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March 19, 2022
If you regularly use pre-workouts, then you’re likely used to that familiar tingling and itching in your lips and skin. Some say this is evidence that the pre-workout is doing its job. This isn’t incorrect, but these sensations come from a few specific ingredients that may or may not have anything to do with whether a pre-workout is working.
The tingling and itching are usually attributed to two common ingredients – beta alanine and niacin.
In this article we’ll discuss these ingredients and how they contribute to exercise performance, as well as why they cause the itching and tingling sensation you may be familiar with. Then we’ll dig deeper into things you can do to prevent or offset the pre-workout tingle and itch.
The short answer is yes, but these sensations come from certain ingredients – beta alanine and niacin. There is a handful of common pre-workout ingredients that have various effects, ranging from energy to increased blood flow. The most common pre-workout ingredients are caffeine, creatine, beta alanine, taurine, citrulline and tyrosine1.
Caffeine is likely the most notable and understood ingredient – caffeine gives you energy and helps prolong performance. But too much caffeine, and you’ll start to feel jittery, even anxious.
This isn’t the only ingredient that can cause annoying or weird side effects. The others are a bit more benign, but no less weird.
As mentioned above, the tingling and itching sensations you may experience after drinking pre-workout are not properties of the pre-workout as a whole – they are caused by two common ingredients found within the pre-workout. These ingredients are beta alanine, an amino acid, and niacin, a B vitamin.
Let’s take a closer look at why these two ingredients cause the familiar tingling and skin itching or flushing...
So, if you’ve ever gulped down a pre-workout, then a short while later felt your lips and maybe fingers tingle, you’re not alone. This is a sensation called paresthesia, and it’s a normal effect of beta alanine intake.
WHY beta alanine causes itching isn’t completely understood, but it has to do with how it works in the body – when beta alanine enters the blood, it binds with the amino acid histidine. This triggers a little bit of neurologic activity in the peripheral nervous system (the part that signals to the extremities), which causes that notorious tingling. It’s typically concentrated in the lips because, well, that’s how it got in!
You shouldn’t be alarmed by the tingling – this is a normal effect of taking beta alanine, especially at doses greater than 1g, which is what you’ll likely find in most pre-workouts1. In fact, some bodybuilders tend to see the tingling sensation as a sign that the pre workout supplement is doing its job. What’s more interesting, some cyclists have even reported that the tingling actually contributed to increased performance in time trials – in other words, the tingling gave them the feeling of a boost1.
In actuality, this is more of a placebo effect (unless they are dosing beta alanine properly - more on that in a moment).
The tingling and itching brought on by beta alanine usually has a peak intensity no matter the dose, but it will tend to last longer based on how much you’ve taken, or what you do.
The best thing you can expect is ~20 minutes of tingling. There's no way to stop beta alanine itch or beta alanine tingles, but the itchiness and tingling tends to subside once you start working out, so be sure you put that pre-workout to use!
BETA ALANINE - HOW IT WORKS:
It’s time we discussed how beta alanine helps with performance, and how that contributes to the tingling and itch.
Beta alanine is commonly found in pre-workout supplements. It has been well studied, and is known to dramatically reduce muscle fatigue during intense resistance training1,2.
Beta alanine, when combined with the amino acid histidine, forms carnosine. Carnosine removes hydrogen ions that are waste products of muscular contraction. As hydrogen ions build up in the muscle, the muscle environment becomes acidic, which contributes to fatigue and the burning sensation you feel when you get close to failure.2,3
Supplemental beta alanine helps to generate more carnosine, meaning better hydrogen removal, and improved fatigue resistance.
SUPPLEMENTING WITH BETA ALANINE:
Now that we know WHAT beta alanine does, let’s discuss how to supplement with it to get the best results.
As mentioned, beta alanine works to reduce muscle fatigue during a given exercise. But, taking it with a preworkout may not be the best way to maximize its effects...
As you see, beta alanine can be an effective supplement to help you boost your performance, but you should supplement with it separately from a pre-workout to get the most out of it. In fact, there may be no real use for beta alanine in pre-workouts other than giving consumers the tingling sensation to show it’s working.
Ultimately, here’s how you should take beta alanine:
Now that you know the secrets of beta alanine, let’s shift our focus to niacin, another pre-workout ingredient that may cause tingling and itching.
Niacin is another ingredient found commonly in pre-workouts that contributes to energy levels but may be better known for the tingling and skin flushing that it causes, which usually feels and looks like a sunburn.
Niacin is a B vitamin (B3) that helps the body generate ATP during respiration and is found in many different foods naturally. It is an essential nutrient, and adults need ~14-16mg daily, and the average dietary intake is ~20-30mg4. This is important to note because niacin intake can quickly approach toxicity levels, and niacin toxicity, while rare, can be severe.
Niacin is not like beta alanine or other amino acids and nutrients – it is an essential nutrient that helps with vital processes in every cell of the body and does not exclusively contribute to improved performance. It may help boost endurance during lifting or cardio, but this isn’t well-studied.
HOW NIACIN CAUSES SKIN FLUSHING:
Niacin is known to cause itching and flushing of the skin, also known as pruritis. The reason for this is not really understood, but it is known to occur at doses of about 30mg/day4.
Pre-workouts can contain anywhere from 13mg-31mg of niacin, which can be almost double the recommended intake1.
The tolerable upper level for niacin intake is 35mg/day. This means that you can take up to 35 mg/day before experiencing adverse effects and even toxicity.
NIACIN SUPPLEMENT STRATEGIES:
Niacin isn’t really something you supplement with, in the traditional bodybuilding supplement sense, like creatine or beta alanine. The tingling and flush of niacin is often the property that bodybuilders look for to let them know the pre-workout is working, and supplement manufacturers know this. Unfortunately, companies can hide the amounts of a given nutrient in a proprietary blend, so you never know how much you’re really getting.
When it comes to niacin supplementation, look for pre-workouts that list the amount, or avoid it altogether. Nearly 50% of all pre-workouts contain some level of niacin, so try to find the ones that don’t1.
Before we conclude, let’s take a minute to discuss some strategies for reducing these tingling and itching sensations.
Ultimately, your best bet is to avoid a pre-workout with beta alanine and a high niacin dose.
Another thing to consider is avoiding pre-workouts from shady companies and pre-workouts that show you ALL of the the ingredients and dosages. You really never know what you are getting with these pre-workouts. One study found the ingredient doses vary significantly across products, and the doses, when listed, don’t match what the research actually supports for performance boosting1.
In the end, our goal here was to discuss the notorious tingle and itch associated with some pre-workout ingredients. While caffeine is known for its energy boosting, and often jitter-inducing, properties, beta alanine are right up there.
Unfortunately, many supplement manufacturers don’t list the amounts of these ingredients, so it can be hard to know how much you’re getting – too much or not enough.
Your best bet is to find a pre-workout formula that has no beta alanine if you hate the tingles and itch. The best ingredients to look for are energy and endurance ingredients like caffeine, theanine, and taurine; pump ingredients like citruilline and glycerpump; focus ingredients like tyrosine and Alpha-GPC; and power ingredients like betaine, elevATP, and creatine.
With that in mind, here are some key takeaways to consider. In the end, don’t forget to add on a few extra reps as it will help you build lean muscle mass in the long run!
More Pre-Workout Questions:
(1) Jagim, A. R.; Harty, P. S.; Camic, C. L. Common Ingredient Profiles of Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements. Nutrients 2019, 11 (2), 254. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11020254.
(2) Trexler, E. T.; Smith-Ryan, A. E.; Stout, J. R.; Hoffman, J. R.; Wilborn, C. D.; Sale, C.; Kreider, R. B.; Jäger, R.; Earnest, C. P.; Bannock, L.; Campbell, B.; Kalman, D.; Ziegenfuss, T. N.; Antonio, J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Beta-Alanine. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 2015, 12 (1), 30. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y.
(3) Perim, P.; Marticorena, F. M.; Ribeiro, F.; Barreto, G.; Gobbi, N.; Kerksick, C.; Dolan, E.; Saunders, B. Can the Skeletal Muscle Carnosine Response to Beta-Alanine Supplementation Be Optimized? Front. Nutr. 2019, 6.
(4) Niacin https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/niacin (accessed 2022-03-08).
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