The world of health foods and supplements is full of ingredients, some of which you may have heard of, and others that might be completely unfamiliar. Some of them are rediscovered ancient medicine from thousands of years ago, and others are brand new compounds synthesized out of common fruits and vegetables. Still, others are naturally found in the food we eat, but when isolated, can be added as a supplement to enhance their natural effects. L-Carnitine is one of these last ones, a molecule naturally found in our food, but which is now often found as a supplement you can add to anything from a smoothie to your morning coffee.
Let's talk more about this molecule, what it can do for you, and how you can enjoy its benefits.
What is L-Carnitine?
L-Carnitine is a molecule found in the body, used in numerous bodily processes. It's also known as carnitine and levocarnitine. It's one of two kinds of carnitine, the other being d-carnitine. You can read all of the gritty technical details right here. D-carnitine is toxic, however. Luckily, it's impossible to get D-carnitine when you think you're getting L; they're made in different ways, so there's no cross-contamination.
Some people call L-Carnitine an amino acid, and others call it a vitamin. The truth is, it's neither. It's structurally very similar to amino acids, but it's not an amino acid itself. It's a critical component of your metabolism and is used in the conversion of nutrients into energy.
L-Carnitine has the prefix "Carni-", which is the same as used in "carnivore", which implies that it's an animal product. It is, in that it's found only in animals, but L-Carnitine supplements can be vegan as well.
L-Carnitine is known as a "conditionally essential" compound. In biology, an "essential" compound is something that your body needs, but cannot make itself. In other words, you need to get it from foods you eat or supplements you take. Essential vitamins and minerals include Vitamin A, the B-Vitamins, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Zinc, and others.
"Conditionally Essential" means that your body can make it, but sometimes doesn't make enough, so you need to get some of it from your diet. L-Carnitine is one such conditionally essential molecule. Your body makes most of what you need but takes some from what you eat.
What Does L-Carnitine Do?
Before we get into the specifics of what L-Carnitine can do in terms of specific benefits, let's talk about its role in metabolism. What, specifically, does it do in your body?
First of all, L-Carnitine helps break down fatty acids in your body and funnel the resulting compounds into your cells, to the mitochondria, which then break it down further and use it for energy. You can, then, easily say that L-Carnitine helps break down fat and convert it into energy.
Additionally, your body converts some of the L-Carnitine you produce or eat into other forms of L-Carnitine, specifically Acetyl-L-Carnitine and Propionyl-L-Carnitine. These derivatives are also used in the body, but scientists aren't sure where or how, so there hasn't been much study into their effects. Pure L-Carnitine, however, is much better understood.
L-Carnitine is also critical for heart and brain function, as well as muscle movement. Any time your body uses energy, whether it's fueling the brain, or contracting muscles to lift weights, or even just regulate your heartbeat (itself a constantly contracting muscle), L-Carnitine is there to give you the energy to do it.
To give you an idea of the scale we're talking about here, a person who weighs about 150 lbs. will synthesize around 11-34 milligrams of L-Carnitine in their body each day. A typical carnivorous diet involving red meat will take in 60-180 milligrams of L-Carnitine per day, while a vegan diet typically includes around 10 milligrams per day. While this is a large disparity, studies have shown that vegans generally don't suffer from a deficiency in L-Carnitine, meaning even that smaller intake is enough when added to what the body makes naturally.
What Are the Benefits of L-Carnitine?
We're going to divide this section into three categories. These are:
- What We Know. These are the effects of L-Carnitine that have been studied and confirmed and may be in use medically.
- What We Think. These are the effects of L-Carnitine that are theorized or that make sense, or that there is some evidence to support, but that studies have not yet formalized or proven.
- What We Want. These are benefits that make sense but which have not been studied enough to prove. There may be currently ongoing studies, or there may be initial studies that indicate these, but which are not robust enough to prove one way or the other yet.
So, let's dig in. What are the benefits of L-Carnitine?
What We Know. There are, so far, two primary FDA-approved uses for L-Carnitine supplements.
First, it's used to treat the rare instance of L-Carnitine deficiency. This one seems obvious, right? If you don't have enough of a substance, and you can get that substance through a supplement, taking that supplement will treat your lack of that substance. The trick is, taking L-Carnitine to treat L-Carnitine Deficiency won't cure whatever is causing the deficiency. Usually, that's a genetic disease. Thus, if you have a genetic deficiency, you'll have to get your L-Carnitine from your diet on an ongoing basis, until science finds a way to cure genetic diseases.
Second, L-Carnitine can treat certain kinds of kidney disease side effects. In particular, when your kidneys are failing, you may end up on hemodialysis. Hemodialysis is, essentially, taking your blood out of your body, running it through a filter, and putting it back into your body. The filter cleans out sediment and other stuff your kidneys usually purge, but can't when they're failing. This has the side effect of also removing some of the L-Carnitine your body produces (and which is produced in the kidneys and liver, to begin with). Thus, taking L-Carnitine supplements helps restore the L-Carnitine you're removing through dialysis.
So, that's it for what has been studied, proven, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. What else is on the table, though?
What We Think. Now let's talk about what has some evidence, but is not proven or not approved as a medical treatment.
Chest pain. Some forms of chest pain, called angina, are caused by exercise. If you find that your chest hurts when you work out, you may have something called Cardiac Syndrome X. CSX is not caused by blocked arteries, the way other forms of heart failure usually are. Some studies have shown that L-Carnitine can help reduce this chest pain and improve exercise performance.
Congestive Heart Failure. CSF is caused by fluid build-up in the body. Some studies have shown that taking a supplement that contains both L-Carnitine and coenzyme Q10 can reduce the effects of congestive heart failure, and improve your ability to exercise if you have it.
Serious Kidney Disease. Also known as End-Stage Renal Disease, serious kidney disease has a lot of issues associated with it. As mentioned above, L-Carnitine is proven to work with kidney disease, except there's one caveat: the FDA has only approved intravenous (IV) L-Carnitine, NOT L-Carnitine taken by mouth as a supplement. However, it may also be effective in pill form. More study must be performed to know for sure.
Hyperthyroidism. When your thyroid is TOO active, it's called hyperthyroidism. This can cause issues like a racing heart, nervousness, or weakness. Some evidence suggests that L-Carnitine supplements can help with these issues.
Male Infertility. Some conditions can cause a man to fail to perform. L-Carnitine supplements have been shown to increase both sperm count and sperm motility (the activity levels of the sperm), particularly when taken with Acetyl-L-Carnitine supplements as well.
Myocarditis. Myocarditis is an inflammation/swelling of the heart, which is a potentially fatal condition. Taking L-Carnitine orally seems to reduce that risk of death.
PCOS. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome has a lot of negative effects. Typically, a drug called clomiphene is used to help women with PCOS conceive. In women where that medication doesn't work, additional L-Carnitine may help.
That's just about it for what we've found evidence for, but which hasn't yet been approved by the FDA as an official treatment, or studied enough to confirm.
What We Want. Finally, let's talk about the other effects that may be real, but which have not yet been studied. Keep in mind that there's not much evidence that these are true, but that doesn't mean that they're not true. It just means that no one has studied enough to determine one way or the other.
Burning Fat. Since the primary use in the body of L-Carnitine is converting stored fatty acids into energy for your cells, it stands to reason that taking more L-Carnitine will increase your body's ability to burn fat. The trick is, L-Carnitine doesn't convert stored fat into fatty acids, so you need something else, like exercise, to do that bit first. L-Carnitine then more efficiently burns those fatty acids for energy, reducing how much is then re-stored back as fat.
More Energy. L-Carnitine helps you convert fatty acids into energy, which naturally means you have more energy. You can then leverage that energy into working out, or simply use it throughout the day to keep you going. Think of it as a workout enhancer; it helps you burn more fat for more energy to work out harder and burn more fat.
That's more or less it. The idea, of course, is that you create a loop of more L-Carnitine fueling more energy, which fuels more exercise, which produces more energy with the L-Carnitine you're consuming.
Why Add L-Carnitine to Coffee?
If you want more L-Carnitine in your diet, you need to get it from somewhere. Some people recommend injections, but we don't. They're more invasive and they can be painful. Instead, consider taking L-Carnitine as a supplement.
Why, though, do people recommend adding it to your coffee? There are a few reasons.
First, you want your L-Carnitine to be available to your body as soon as possible each day. If you wait until you eat enough red meat or dairy to get it, you're not getting your energy boost until after dinner, and by that point, you're probably winding down your day. On the other hand, if you take L-Carnitine with your morning coffee, you'll be able to leverage that energy all day throughout the day.
L-Carnitine also synergizes with many of the nutrients found in coffee. Caffeine is already giving you energy, but L-Carnitine can help stabilize that energy and reduce the jitters you might experience. It also helps you use the energy you get from your morning pick-me-up more efficiently.
On top of that, L-Carnitine supplements as part of your coffee help give you energy in a way other than eating. If you eat food for breakfast, you'll get energy, yes, but much of that energy comes from the food itself, and excess energy is stored as fat for later. If you instead take L-Carnitine, the energy comes from stored fat, allowing you to lose weight instead of gain it.
Finally, some studies have shown that L-Carnitine works best when absorbed into the body in smaller amounts, alongside food, over time. Dissolving some into your coffee gives you a little bit every sip, rather than the one large dose that comes from a capsule. It's a more efficient way of taking the supplement.
So, should you start taking L-Carnitine, with your coffee or otherwise? We think so. It's a powerful nutrient that can benefit your body in many ways.
If you're interested in trying a coffee infused with L-Carnitine already, be sure to check out our Skinny Iced Coffee Blend!
Just make sure that, if you suspect yourself of having an actual L-Carnitine deficiency, you visit a doctor. A true deficiency can indicate a genetic disease or a problem with your kidneys or liver, which can be very dangerous to leave untreated.