Is L-Carnitine Something You Need for PCOS?
PCOS is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The more you understand about each piece, the better you can solve your own puzzle. It may be that l-carnitine is one of those puzzle pieces.
I'm bringing this to your attention because Pamukkale University in Turkey reported that normal-weight women with polycystic ovarian syndrome have carnitine levels in the blood about 50% lower than other women.
The researchers also found an association between low carnitine levels and insulin resistance and higher levels of male hormone production. As you probably know, insulin resistance is thought by many to be the primary cause of polycystic ovary syndrome. Insulin resistance can cause the ovaries to over-produce male hormones, thus leading to many of the symptoms you're experiencing.
There are no other studies that I know of regarding carnitine levels and PCOS. But it's easy to imagine that overweight women with PCOS are also low in carnitine.
It's not entirely clear why carnitine may be lower in PCOS women. The question before us is, does it really matter?
Why L-Carnitine Matters for PCOS
L-carnitine is an amino acid, which is the name for a large class of molecules that perform vital functions in your body. L-carnitine is partly synthesized by your body and partly obtained from the diet. It is also available as a nutritional supplement.
Carnitine is required for the efficient production of energy. That's one reason why so much carnitine is concentrated in your heart muscle, which needs to continually produce energy in order to keep beating. If carnitine levels drop too much, risk of a heart attack is much increased.
It's also a cofactor in your ability to metabolize glucose (blood sugar), and it acts as an antioxidant (a good thing!).
Carnitine is a co-factor in your ability to burn fat. It helps to move fats into little furnaces inside your cells called mitochondria, which convert fat into energy.
As fats are burned in the mitochondria, metabolic "sparks" are thrown off, which are called ROS ("reactive oxygen species"). It's like when you have a fire in your fireplace. Sometimes sparks or little hot coals spit out from the fire and burn little holes in your carpet. To prevent this, you put up a fire screen so most of the sparks can't reach the carpet.
A similar situation exists in your cells and tissues. Metabolic fires need to burn efficiently and in a controlled fashion. Even so, some ROS is created, which damages cells and tissues. But your body has its own set of fire screens. They are called "antioxidants".
Carnitine appears to act as an antioxidant; it's part of your metabolic fire screen.
An interesting German study has shown that carnitine may aid scalp hair growth.
Carnitine also appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Pamukkale University study is the first indication I've seen that women with PCOS have carnitine levels substantially lower than "normal" women do.
Is this a problem for you? Do you need more carnitine? I don't know. More research is definitely needed. However, taking a carnitine supplement offers potential benefits with no known risks.
Anything you can do to reduce insulin resistance and tissue damage is worth considering.
See Related Articles
Fenkei SM et al, Serum total L-carnitine levels in non-obese women with polycystic ovary syndrome, Hum Reprod. 2008 Jul;23(7):1602-6.
Mingorance C et al, Critical update for the clinical use of L-carnitine analogs in cardiometabolic disorders, Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2011; 7: 169176
Sachan DS et al, Decreasing Oxidative Stress with Choline and Carnitine in Women, J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Jun;24(3):172-6.
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