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A Beginner’s Guide To Carnitine
A compound derived from the amino acids lysine and methionine and manufactured in the brain, liver and kidneys, carnitine is found in virtually all of our body’s cells. It’s stored predominantly in skeletal muscle, heart, brain, and sperm.
Carnitine plays a critical role in energy production. It is needed to burn fat for energy, and helps get rid of toxic byproducts of energy metabolism. So fortunately for us, our bodies make what it needs to carry out these processes. Incidentally, we can also get it from animal-based foods like meat and dairy, and, in smaller amounts, plant foods like grains and greens as well.
The two main types of carnitine are L-carnitine and D-carnitine; only the L form is active and is found in food. The L is the only form that should be taken as a supplement; the D form may compromise the effects of the L form.
How Does it Work in the Body?
Carnitine fuels fat burning because it assists in transporting long chain fatty acids into the cells to be oxidized, or “burned”, for energy in the body. Knowing this, the question naturally is: would L-carnitine, taken as a supplement, have additional benefit for fat burning?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that way. Even though carnitine is commonly promoted as a weight loss supplement, the research simply doesn’t pan out. Sure, we need carnitine for one of the many biochemical steps that turn fat into energy, but flooding the system doesn’t increase the effect. Since the body makes all the carnitine it needs, taking more won’t correct a potential deficiency the way other supplements may. It’s like gassing up your car – if you need to drive 10 miles, a gallon of gas will get you there. Two gallons will get you there too, but not faster or better than one gallon will.
That said, carnitine appears to have real therapeutic benefits in specific situations. For example, carnitine supplementation may increase sperm quality and possibly motility. It also may improve metabolic efficiency in older adults, who may not process carnitine naturally as well as younger people. In addition, carnitine may help folks with advanced cardiovascular disease.
Some people are at risk for low carnitine, such as those who are malnourished (and will have low levels of most nutrients) and those with diseases like cancer. Some medications may reduce the body’s carnitine stores and utility. In these cases, carnitine supplementation is recommended.
What about health risks?
In spite of one popularly referenced study suggesting an increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to the conversion of carnitine into a potentially damaging substance called TMAO, other research has shown a significant benefit of carnitine supplementation for protecting against heart disease. The study may have been flawed, and has not been replicated.
The body is exceptionally good at regulating carnitine. The kidneys recycle it when levels get low, and break down extra when not needed. However, an overdose may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Taken as directed, carnitine is most likely safe for healthy people to take. The full spectrum of risk of overdose is unknown, so never take more than the recommended dose on the label.
How Much Do We Need?
Since the body makes it as needed, healthy people don’t actually need any, but the standard therapeutic dose is between 500 and 2000 milligrams a day. Roughly 60-75% of carnitine from the food we eat is absorbed, while only around 20% is absorbed from oral supplements.
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