April 28, 2024 5 min read

Why Does Pre-workout Make You Itch


People often find it challenging to stay motivated whilst exercising or even to begin a workout session. One impediment in this quest to have a fit and trim physique is pushing through exertional fatigue. Hence, the burgeoning popularity and consumption of pre-workout supplements to help pump you up and improve performance. However, they may come with unexpected and disconcerting side effects such as jitteriness, nervousness, anxiety, rapid heart rate, and important to this topic: itchy, tingly skin. Is that a cause for concern, a reason to abstain? Is it suitable for everyone, including during pregnancy? 


What is pre-workout and what does it do?


Pre-workout supplements generally contain a multitude of ingredients such as beet root extracts, citrulline and arginine. These compounds help increase the synthesis of nitric oxide in the body which helps dilate blood vessels. This effectively lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow to working muscles. They also usually contain various amino acids such as BCAA’s and taurine. They also usually contain various B vitamins which help the body utilize and create energy for cells, support the nervous system and the synthesis of red blood cells. Creatinine is another compound naturally found mostly in skeletal muscle cells and is integral to the phosphocreatine system which helps replenish the phosphate in ATP (the energy currency of the cell) to support metabolism and contraction of muscles during intense, anaerobic exercise. Caffeine is another mainstay of most pre-workout products. Caffeine bolsters perceived energy by stimulating the central nervous system to increase focus and vigilance while decreasing fatigue. Another popular ingredient is beta alanine, which we shall discuss.


Beta alanine: How does it work?


Beta alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that it can be synthesized by your liver. Beta alanine can be found in poultry, beef, and fish. Unsurprisingly, beta alanine can also be found in dietary supplements such as pre-workout. Consumption or de novo production of beta alanine in the liver, leads to the production of carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide of beta alanine and histidine. Carnosine acts like a buffer inside of cells, mopping up protons or hydrogen atoms generated within rapidly contracting muscles during intense exercise. The accumulation of protons increases acidity which reduces the working capacity of the muscle, and contributes to sore, achy, fatigued muscles. As such, increasing carnosine within skeletal muscles during intense, anaerobic exercise lasting 1-7 minutes, enables one to recuperate faster and perform better. Additionally, carnosine acts as an antioxidant which may also help during exercise, as reactive oxygen species (ROS) are naturally created as a byproduct of cellular metabolism, and antioxidants neutralize them, preventing them from damaging tissues.



Dosage and indications


The benefits of beta alanine supplementation are not immediate and acute. It is required that you have at least 2 weeks of a loading phase in order for an accumulation of carnosine in the muscles to develop at an effective level. The loading phase may take 4-12 weeks to reach peak levels. General recommendations include, 5-6g broken up into 1.6-2.0g three times per day.


Combining beta alanine with a meal or snack, especially one with carbohydrates, has been shown to optimize carnosine levels. As was mentioned, beta alanine is beneficial for intense activity such as sprinting, fast cycling, hockey and soccer players, Olympic weightlifters, swimmers and rowers. 


The antioxidative properties of carnosine denote certain health benefits. The accumulation of ROS in cells and tissues can promote aging, and cause damage to DNA and cell membranes.


Beta alanine and the Pre-workout Itch


Unfortunately, beta alanine supplementation can cause a phenomenon called paresthesia, which is characterized by tingly, itchy skin around the face, neck and back of the hands. Beta alanine activates a subset of Mrgprd receptors in the skin, which activate sensory neurons that produce those sensations. Though this may be annoying, the overall consensus supports it being a harmless, self-limiting and dose-dependent response. 


There is no way to alleviate these unpleasant sensations once they have begun. Paresthesias may persist up to an hour, but you can help prevent them. You can seek out slow-release beta alanine, so that it isn't liberated at high concentrations upon ingestion or take three separate doses at mealtimes to overcome this innocuous side effect. 


Beta alanine supplementation may not be for everyone, including pregnant or lactating mothers, as safety data and testing is lacking. Pregnancy is often uncomfortable enough with possible nausea and vomiting, sore back and hips, constipation, and constant urination, (to name a few!). The last thing you want to do is add to your growing list of complaints or to take unnecessary risks. It may also not be wise for those prescribed certain heart medications or for erectile dysfunction.



A Pre-workout Without the Jitters


In pregnancy, both the woman and her fetus are vulnerable. Therefore, there is a lack of testing in this demographic and many drugs and herbs are contraindicated. This applies to pre-workout and other ergogenic supplements as well. Pre-workout supplements may have a proprietary blend, which is essentially a mystery bag of ingredients, which should certainly be avoided as ingredients and quantities are not disclosed. Many also tend to have a high caffeine content, which can be potentially dangerous to a developing fetus.


Luckily, Mamasupps is a pre-workout specially formulated for all women including pregnant and breastfeeding women to safely ingest. They contain less caffeine than many competitors and do not contain potentially deleterious, obscure herbs or dubiously listed ingredients. It also does not contain potentially contraindicated amino acids, save citrulline and arginine (as well as beetroot), which help enhance blood flow. It also contains choline to support brain and neurotransmitter synthesis, as well as B vitamins.


Importantly for our discussion, Mamasupps does not contain beta alanine, so there is no risk of having to endure a scratching fit. Let’s be honest, just existing can be exhausting and uncomfortable when pregnant!


Parting thoughts


Pre-workout supplementation is useful to enhance performance, motivation, power, and results. Though these supplements are effective, they can have certain unpleasant side effects such as jitteriness and itchy skin. They may also not be appropriate for pregnant and lactating women, and those with certain comorbidities. Mamasupps is a more gentle and safe formulation for all women, and it also does not contain beta alanine that may cause intense itching. 




Get your pre-workout fix safely during pregnancy. Lotus Medical Centre. (2023, April 11). https://www.lotusmedicalcentre.com.au/get-your-pre-workout-fix-safely-during-pregnancy/#:~:text=So%2C%20if%20you%20ask%20ordinary,list%20in%20mind%20is%20crucial.

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