Betaine is a naturally occurring compound found in beetroot as well as many other plants. Betaine has been claimed to help protect the cardiovascular system, as well as improve immunity and increase overall health. This article will investigate these health claims, investigate effective dosages, how well betaine is absorbed/ retained in the body, and research any potential negative health effects that large dosages of betaine can have on the body.
Betaine and cardiovascular disease
Elevated homocystine levels is a strong independent indicator of an increased risk of atherosclerosis and high blood pressure (H. Refsum et al. 1998), both of which are major contributors to cardiovascular disease. This is caused, at least in part, by the activation of PAR-4 by homocystine, which induces production of reactive oxygen species (Tyagi N et al. 2005). It is therefore widely accepted amongst the medical and scientific community that an increased level of serum homocystine is a strong indication for a high risk of cardiovascular disease, and reducing circulating homocystime will reduce that risk.
Betaine is a methyl donor, similar to folic acid, and is able to methylate homocystine into methionine (Olthof MR et al. (2005). This reaction reduces circulating homocystine, and so reduces the risk it poses to the cardiovascular system. The reduction of homocystine from dietary sources of betaine is significant, but supplemental betaine has been shown to have a greater effect on homocystine levels, and this is simply due to the larger amount of betaine consumed, which allows a greater amount of methlyation to occur (Olthof MR et al. (2005).
This mechanism and benefits of the methylation of homocystine by betaine is well understood/researched, and has been reviewed by the European Commission, who have concluded that total daily consumption of 1.5g of betaine is the recommended amount to help protect the cardiovascular system, and normalise homocystine levels (European Commission. 2013). They also suggest that betaine supplements must provide a minimum of 500mg/ serving to carry that claim.
Other health benefits of betaine
The benefitical effects on the cardiovascular system is the most well recognised benefits, and the only benefit passed by the European Commission, however, there is research which has indicated other potential benefits for betaine.
Animal studies and in vitro experiments have shown that betaine is able to prevent inflammation by inhibiting the pro-inflammatory enzymes TNF-α, IL-6, iNOS and COX-2 (Kim DH et al. 2014). In addition to this, human studies have shown that consumption of more than 360mg of betaine a day not only reduced homocystine levels, but also lowered C-reactive protein (CRP) levels by 19% and TNF-α by 12% (Detopoulou P et al. 2008). These findings support the claims that betaine can reduce inflammation, but research is still limited in this area, and so although current studies have indicated betaine can reduce inflammation, more research is needed to determine how effective, how it works, and what are effective dosages.
– Sports performance
Betaine as a supplement and in foods is commonly found in the form of betaine nitrate, and it is because of the associated nitrate that it has attracted the attention of athletes for performance enhancement. The nitrate is thought to improve muscle performance by lowering the oxygen cost of exercise (implying improved muscle efficiency), and the enhanced exercise tolerance. Whilst the theory is there, the research has not been very consistent with its findings. There are studies which claim to have confirmed that betaine supplementation has increased muscle efficiency (Andrew M. Jones. 2014) and caused a moderate improvement in weight training exercises such as bench-press (Trepanowski JF. 2011). However, these benefits seem to be a result of something aside from the nitrate found in betaine nitrate (Richard J Bloomer. 2011), certainly with regards to individuals who regularly partake in exercise. With very little research showing an improvement in performance, and an uncertain mechanism, much more research is needed before these claims are made. However, the current evidence does suggest that betaine supplementation does offer some benefit to performance.
– Cancer prevention
As with many supplements, cancer prevention is quite a common claim. With regards to betaine, there is no evidence that betaine directly inhibits the growth and development of cancer cells. However, high betaine consumption is associated with a lower risk of developing lung cancer amongst smokers (Jun Ying et al. 2013) and breast cancer (Xu X et al. 2009). Although a correlation between high betaine consumption and a lower risk of some cancers has been identified, a cause and effect relationship has not been established.
In addition to the association, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of betaine are likely to reduce the risk of developing cancers, and both inflammation and radical damage are associated with an increased risk of cancer (Terry D. Oberley. 2002) (Coussens LM et al. 2002). The extent of this protection is unclear though, and with so many additional variable to measure, much more research is needed to qualify these claims.
Negative health effects of betaine
There is concern that large amounts of betaine consumption can cause an increase in LDL, which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that consuming 4g or more of betaine does increase serum LDL, which is an indicator of an increased risk of developing CVD. The raise in LDL is said to be of ‘minor clinical significance’ (Marc P. McRae. 2013). However, due to the to association of large dosages of betaine and LDL, the European Commission has issued warnings about consuming more than 4g of betaine regularly (European Commission. 2013).
Aside from the impact on LDL in large dosages, there have been no adverse effects recorded for consuming betaine.
As with all supplements, absorption and retention of the active ingredient (in this case, betaine) is extremely important in order to obtain the desired benefits. Retention of nutrients (especially in dosages higher than food will naturally be able to provide) is notoriously bad if consumed in isolation. Although there is no research specifically looking at betaine absorption/ retention as a single nutrient or in ‘food form’ (alongside nutrients it is naturally found with), there is similar research for other nutrients. Vitamin C for example, has been shown to be much better absorbed, utilised and retained in the body when consumed with nutrients it is naturally found with (Anitra C. Carr. 2013)
We also know that some nutrients have synergistic properties with absorption in the digestive system; the most well known being vitamin D increasing the absorption of calcium (Ross AC et al. 2011) These synergistic properties will not exist if a nutrient is taken alone in supplement form (although this might be remedied by taking the supplement with a meal).
It is therefore a reasonable assumption to make that taking a nutrient alongside the nutrients that it is found alongside with in foods will help improve and maximise the absorption and retention of the nutrient in the body.
Total betaine content of Geco Supplements
Each serving of Geco Supplements product contains 550mg of beetroot powder with 450mg of added betaine nitrate. The beetroot powder used is concentrated at a ration of 30:1, which concentrates the naturally occurring nutrients (including the betaine naturally found in beetroot). The amount of naturally occurring betaine in whole beetroot is 4mg/g, which when concentrated gives 120mg/g of 30:1 powder. In this product 550mg of beetroot powder is used in each serving, meaning there is 66mg of betaine from the beetroot powder in addition to the added betaine.
This means that the total betaine content of this product is 516mg per serving, which is in line with the research recommendations and the European Comissions recommendations for both a safe and effective dosage.
There is enough evidence to support the claim that betaine can lower blood pressure by lowering the amount of circulating homocystine. Research into other benefits of betaine are promising, but there currently is not enough high quality research to support these claims. The recommended amount of betaine to consume in supplement from is 500mg, as this has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure, and even when combined with dietary betaine, will not raise LDL levels.
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