L-Carnitine For Vegetarians

A few months after I went full-on vegetarian, I started to notice that my energy levels were dropping.  I wrote it off as coming down with a cold, or stress, or poor diet, or a million other things. 

Eventually I couldn't ignore the problem.  I was sleeping 10 or 11 hours a night, and could barely keep awake during the day.  Just the thought of going to the grocery store after work filled me with despair and exhaustion.  Clearly there was A Problem.

I started with the obvious - protein and iron.  An adult woman needs somewhere around 40-60 grams of protein a day, and about 18mg of iron. 

But I had run the numbers, and I knew I was getting enough of both.  I was pretty good about eating eggs (7 g per egg) and cheese (7 g per ounce).  As for iron, it is found in many vegetarian foods including oatmeal, beans, and leafy greens.  But I was getting 18mg every day in my multivitamin, so that took care of that.

A month later and I was still having trouble with fatigue.  The firewood guy came and dumped a cord of firewood in my yard and all I could do was stare at it pitifully.  Really?  Stack a whole cord of wood myself?  It was something I did every year, but this year it seemed an insurmountable task.

And so it was that I hit upon a deficiency of L-Carnitine as the culprit.  It's not easy to research carnitine, because it's very popular with the weight lifting/power weight loss/"I want steroid results with legal chemicals" crowd.  Which means that any internet search will get quickly cluttered with vitamin sales and spam blogs.

Carnitine is not only a growth factor for muscles (thus its popularity with bodybuilders) it is also basically the conveyor belt that carries energy to the furnace of your body's cells.  Your body actually makes carnitine itself in your liver and kidneys, using the amino acids lysine and methionone, along with vitamin C. 

Lysine and methionone are both tricky elements for vegetarians.   These amino acids are found in legumes, and are what people mean when they say that beans and rice is a "complete protein." 
Unfortunately for me, I really don't like beans, and hardly ever eat them if I can help it. 

The best source of carnitine by weight is… red meat.  (Thus the "carn" part of "carnitine.")  I held an experimental Week Of Beef, and the results were dramatic.  By the second day I felt rested after "only" 8 hours of sleep, and I had enough energy after work to take care of a bunch of housecleaning chores I had been letting slide for far too long.

If you don't want to eat beef three times a day for the rest of your life (and who does?) luckily you can just buy L-Carntine as a separate vitamin supplement.  Most multivitamins do not include carnitine, and I think as vegetarians we haven't given enough attention to the topic of carnitine deficiencies. 

Photo credit: Flickr/stu_spivack

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VeganDave's picture


Perhaps you need to go vegan. The dairy is probably causing you problems with your body;'s ability to function properly. Also, you don not need to eat beans and rice in the same meal; as long as you eat 2 types of protein in 72 hrs your body will make a complete protein. Maybe soy or fake meats or vegan soy yogurt would be a good way for you to get beans and thus help your body efficiently make L-Carnitine.

"The availability of L-carnitine can vary depending on dietary composition. Onne study reports that bioavailability of L-carnitine in individuals adapted to low-carnitine diets (i.e., vegetarians) is higher than those adapted to high-carnitine diets (i.e., regular red meat eaters; 66%-86% versus 54%-72%)"

Rebouche CJ, Chenard CA. Metabolic fate of dietary carnitine in human adults: identification and quantification of urinary and fecal metabolites. J Nutr. 1991;121(4):539-546.