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Reported July 14, 2003

Carnitine: Right Supplement, Wrong Reason? -- Web Column

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Ivanhoe Health Correspondent
(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Researchers keep trying and manufacturers keep hoping. They both want to prove that carnitine supplements make their way into muscle tissue to burn fat, enhance performance, and improve body composition. They may be looking may be looking in the wrong place.

Jeff Volek, Ph.D., William Kraemer, Ph.D., and a group of exercise scientists at the University of Connecticut conducted a study to find out if carnitine supplements could reduce the stressful effects of exercise and speed up the recovery process. They found the answer in blood flow, not in muscle tissue.

"Ninety-nine percent of the research with carnitine has focused on it as a supplement fat burner and performance enhancer," says Volek. "Theoretically, if you can burn fat, you conserve glycogen and enhance performance. But most of the studies never really showed that it burned more fat. Unlike taking creatine and increasing its presence in muscles by 20 percent or 30 percent, study after study has shown that it is difficult to increase muscle carnitine level by taking supplements."
Carnitine is a protein-like substance found in red meat and other foods. Although we take in up to 300 milligrams a day, the body can produce its own supply. There is no dietary requirement for carnitine. Its primary function is to transport fatty acids into cells to be burned as energy.
First to Look Outside the Box

"We were the first to look outside the box on how carnitine might work apart from the fat burning theory," explains Volek. "We knew there was research showing that carnitine also plays a role in vasodilation (expanding the size of blood vessels) and controlling blood flow. So we decided to find out what would happen if you were to have better blood flow due to carnitine supplements and how that would affect exercise recovery."

Volek's team recruited ten participants who were similar in background, health status, body size, and eating habits. All had participated in a weight training program for at least one year. For three weeks they were given two grams of L-carnitine a day. Then they were put through an exercise routine of five sets of squats with 15 to 20 repetitions each. Immediately after and at regular intervals up to three hours following the workout, blood samples were taken and magnetic tests were conducted to measure the amount of muscle damage and tissue repair. After a "wash out" period to rid the body of the added carnitine, the participants were given a placebo and put through the same exercise program and follow-up tests. Here is what they found.

"We discovered that some of the markers of the stress response caused by exercise were diminished," says Volek. "The MRI exams showed that the percent of muscle disruption was significantly greater when they took the placebo -- less when they took carnitine supplements. Also, soreness ratings were significantly higher after taking the placebo than after taking carnitine. We think this happened because the carnitine accumulated in the cells that line blood vessels, made them expand, and increased the blood flow and the delivery of oxygen."
Implications for Exercisers

The UConn research was reported in the Journal of Physiology. If it holds up to further investigations of different groups and with a variety of exercises, the implications for exercisers and athletes could be profound.
"Two grams of carnitine supplementation a day might be useful as a substance to aid recovery between bouts of exercise," concludes Volek. "If there is less tissue damage and muscle soreness, athletes can resume strenuous training sooner than they have been able to in the past. That capacity, not fat burning, could lead to better performance."

This article was reported by, who offers Medical Alerts by e-mail every day of the week. To subscribe, go to:


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