Carnitine is an amino acid your body needs to produce energy. Primarily, carnitine is used to transport long-chain fatty acids, your body’s main source of metabolic energy, to the mitochondria in your cells, the University of Illinois in Chicago explains. Important tissues such as your heart and major skeletal muscles rely heavily on proper carnitine function for their energy. Therefore, a low carnitine level can have serious consequences, such as heart arrhythmia and muscle degradation.
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Causes of Low Carnitine
There are several possible causes for carnitine deficiency, with inadequate intake of the foods containing carnitine as the primary cause. Vegetarians, people on fad diets and undernourished individuals are most at risk for not getting enough carnitine in their diet. Other people may have hereditary disorders that make it difficult for their bodies to use particular kinds of fat for energy, and enzyme deficiencies can make proper carnitine metabolism difficult. Excessive loss of carnitine may also result from diarrhea and diuresis or conditions that require hemodialysis.
Symptoms of Low Carnitine
The exact symptoms of carnitine deficiency and the age at which they appear depend mostly on the initial cause. However, given its importance to muscular function, carnitine deficiency can result in the breakdown and eventual death of muscles, the Linus Pauling Institute notes. Infants with low carnitine are especially susceptible to muscle degradation, manifesting initially as muscle pains and difficulty walking, crawling or moving the head. The cardiac muscle may also weaken, which can lead to fatigue, dizziness, chest pain and heart arrhythmia. Without treatment, this can lead to cardiac arrest or heart failure.
The early stage of carnitine deficiency can also lead to hypoglycemia, or excessively low blood sugar. This is usually indicated by irritability, fatigue, lethargy and seizures. Gastrointestinal function is also affected, leading to stomach upset.
Normally, your body is able to produce its own carnitine. However, when your needs exceed the natural rate of synthesis, you will need to get more carnitine from dietary sources or supplements, the Office of Dietary Supplements advises. Dairy products, such as cheese and milk, and red meat, such as beef and lamb, are the main sources of carnitine. Other foods including chicken, turkey, fish, leafy green vegetables, cereals, avocados, apples, nuts and bananas are alternative sources of this nutrient. However, since non-meat sources have less carnitine than red meat, intravenous and oral supplements are available to make up the difference.
Treatment of carnitine deficiency involves lifestyle changes, such as dietary alterations to address the lack of carnitine, and avoiding strenuous exercise and fasting, Merck Manual Professional explains. Your doctor may recommend an L-carnitine supplement to treat dietary deficiencies. Other patients may need additional supplementation with essential fatty acids and triglycerides. A diet that is low in fats and high in carbohydrates may be prescribed to patients who have problems metabolizing fatty acids.