What Is Betaine? Benefits, Signs of Deficiency and Food Sources

Betaine - Dr. Axe

Betaine (BET) is an amino acid that has been shown to have potential benefits for fighting heart disease, improving body composition, and helping promote muscle gain and fat loss. This is thought mostly to be due to its ability to promote protein synthesis in the body.

Never heard of betaine before? Also known as trimethylglycine, it is becoming more popular in supplements recently but is actually not a newly discovered nutrient.

While it’s been studied for its positive impacts on preventing heart disease for quite some time, only recently has betaine been included more often in exercise-focused and energy supplements, protein powders and other products geared at improving exercise performance and body composition.

What Is Betaine?

Betaine is a trimethylglycine and derivative of the nutrient choline. In other words, choline is a “precursor” to betaine and must be present for betaine to be synthesized in the body.

It’s created by choline in combination with the amino acid glycine.

Just like some B vitamins, including folate and vitamin B12, betaine is considered to be a “methyl donor.” This means it aids in liver function, detoxification and cellular functioning within the body.

Its most crucial role is to help the body process fats.

What is betaine used for in supplement form? Probably the most extensively researched benefit of betaine is supporting conversion of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood to methionine.

Although amino acids are critical compounds needed for many body functions, studies show that high levels of homocysteine can be harmful to blood vessels, potentially leading to the development of plaque buildup and the condition called atherosclerosis (clogged arteries).

Health Benefits

1. Supports Heart Health 

Betaine is best known for helping reduce plasma homocysteine levels, which is directly related to lowering the risk for heart disease. A high homocysteine concentration is a potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but studies suggest that this condition can be reduced through regular betaine supplementation.

High plasma levels of homocysteine greater than 15 μmol/L are present in an estimated 5 percent of the adult population and in as many as 50 percent of those with cardiovascular disease and stroke.

According to a 2013 study, “supplementation with at least 4 grams/day of betaine for a minimum of 6 weeks can lower plasma homocysteine.”

By helping fight hardening and blocking of arteries due to elevated homocysteine, betaine may be beneficial in reducing the risk for heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiac arrest and heart disease.

2. Has Anti-Inflammatory Effects

New research indicates that betaine has anti-inflammatory functions, offering protection against numerous diseases — including obesity, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Its protective effects are in part due to its role in sulfur amino acid metabolism, which defends against oxidative stress, inhibits inflammatory responses, regulates energy metabolism and mitigates apoptosis.

3. May Help Improve Muscle Mass 

Though research from clinical trials is mixed and somewhat limited in humans, ongoing betaine supplementation has been shown to reduce fat (adipose) mass and increase muscle mass in animal studies and selective human studies.

To date, several studies have been done to research whether betaine benefits exist for building strength and muscle mass. Different studies have showed varying results.

A 2010 study reported increased muscle power output and muscle force production after betaine supplementation. Another 2009 study found that two weeks of betaine supplementation in active college males appeared to improve muscle endurance during squat exercises and increased the quality of repetitions that could be performed.

A 2013 study revealed that six weeks of betaine supplementation improved body composition, arm size and bench press work capacity; attenuated the rise in urinary homocysteine thiolactone; and tended to improve power but not strength.

To draw a conclusion, in 2013, a study was done by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Participants were tested to see whether six weeks of betaine supplementation would have impacts on body composition, strength, endurance and fat loss.

After six weeks of betaine supplementation, participants showed improved body composition, gains in the size of arm muscles, and higher capacity to do bench press weightlifting and squat exercises.

On the other hand, a 2017 systematic review found that among seven studies, only two reported increases in strength or power after supplementation with BET. The remaining five studies showed no change in any strength or power outcome measures with supplementation.

4. May Help with Fat Loss 

According to certain studies, betaine supplementation may be beneficial in altering how the body processes and partitions nutrients, resulting in quicker fat burning abilities and fat loss, without breaking down muscle tissue or losing muscle mass.

A 2018 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial found evidence that betaine supplementation may enhance reductions in fat mass among female college athletes.  The study found that 2.5 grams of supplementary betaine per day with nine weeks exercise training in 11 young women decreased body fat more than a placebo.

A separate 2019 systematic review that included six studies with 195 participants concluded that:

Betaine supplementation significantly reduced the total body fat mass and body fat percentage. No changes were observed regarding body weight and body mass index. The results suggested that dietary betaine supplementation might be an effective approach for reducing body fat.

The review also pointed out that favorable effects of betaine on reducing body fat have been shown in studies using animals, such as rodents, pigs and fowls.

5. Helps with Liver Function and Detoxification 

Another positive effect of betaine seems to be supporting liver health by assisting in detoxification and the process of the liver digesting fats (lipids).

Fat can accumulate to dangerous levels in the liver from certain conditions — such as alcohol abuse, obesity, diabetes and other causes — but betaine is able to assist in liver-cleansing functions of breaking down and removing fats.

Betaine also seems to help the liver to dispose of toxins and chemicals, preventing against damage to the digestive tract and other bodily damage that can result from toxin exposure.

It has also been found to protect the liver against hepatotoxins, such as ethanol and carbon tetrachloride, which are toxic chemical substances that can enter the body through some medications, drugs and pesticides.

6. Can Aid in Digestion 

Betaine is sometimes used to create betaine hydrochloride (HCl) supplements. Betaine HCI is thought to increase the concentration of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which is the acid that must be present in order to break down foods and use nutrients.

In certain groups of people who have low stomach acid, they can experience a range of digestive problems that betaine may be able to help relieve.

Certain people find it beneficial to take betaine HCl extract prior to meals to help enable the stomach to dissolve and process foods. Positive results have been found in people who suffer from indigestion due to medications or other digestive problems.

Taking betaine HCl before meals may be able to help promote a healthy digestive response and gut health. This is also important because the immune system heavily relies on the health of the gut flora to boost immunity.

7. Helps Relieve Aches and Pains 

Studies have shown that betaine may positively benefit those with muscle aches and pains. In one study conducted on horses, levels of lactate acid (associated with muscular fatigue) were lower after exercise when horses received betaine supplementation.

This may be beneficial for people when performing rigorous exercise or for those who suffer from painful symptoms related to muscle and joint tissue damage.

8. Helps Repair Bodily Damage from Alcoholism 

Betaine is used to treat alcoholic liver damage that results in the accumulation of fat in the liver. It has lipotropic (fat-reducing) effects, so it has been shown to produce significant improvements in treating fatty liver disease by helping the liver process and remove fats.

9. Can Support Skin Health

What is betaine in skin care products beneficial for? It’s thought to have certain anti-aging effects, such as helping prevent wrinkles.

It can also keep skin moisturized by acting as a natural hydrator due to the way it keeps moisture locked into the skin. This means it helps protect skin’s texture, while potentially soothing irritated and dry skin.

Signs of Deficiency

A betaine deficiency is not thought to be common in Western nations, mostly because dietary intake is adequate. One reason is because betaine is present in high amounts in wheat products, which are a staple in most people’s diets.

What happens when you skip out on betaine-rich foods? Although it’s not directly due to low betaine intake, low dietary intake may contribute to high homocysteine in the blood.

High homocysteine levels in the blood may be elevated for many reasons, including environmental factors, diet and genetics.

The biggest threat to consuming low betaine levels is experiencing symptoms related to high homocysteine in the blood. This is seen most often in either older populations above 50, those who have suffered from alcoholism or in children who have genetic conditions that lead to high homocysteine.

Although this condition is rare, severely elevated levels of homocysteine can cause developmental issues, osteoporosis (thin bones), visual abnormalities, formation of blood clots, and narrowing and hardening of blood vessels.

Top Food Sources

Which foods contain betaine? Here are 12 of the best food sources of betaine:

  1. Wheat Bran — 1/4 cup uncooked (about 15 grams): 200 mg
  2. Quinoa — About 1 cup cooked or 1/4 cup uncooked: 178 mg
  3. Beets — 1 cup raw: 175 mg
  4. Spinach — 1 cup cooked: 160 mg
  5. Amaranth Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked : 130 mg
  6. Rye Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 123 mg
  7. Kamut Wheat Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 105 mg
  8. Bulgar Grain — About 1 cup cooked or 1/2 cup uncooked: 76 mg
  9. Sweet Potato — 1 medium potato: 39 mg
  10. Turkey Breast — 1 breast cooked: 30 mg
  11. Veal — 3 ounces: 29 mg
  12. Beef — 3 ounces cooked: 28 mg
Betaine

According to reports, wheat bran/wheat germ is the single highest source of naturally occurring betaine. Therefore, in the average American’s diet, baked products that contain wheat germ — including foods like breads, crackers, cookies and flour tortillas — are thought to be major contributors to betaine intake.

These are not necessarily the healthiest sources, but because these types of processed products are unfortunately eaten in high quantities in the U.S. diet, they are usually how people obtain enough this nutrient on a daily basis.

Alcoholic beverages, such as wine and beer, also contain low to moderate levels, so their high consumption rates make them another key contributor in the American diet. However, keep in mind that there are definitely healthier alternatives to getting the levels of betaine that you need.

Try making some of these recipes below, which include betaine-rich foods like spinach, beets, quinoa and turkey.

Dosage and Supplements

There’s not an established daily recommended amount of betaine at this time for adults. Recommended doses vary depending on the conditions being treated, and more research is still being conducted to establish a set recommendation for the general public.

  • Betaine is generally considered safe at a daily intake of nine to 15 grams for adults.
  • For people with alcohol-induced fatty liver disease, the recommended amount of betaine supplementation is normally between 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams, taken three times daily. This is a high dose and more than normally would be taken, but it is needed to repair liver damage in certain cases, like with recovering alcoholics.
  • Lower doses are usually used for nutritional support in people who have healthy livers and no history of heart disease. To help with digestion, there are many supplements (in the form of betaine HCl) available on the market that range in recommended doses between 650–2,500 milligrams.
  • People who are looking for help with exercise performance, improving body composition, or relieving body aches and pains may take between 1,500–2,000 milligrams per day, although a set recommendation doesn’t exist at this time.
  • It’s not recommended that pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding take betaine supplements without more reports being conducted first to show it’s safe.

If you suffer from heart disease, liver disease, muscle aches or pains, or want to discuss taking betaine to help with body composition changes, such as fat loss and muscle gains, you can speak with your doctor to determine the right dose for you.

When should you take betaine? Betaine is usually taken with folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 to support absorption.

It can be taken any time of day with or without a meal.

Betaine supplements are manufactured as byproducts of sugar beet processing. They can be found in powder, tablet or capsule forms.

Betaine isn’t recommended for children or infants, unless it’s specifically prescribed by a health care provider to treat certain conditions, normally genetic diseases that involve liver malfunctioning.

Risk, Side Effects and Interactions

Betaine has the potential to impact the effects of certain medications and to interact with other nutrients. If you take any medications for liver disease, heart disease or have kidney stones, you should talk to your doctor before taking any betaine-containing supplements.

Betaine can raise total cholesterol levels, so although it’s beneficial for preventing heart disease, it’s a safety concern among at-risk patients and must be taken in small doses. People who are overweight, who have diabetes or heart disease, or who are at a higher risk for heart disease should not take it without getting a doctor’s input first.

There haven’t been many serious cases of betaine overdose, toxicity or negative responses reported, but some people have reported experiencing mild side effects that include diarrhea, stomach upset and nausea.

Conclusion

  • Betaine is considered to be a “methyl donor.” It aids in liver function, detoxification and cellular functioning within the body. Its most crucial role is to help the body process fats.
  • Because everyone needs a differing amount depending on his or her needs, and there isn’t an established recommendation for intake at this time, daily percentages are not shown for the food sources below. Most people do best getting between 650–2,000 milligrams of betaine per day.
  • Betaine can be found in nutrient-rich foods like spinach, beets, certain ancient whole grains (which are especially beneficial if they are sprouted first), and certain types of meat and poultry.
  • When supplementing with this nutrient, mild side effects are possible including diarrhea, stomach upset and nausea. People with heart or liver disease should only supplement with help from a doctor.

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