consumption rates make them another key contributor of betaine in the American diet. However, keep in mind that there are definitely healthier alternatives to getting the levels of betaine that you need. For example, betaine can be found in nutrient-rich foods like spinach, beets, certain ancient whole grains (which are especially beneficial if they are sprouted first), and certain types of meat and poultry.


Top Food Sources of Betaine

Because everyone needs a differing amount of betaine depending on their needs, and there isn’t an established recommendation for betaine intake at this time, daily percentages are not shown for the food sources below. However, keep in mind most people do best getting between 650–2,000 milligrams of betaine per day.

Here are 12 of the best food sources of betaine:

  1. Wheat Bran — 1/4 cup uncooked (about 15 grams): 200 mg (7)
  2. Quinoa — About 1 cup cooked or 1/4 cup uncooked: 178 mg (8)
  3. Beets — 1 cup raw: 175 mg (9)
  4. Spinach — 1 cup cooked: 160 mg (10)
  5. Amaranth Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked : 130 mg (11)
  6. Rye Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 123 mg (12)
  7. Kamut Wheat Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 105 mg (13)
  8. Bulgar Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 76 mg (14)
  9. Sweet Potato — 1 medium potato: 39 mg (15)
  10. Turkey Breast — 1 breast cooked: 30 mg (16)
  11. Veal (17) — 3 ounces: 29 mg
  12. Beef — 3 ounces cooked: 28 mg (18)
Betaine

Betaine Health Benefits

1. Supports Heart Health 

Betaine is best known for helping to reduce homocysteine levels in the blood, which is directly related to lowering risk for heart disease. A high homocysteine concentration is a potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but studies show that this condition can be reduced through regular betaine supplementation. (19)

By helping to fight hardening and blocking of arteries due to elevated homocysteine, betaine is beneficial in reducing the risk for heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiac arrest and heart disease.

2. May Help Improve Muscle Mass 

Though research is mixed and somewhat limited in humans, ongoing betaine supplementation has been shown to reduce fat (adipose) mass and to increase muscle mass in animal studies and selective human studies. To date, several studies have been done to research whether betaine benefits exist for building strength and muscle mass. Different studies have showed varying results.

A 2010 study reported increased muscle power output and muscle force production after betaine supplementation. Another 2009 study showed that two weeks of betaine supplementation in active college males appeared to improve muscle endurance during squat exercises and increased the quality of repetitions that could be performed. The researchers of the latter study felt this showed that betaine has the ability to create improvements in muscular endurance but not necessarily in overall power. But other studies have showed no results when taking betaine, or mixed results when it comes to betaine benefits. (20) (21)

To draw a conclusion, in 2013, a study was done by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Participants were tested to see whether six weeks of betaine supplementation would have impacts on body composition, strength, endurance and fat loss. The participants were athletes who were already accustomed to exercise but who were being tested to observe whether further improvements could be main. (22)

The results showed that after six weeks of betaine supplementation, participants showed improved body composition, gains in the size of arm muscles, higher capacity to do bench press weightlifting and squat exercises. Researchers concluded that betaine does have the ability to positively impact body composition by aiding in muscle power and growth and contributing to increased stamina.

Weight Scale

3. May Help with Fat Loss 

According to certain studies, data suggests that betaine supplementation may be beneficial in altering how the body processes and partitions nutrients, resulting in quicker fat burning abilities and fat loss without breaking down muscle tissue or losing muscle mass.

A 2002 study investigated whether pigs given betaine supplementation showed changes in body composition, specifically if they lost more fat while taking betaine. The results showed that betaine had positive impacts and that in the pigs fed betaine supplements, their ability to metabolize protein improved and they lost more fat than the control group of pigs (not receiving betaine) did.  Protein deposition was found to be enhanced in the pigs taking betaine, while body fat percentages were found to be lower than in the pigs not taking betaine. And this trend had a linear relationship, meaning that the more betaine the pigs were given, the more fat-loss results they experienced. (23)

However, researchers note that these results may be most apparent in cases where the subjects are fed low-energy (low calorie) diets overall. A 2000 study, for example, found similar results, in wich betaine’s fat-reducing effects were most apparent when added to already reduced-energy, low calorie diets. (24) More research is needed to determine whether betaine could have similar fat-loss benefits as part of an average-calorie, or even high-calorie, diet.

4. Helps With Liver Function and Detoxification 

Betaine benefits liver health by assisting in detoxification and the process of the liver digesting fats (lipids). Fat can accumulate to dangerous levels in the liver from conditions — such as alcohol abuse, obesity, diabetes and other causes — but betaine is able to assist in liver detox functions of breaking down and removing fats. (25)

Betaine also helps the liver to dispose of toxins and chemicals, preventing against damage to the digestive tract and other bodily damage that can result from toxin exposure. (26)

Betaine has also been found to protect the liver against hepatotoxins, such as ethanol and carbon tetrachloride. Hepatotoxins are toxic chemical substances that damage the liver and enter the body through certain prescription medications or through pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed on plants and crops that are not organically grown. (27)

Researchers are still learning more about the long-term negative effects of pesticide chemical exposure, and currently many types of heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides still remain on the FDA’s “considered to be safe” list. Therefore, many commonly eaten fruits and vegetables are sprayed with multiple chemical toxins, which we then ingest when eating these foods. Betaine may be helpful to the liver processing these toxins and removing them from the body.

Digestive System

5. Can Aid in Digestion 

Betaine is sometimes used to create Betaine Hydrochloride supplements (also called betaine HCl). Betaine HCI is thought to increase the concentration of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which is the acid that must be present in order to break down foods and to use nutrients. In certain groups of people who have low stomach acid, they can experience a range of digestive problems that betaine is able to help relieve. (28)

Certain people find it beneficial to take Betaine HCI extract prior to meals to help enable the stomach to dissolve and process foods. Results have been found in people who suffer from indigestion due to medications or other digestive problems. Taking betaine HCl before meals may be able to help the stomach make better use of food’s nutrients, to improve the health of the digestive tract, and because the immune system heavily relies on the health of the gut flora, even to boost immunity.

6. Helps Relieve Aches and Pains 

Studies have shown that betaine may positively benefit those with muscle aches and pains. In one study conducted on horses, levels of lactate acid (associated with muscular fatigue) were lower after exercise when horses received betaine supplementation. (29)

This may be beneficial for people when performing rigorous exercise or for those who suffer from painful symptoms related to muscle and joint tissue damage.

7. Helps Repair Bodily Damage from Alcoholism 

Betaine is used to treat alcoholic liver damage that results in the accumulation of fat in the liver. Betaine has lipotropic (fat-reducing) effects, so it has been shown to produce significant improvements in healing fatty liver disease by helping the liver to process and remove fats. (30)


Adding Betaine to Your Diet

Try making some of these recipes below, which include betaine-rich foods like spinach, beets, quinoa and turkey.


Concerns and Interactions of Betaine

Betaine has the potential to impact the effects of certain medications and to interact with other nutrients. If you take any medications for liver disease, heart disease or have kidney stones, you should talk to your doctor before taking any betaine-containing supplements.

Betaine can raise total cholesterol levels, so although it’s beneficial for preventing heart disease, it also must be monitored in certain at-risk patients and taken in small doses. People who are overweight, who have diabetes, heart disease or who are at a higher risk for heart disease should not take betaine without getting a doctor’s input first.

There haven’t been many serious cases of betaine overdose or toxicity reported, but some people have reported experiencing mild side effects that include diarrhea, stomach upset and nausea.

Read Next: What Is Choline? Benefits, Sources & Signs of Choline Deficiency


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