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Betaine, or betaine anhydrous, is a nutrient known as a methyl donor [other such nutrients are S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), folic acid, and vitamins B6 and B12]. This means that betaine carries and donates methyl molecules in the body to help make chemical processes work. Donation of methyl molecules is involved in proper liver function and cellular reproduction. Betaine also helps the body make carnitine.
Studies suggest that betaine, along with the other nutrients listed above, helps reduce potentially toxic levels of homocysteine, a naturally occurring amino acid that, at high levels, is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. However, scientists don't yet know whether homocysteine has a directly harmful effect on arteries or is just a risk factor. Although studies show positive results, they have been small and limited. If you are at risk for heart disease, your doctor may test levels of homocysteine in your blood and suggest taking supplements of betaine and the other nutrients listed above.
Some people have a genetic condition called homocystinuria, in which homocysteine levels accumulate in the body. They are at much higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease as early as their 20s. Betaine supplements are used to lower levels of homocysteine in people with this inherited health condition.
Studies in rats suggest that betaine may help protect against fatty deposits in the liver, which can occur from chronic alcohol use, protein malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, and other causes. A few studies on people have also shown positive results, but the studies have been of varying quality. There's even some research to suggest that betaine protects against the brain damage induced by chronic alcohol consumption. More research is needed to determine whether betaine is beneficial to people with liver disease.
Dietary sources of betaine include beets, broccoli, grains, shellfish, and spinach.
Betaine supplements are manufactured as a byproduct of sugar beet processing. They are available in powder, tablet, and capsule forms.
Betaine is not recommended for children unless it is prescribed by your doctor to treat homocystinuria, a genetic condition.
Recommended doses of betaine vary depending on the condition being treated.
It is generally recommended that betaine be taken in conjunction with folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Most side effects from betaine are mild and include diarrhea, stomach upset, and nausea.
People with kidney disease should not take betaine, because it can increase total cholesterol levels when taken with folic acid and vitamin B6.
People who are overweight or obese should not take betaine without talking to their doctor, because it can raise total cholesterol levels.
In people with kidney disease, betaine may interfere with drugs taken to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.
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