Betaine, Explained: The Bioactive That Promotes Heart & Liver Health*
Unless you're the kind of person who obsessively reads ingredient lists and the back of supplement bottles, you may not have heard of betaine (aka trimethylglycine). But this bioactive, found naturally in beets, is popping up in everything from supplements and skin care products to energy drinks. Betaine's powerful benefits include pumping up athletic performance, enabling methylation, and supporting heart health1.* Here, we break down everything you need to know.
But first, what is betaine?
There are two forms of betaine: Betaine hydrochloride is a supplement that helps with digestion by supporting stomach acid levels, while betaine anhydrous—the form we're talking about here—promotes heart and liver health.*
A naturally occurring compound, betaine anhydrous is an amino acid derivative composed of the amino acid glycine and three methyl groups. In the body, its primary role is as a methyl donor, transferring those extra methyl groups to other compounds. This is important for promoting a healthy methylation cycle, keeping our metabolism running smoothly, and supporting liver detoxification.*
Betaine is often talked about as a pair with its more mainstream sidekick choline, an essential nutrient often included with B-complex supplements because its benefits are very similar. Famous for redeeming the reputation of egg yolks, which contain high amounts of choline, it is crucial for cognitive health and liver function. Perhaps more importantly, though, it is the precursor of betaine, which means choline is transformed into betaine2 in the body. In fact, many of the health benefits credited to choline are actually due to its role in betaine production.*
While betaine can be converted endogenously from choline, you can easily find high-quality, bioavailable supplements and powders to help you increase your betaine intake. You can also find it in a variety of dietary sources (e.g., beets, quinoa, oats, flour, other cereal grains, and wheat germ3—the highest naturally occurring source of betaine).
What are the benefits of betaine?
Despite flying a bit under the radar, betaine has actually been pretty extensively studied. Here are some of the top science-backed benefits of betaine:
It supports methylation & cardiovascular health.
As we age, cardiovascular health concerns become more probable. You probably already know that our cholesterol levels can impact our heart health, but are you watching your homocysteine levels? Homocysteine is an amino acid that's regulated via biochemical pathways, including the methionine cycle that drives a critical physiological process called methylation (that occurs in every cell of our body billions of times a day).
When homocysteine levels are not optimized (and especially when they are high), this can affect our cardiovascular health4. (Individuals with MTHFR genetic variants are especially likely to experience higher homocysteine burdens.) Enter: betaine.
A vital compound in the methylation cycle, betaine (along with two B vitamins, active folate 5-MTHF and B12) helps support healthy homocysteine levels by metabolizing the amino acid.* Here's how: Remember those extra methyl groups that betaine can donate to other compounds? When betaine donates methyl groups to homocysteine1, it's converted to a new compound, the amino acid methionine.* Methionine is not only an amino-acid building block of proteins throughout our body, but also goes on to fuel methylation.
Betaine is essential in facilitating this homocysteine-to-methionine conversion step.* In fact, a meta-analysis of clinical studies found that betaine supplementation lowered homocysteine levels by up to 20%5.* Diets high in both choline and betaine6 are also associated with lower levels of homocysteine.
It helps protect the liver.
Beyond protecting your heart, the whole methyl-homocysteine donation situation also creates that ever-important byproduct: methionine. The amino acid methionine is crucial for liver function7 and works to protect the liver from oxidative stress.* Since betaine is the primary source of methionine production in the body, maintaining proper betaine levels, and therefore methionine levels, can ensure a happy liver.*
In addition, betaine helps the liver digest fats.* This is especially important because fat accumulation in the liver can lead to health concerns down the road. Heralded as a lipotrope, betaine can break down fat1 and help maintain healthy levels in the liver.* In some animal studies, betaine has even been shown to restore liver cells8.* Although more research is needed, it's clear that betaine plays an important role in promoting liver health.*
It regulates water balance throughout the body.
Besides being a methyl donor, one of betaine’s main roles is to work as an osmoregulator (aka osmolyte), which means it helps maintain intracellular osmotic balance9.* In simple terms, this means betaine ensures our water and electrolytes stay balanced in every cell of our body.* In more scientific terms, it helps regulate cellular hydration and osmosis, which is the movement of water molecules across cellular membranes from a solution with a higher concentration of water molecules to a solution with a lower concentration of water molecules.*
The water and nutrient balance is constantly changing in our bodies from the water and food we consume throughout the day and the sweat, urine, and waste we eliminate. Osmoregulators promote detoxification by supporting the removal of toxins and also help to modulate the balance of electrolytes1 (e.g., sodium) in extracellular fluid, intracellular fluid, and blood plasma (the last of which can have a direct impact on blood pressure). By regulating osmotic balance, betaine plays a key role in promoting cellular integrity, stability, and function and protecting cells, proteins, and enzymes from osmotic changes and stressors.*
It can enhance athletic performance.
One unexpected place you'll find this beet extract: pre-workout drinks. It turns out betaine isn't just good for long-term health; it can also help you make gains in the gym.* In one study, drinking a betaine beverage for just one week helped improve athletic performance by 6% among college athletes as measured by peak and mean anaerobic power.* In another study, healthy, strength-trained men saw an overall improvement in body composition10 after six weeks of supplementing with betaine.*
Researchers believe betaine's power in the gym may be due to its role in creatine synthesis11.* Well known in the gym-going community, creatine helps build muscle mass and strength.
But is betaine safe to take?
It's always scary to see an unfamiliar term on an ingredient list or in your supplements—but based on the science, betaine is one you can feel good about. As a supplement, betaine is generally regarded as safe; however, side effects may include mild gastrointestinal concerns. Always check with your doctor before adding a new supplement to your routine.
Bottom line: Should you add betaine to your routine?
Currently, there are no set guidelines for how much betaine you should be getting. On average, Americans consume about 200 milligrams of betaine per day12, but some individuals—such as the half of the population that has an MTHFR gene variation—may benefit from even more betaine each day.* (And let's be honest, adding more beets, spinach, and quinoa to your plate is never a bad thing!)
With promising heart and liver benefits, not to mention a little extra pep at the gym, we're betting on betaine.* And if you're in the market for a high-quality, precision nutrition supplement that features bioactive betaine plus B vitamins to promote healthy homocysteine levels and cardiovascular function, check out mbg's methylation support+.*
Darcy McDonough, M.S., is the Senior Manager, SEO & Content Strategy at mindbodygreen. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She has previously worked in nutrition communications for Joy Bauer, the nutrition and health expert for NBC’s TODAY Show.
McDonough has developed & lead nutrition education programming in schools. She’s covered a wide range of topics as a health & nutrition reporter from the rise in the use of psychedelics for depression to the frustrating trend in shorter doctors' appointments and the connection between diet and disease.