Betaine, Explained: The Nutrient That Promotes Heart & Liver Health
Darcy McDonough is the associate health editor at mbg. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
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. But this nutrient, also known as trimethylglycine and found naturally in beets, is popping up in supplements, skin care products, and energy drinks. Betaine's powerful benefits include pumping up athletic performance and supporting heart health. 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 used for indigestion, and betaine anhydrous, the form we're talking about here, promotes heart and liver health.
A naturally occurring compound, betaine anhydrous is 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 keeping the 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 vitamins. 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, in the body, choline is transformed into betaine. Many of the health benefits credited to choline are actually due to its role in betaine production.
Beyond churning out betaine from choline, betaine can easily be found in supplements and powders. You can also find it in beets, quinoa, oats, flour, and other cereal grains as well as the highest naturally occurring source of betaine, wheat germ.
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:
1. It supports cardiovascular health.
As we age, plaque can build up in our arteries, eventually leading to cardiovascular disease. You probably know cholesterol can be a risk factor, but are you watching your homocysteine levels? Homocysteine is an amino acid that can be an indicator of inflammation and, at high levels, has been associated with cardiovascular disease. Enter: betaine.
Betaine helps support normal homocysteine levels by metabolizing the potentially harmful amino acid. Here's how: Remember those extra methyl groups betaine can donate to other compounds? In the body, when betaine donates methyl groups to homocysteine, it is converted to a new compound, effectively neutralizing it.
A meta-analysis of studies found that betaine supplementation lowered homocysteine levels by up to 20%. And diets high in both choline and betaine are associated with lower levels of homocysteine.
2. It can fight fat buildup in the liver.
Beyond protecting your heart, the whole methyl-homocysteine donation situation also creates an important byproduct, methionine. Methionine is crucial for liver function. It works to protect the liver from oxidative stress and damage. 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 non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD causes inflammation and damage to the liver—and it's frighteningly common. Experts estimate 30 to 40% of American adults have NAFLD. Heralded as a lipotrope—betaine breaks down fat and prevents it from building up in the liver. Betaine has even been shown to reverse liver damage in some animal studies. Although more research is needed, betaine's role in the future treatment of NAFLD looks promising.
3. 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 betaine for just one week improved athletic performance by 6% among college athletes as measured by peak and mean anaerobic power. In another study, overall body composition improved after six weeks of supplementing with betaine.
But is betaine safe?
It's always scary to see an unfamiliar term on and ingredient list or in your supplements—but as a byproduct of beet sugar production, betaine is one you can feel good about. As a supplement, betaine is generally regarded as safe; however, side effects may include nausea and digestive issues. 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, but on average Americans consume about 200 milligrams of betaine per day. Although betaine deficiency is rare, adding more beets, spinach, and quinoa to your plate is never a bad thing. And with promising heart and liver benefits, not to mention a little extra pep at the gym, we are betting on betaine.
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