Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • May 29, 2021
Pre-workout supplements help you get ready to perform to your maximum abilities – physically and mentally. The right pre-workout supplements can make a huge difference in how you show up, whether you’re completing a normal workout or participating in a special competition.
Unfortunately, there are some pre-workout ingredients that have unwanted side effects. Tingling skin is one of the most common side effects reported by people who take certain types of pre-workout formulations before working out.
In most cases, this tingling sensation is harmless – you shouldn’t need to take any action beyond simply discontinuing use of the pre-workout mix that causes the effects, if you find them unpleasant. There are two ingredients that commonly lead to tingling skin: niacin and beta-alanine. This article will delve into the various reasons your pre-workout may lead to a tingling sensation and then provide a few options on how to handle it.
Beta alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning it is produced naturally within the human body. Amino acids are generally recognized as some of the most important ingredients involved in the muscle building process. Beta alanine specifically is associated with carnosine, a substance that plays a critical role in the pH balancing of muscles in the body. Medical research indicates that beta alanine combines with histidine, another amino acid, for muscle carnosine synthesis, a process that helps maximize muscle performance and limits neuromuscular fatigue.
Despite these positive properties of beta alanine, it’s also sometimes associated with tingling or itchy skin. The exact mechanisms behind why beta-alanine supplementation causes this specific reaction aren’t fully known, but it’s believed to have to do with neurons present in the human skin that are responsible for signaling an itch. When these nerve receptors interact with beta alanine, sensory neurons trigger a reaction that sends an itching feeling to the brain.
Even though the infamous beta-alanine itch may be uncomfortable, studies show it’s not harmful. The itch is generated by your peripheral nervous system, not the central nervous system which is contained in the brain and spinal cord.
Niacin is the more common name for vitamin B3, a class of vitamin that is important for overall health and can also be used in the treatment of elevated cholesterol levels. It’s commonly found in many different types of foods, including animal-based proteins like tuna, chicken, liver and turkey breast. Adults require 14 - 16 mg of niacin per day, and since it's found in so many different types of foods, you likely consume enough of it already through your normal diet.
In high enough doses, niacin is known to cause itchy skin. Certain people may also experience a flush or ruddy color in their skin, particularly around the neck and face areas. The specific mechanisms that make niacin cause tingly skin aren't fully understood. It's believed to be related to Langerhans cells, the part of the skin's immune system that is responsible for triggering allergic reactions. These cells stimulate a reaction that causes vascular dilation, increasing blood flow and leading to the reddish appearance of skin that is common with niacin.
If your pre-workout blends have a normal amount of niacin yet you are still feeling pronounced effects on your skin like a pre-workout itch or feeling of pins and needles on your body, it probably means you've reached your upper limit (UL) of niacin after consuming your chosen pre-workout formula combined with all of the other foods you’ve had throughout the day.
Also keep in mind that certain unscrupulous manufacturers will include niacin in products targeted to bodybuilders and athletes, who often determine the value of a supplement by how much it affects them physically. These companies include high levels of niacin in sports supplements designed for muscle growth or tactical performance simply so that people feel like it's working, even though this effect doesn't actually add anything to your pre-workout.
If the duration of the itching sensation isn't too long and it's not too difficult for you to deal with, it's probably okay to continue using your pre-workout supplement normally – especially if you enjoy using it otherwise and would like to keep doing so. Whether your itchy skin is caused by niacin, beta alanine or other nutrients present in your supplement, it's likely not going to cause you any serious harm other than some minor discomfort for a few minutes after you take it.
If the itching does bother you but you like the pre-workout supplement you are currently using, another option is to reduce your dosage. Depending on the timing of supplementation and your body's rate of absorption, a lower amount of the supplement in question may help you avoid most of the negative side effects. If you're currently taking a full scoop of powder, try going down to a half scoop. If you're taking a half scoop, try going with a quarter.
The final option is to choose another pre-workout supplement that doesn't have any ingredients that are known to lead to itchiness. Although this article focuses on niacin and beta alanine, there are other ingredients that can cause pre-workout itchiness and jitters, including caffeine and yohimbine. Other herbs used as stimulants can cause additional side effects including hives and diarrhea. If you do decide to change to a new pre-workout supplement, take care to closely read the ingredients and make sure everything in it is backed by solid science. If there's something in the supplement that you don't understand, a manufacturer should be able to clearly explain what the ingredient is and why it's present.
We all want to use nutritional science to take supplements that will help maximize muscle pumps, minimize exhaustion, and let us achieve at the highest possible level in the gym. But some of the more popular pre-workout supplements on the market today also come with some not-so-good effects, particularly ones that contain ingredients like niacin and beta alanine.
If you have a question about any ingredient in a pre-workout mix or any other supplement you've been taking, remember to speak with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian/nutritionist. They are clinically trained to help you understand supplement ingredients and make the best decisions about which ones are best for your specific needs.
And while you might feel attached to a pre-workout mix or supplement that also comes with unwanted side effects, the modern nutritional market is big enough that you should be able to find a blend that fits your needs. Of course, the best option is to have your own customized blend of pre-workout created just for you.
At Gainful, we offer personalized pre-workout with an array of options to fit your needs, from creatine to caffeine to branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Your personalized pre-workout is built for your body, your routine, and your goals: because the right preparation leads to the best performance.
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