For years betaine was an obscure supplement, and when it was used it was used in the form of betaine hydrochloride or betaine HCL. Betaine HCL is used to supplement the natural acid production that occurs in the stomach. Hydrochloric acid produced in the stomach is important for the initial breakdown of protein into amino acids. When protein is consumed, it goes to the stomach or gastric mucosa, and promotes the activity of a protein-digesting enzyme called pepsin. Pepsin, in turn, promotes the release of HCL in the stomach. Both of these convert whole-food proteins into polypeptides or large amino acid chains. The rest of protein digestion occurs in the small intestine, where other protein-digesting enzymes convert the polypeptides into amino acids, the end product of protein digestion. The HCL in the stomach is required for the uptake of other nutrients besides protein, such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium (one form of supplemental calcium, calcium citrate, does not require acid for absorption), and other nutrients. As people age, the production of stomach acid declines, and this can adversely affect the uptake of nutrients, which leads to medical problems. Indeed, since stomach acid is required for the initial uptake of B12, older people who lack sufficient HCL release can wind up with a B12 deficiency, which can mimic dementia.
Betaine HCL supplements were not used for betaine activity, but rather for the HCL activity. A few self-styled nutrition "experts" wrote articles claiming that many people didn't secrete sufficient HCL to properly digest protein, which led to the popularity of betaine HCL supplements for a brief time about 40 years ago. In truth, under normal circumstances, the body produces an abundance of HCL from the parietal cells that exist in the gastric mucosa or lining of the stomach. The body protects itself from the release of this potent HCL by having a mucous layer in the stomach. The mucus layer is produced from prostaglandins, fat-like substances synthesized from fatty acids. When you take drugs, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen is one example), you inhibit the prostaglandins that produce the protective gastric mucosa layer and open yourself up to stomach lining damage and pain. This, however, is more of a problem when chronic high doses of the drugs are used, not when used for an occasional pain relief purpose.
In more recent years some of the nutritional benefits of betaine itself have emerged. Indeed, some interesting recent studies that will be discussed later suggest that betaine could be an effective ergogenic aid. Another name for betaine is trimethylglycine, which reflects the structure of betaine. It consists of the amino acid glycine attached to three methyl groups. This inclusion of three methyl groups in the betaine structure provides a number of vital health benefits related to the function of methyl groups in the body. Other nutrients that contain methyl groups include vitamin B12, folic acid, and . . .