Amino Acids | Amino Acid Benefits
What Are Amino Acids & What Do Amino Acids Do?
If you haven’t heard already, amino acids are the “building blocks” of all proteins, whereby in the body all proteins and muscle tissues are formed through a unique sequence of 21 different amino acids. In terms of chemical structure, amino acids are characterised by what’s referred to as an amino group- with a nitrogen atom being the basis of this group.
The presence of a nitrogen atom makes amino acids different from other nutrients we receive in the diet such as carbohydrates, and it is for this reason that amino acids are the only components that are capable of forming tissues, organs, muscles, skin and hair.
Now when most people think of protein they automatically think of muscle and bodybuilding- but amino acids are important components of the diet for all individuals- especially those who participate in any form of physical activity. Amino acids can typically be separated into three categories: Essential, semi essential and non- essential.
Essential Amino Acids
“Essential amino acids”… what exactly is meant by “essential”? Being essential, means these amino acids cannot be produced and synthesised by the body alone, and as a result they must be consumed through the diet and in our food. There are 9 essential amino acids, which includes the famous BCAA’s.
Leucine, Iso-Leucine and Valine
Of the 9 essential amino acids, 3 are sub categorised as branched chain amino acids. These three amino acids are Leucine, Iso- Leucine and Valine. BCAA’s have a chemically unique structure when compared to other essential amino acids and it is for this reason that they give rise to a series of chemically specific properties. When compared to other amino acids, BCAA’s are absorbed by the body at a faster and higher rate, whereby there absorption does not occur in the stomach- in fact BCAA’s are delivered directly to and absorbed by the muscle in need. To find out more on BCAA’s Check out our Article: BCAA’s | What are Branched Chain Amino Acids?.
Other essential Amino Acids
The other remaining essential amino acids are hisitidine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and lysine which are essential in the body for a series of physiological functions.
Histidine is an aromatic amino acid which has a series of vital functions in the body, including being involved in haemoglobin synthesis, the functioning of the immune system and tissue repair. Histidine is an important amino acid in individuals recovering from illness and during periods of growth.
Lysine is an amino acid that plays a significant part in the functioning of our immune systems. Not only this but lysine can work together with other semi essential amino acids to synthesise proteins such as collagen to keep our skin, hair and nails healthy.
Tryptophan is an aromatic amino acid which is characterised by an indole functional group. This amino acid has a series of functions in the body- especially within the nervous system as a chemical messenger. Unlike other amino acids, L-typtophan is not soluble in water and is actually resistant to heat- meaning not a lot of it is lost through processing.
Methionine is a sulphorus amino acid (it contains a sulphur atom) which is a precursor of other amino acids such as taurine. This amino acid has a series of functions in the body, whereby it’s antioxidant properties can protect us and inhibit the action of damaging substances in the body. This amino acid also plays a role in the building of proteins and secretion of various hormones including adrenaline and melatonine.
Phenylalanine is a non polar amino acid which possesses a benzyl side chain known to have anti depressant effects. This amino acid plays a role in the production of dopamine and adrenaline.
This amino acid is a polar molecule that when metabolised is converted into pyruvate, playing a role in the production of glucose and ATP energy.
Non Essential Amino Acids
Non essential amino acids are those which can be synthesised by our bodies. So… “if they are made by the body why would we need to consume extra amino acids?” Good question- Well, when exercising, after carbohydrates are used as energy, the body looks for other sources of fuel. Amino acids can be used as fuel by the body in order to provide our muscles with an adequate supply of muscles during exercise. However, often enough the body cannot produce amino acids at a quick enough rate to meet the increased physical demands of exercise- and so we need to consume more amino acids- whether they are essential or not, through the diet.
Alanine is on of the simplest amino acid in terms of chemical structure which is classified as a non-polar amino acid. In the body alanine plays a key role in the glucose- alanine cycle between the liver and the body’s tissues. In simple terms, this amino acid reacts at the tissues to generate pyruvate and then glucose as form of fuel.
Glycine is the smallest of amino acids which is related in the formation of collagen, along with proline and lysine. Not only this, but Glycine also plays a role as a neurotransmitter within the spinal cord, brainstem and retina.
This amino acid has roles within the urea cycle in the body and also participates in a process called glucogenesis (the metabolic pathways that produces glucose sugar). Not only this, but Aspartic acid also acts as a neurotransmitter to stimulate specific receptors in the nervous system.
Asparagine is required in our nervous systems and plays an important role in the synthesis of ammonia.
Semi Essential Amino Acids
Semi essential amino acids- how can something be “kind of” essential right? Well these amino acids CAN be produced by the body, however under certain circumstances the amount produced by the body is not enough for regular physiological functioning- in particular illness and during intense training.
Serine is a proteinogenic amino acid which has a series of biological functions in the body. Serine is impotant in metabolism, enzyme reactions, and brain signalling.
Arginine has a series of functions in the body including being a precursor of nitrogen oxide, reducing the healing time of injuries, quickening the repair time of damaged tissues and also helping to reduce and improve blood pressure.
Tyrosine is a proteinogenic amino acid that plays a role in cell signalling.
This amino acid has exceptional rigidity due to its chemical structure, which is used to produce collagen needed to maintain hair, skin and nails.
Ornithine has a key part in the urea cycle and is also thought to prevent exercise fatigue. The urea cycle is a cycle of biochemical processes that produces urea to remove ammonia from the body.
Glutamine is one of the most popular semi essential amino acid amongst athletes, which has functions in the body of regulating acidity in the kidneys, creating cellular energy and contributing to muscle anabolism.
Cysteine plays a role within enzyme reactions in the body and is also thought to take part in metal binding and be a precursor for specific antioxidants.
The Benefits of Amino Acids
Amino acids really are a huge part of our body and the processes that go on every day. Maintaining the right balance of amino acids through supplementation has been shown to have a list of endless benefits from promoting muscle growth to aiding improving our immune system function.
1. Muscle Anabolism, Prevent Muscle Fatigue & Aid Muscle Recovery
The biggest benefit of supplementing with amino acids is the ability of these components to contribute to muscle anabolism, helping to recover muscles and prevent muscle fatigue.
Six amino acids are metabolised in resting muscle- leucine, isoleucine, valine, asparagine, aspartate, and glutamate. These amino acids support numerous metabolic processes, ranging from the fundamental role as substrates for protein synthesis to metabolic roles as energy substrates and precursors for glutamine and alanine.
During the first ten minutes of exercise a reaction called the alanine amino transferase reaction is estabilished in order to maintain high levels of specific amino acids during training. When the intermediates produced in this reaction are used- muscles can enter a state of fatigue. However, Glutamine has a series of functions in the body, whereby it is used in the muscle as an important fuel, therefore supplementing with glutamine can increase muscle energy and has been claimed in a study by Wagenmaker (1998) to play a central role in the energy metabolism of the exercising muscle.
This benefit of amino acid supplementation makes them not only ideal for body builders but also for other individuals such as runners, sprinters and people taking part in sports.
Not only this, but in a study by Rasmussen et al (2000) an experiment was designed to determine the response of muscle protein to the consumption of amino acids. 6 men and women were subject to receive a treatment drink containing 6g of essential amino acids or a placebo drink 1 hour after resistance training. In those who consumed amino acids there was an increase in the amino acid phenylalanine- which was not shown in those who consumed the placebo. This increase produced an anabolic response in muscles, whereby the study concluded that amino acids can stimulate muscle protein anabolism and muscle protein synthesis.
Additionally, in a review by Layman (2003) it was stated that increased concentrations of leucine has the potential to stimulate muscle protein synthesis during catabolic conditions associated with food restriction or after exhaustive exercise.
2. Weight Loss
Amino acids are not just beneficial for those looking to build lean muscle and recover muscle, they have also been shown to support weight loss. For instance, in a pair of human weight loss trials the weight and body composition of individuals subject to consume either a diet high in amino acids or low in amino acids was monitored. After 16 weeks it was found that the group consuming more amino acids lost significantly more body fat and less lean body mass than those in the other group, whereby overall data suggested that a diet with increased protein, increased amino acids and reduced carbohydrates allows for a greater weight loss and body fat, while sparing body protein.
Diabetes is a condition whereby the body is unable to regulate blood sugar levels and secrete insulin efficiently. An example of this is when we consume carbohydrates and the body’s glucose levels rise. Being diabetic means we cannot secret insulin efficiently to lower levels back down to normal, resulting in a condition called hyperglycaemia. Amino acids supplementation has been shown to have benefits for blood sugar levels, for example arginine is a precursor of nitrogen oxide, a transmitting substance which has a direct influence on insulin sensitivity, making it of great importance for the sensitivity of the body’s cells towards insulin.
4. Inflammation and Arthritis
Another benefit of amino acids is they can reduce the effect of inflammation in the body. For example, in a study by Thomas and West (1973) it was stated that amino acid esters and sulphur containing amino acids including cycstine and methionine were effective as anti inflammatory agents that could reduce the effects oedema, anaphylactic shock and even act to reduce inflammation and lead to improvements in adjuvant-induced arthritis.
5. The Immune System
Even though this may be new news to you, the deficiency of dietary protein or amino acids has long been known to impair immune function and increase the susceptibility illness and disease. For example, in a scientific review by Peng et al (2007) findings from a combination of recent studies showed that amino acids- Arginine, glutamine and cysteine in particular, play important roles in the immune system and immune system response through a series of different mechanisms. For example, in the body these amino acids can take part in the activation of various lymphocytes, natural killer cells and macrophages, interfere with the cellular redox state, gene expression and lymphocyte proliferation; as well as effecting the production of antibodies, cytokines and other cytotoxic substances. Not only this, but this study also concludes that there is expanding evidence to support that supplementation with specific amino acids can enhance immune system status, acting to reducing morbidity and mortality.
It is thought in recent studies that supplementation with amino acids can actually increase fertility levels. For example in one study a total of 132 men with impaired fertility received an amino acid micronutrient supplement for a period of three months. As a control, a group 73 sub-fertile men were given a placebo. It was found that all values represented a significant improvement in fertility in comparison with the control group. Within six months of completing the study, a total of 34 pregnancies were reported associated with men who took the micronutrient supplement.
Amino Acid Supplements
When it comes to supplementation if you’re getting all your nutrients through diet then amino acid supplements may not be required. However, during exercise it is important to remember the body’s demand for amino acids is vastly increased, therefore if your exercising a lot and need to build muscle, recover muscle or lose weight an amino acid supplement is often required.
Amino Acid Powders
Amino acid powders come in a range of different flavours and can be easily added to your favourite juice or plain water.
Amino Acid Tablets
Amino acid tablets are ideal for individuals who are on the go and need a quick way to get their daily dose of amino acids.
When to Take Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acid supplements are best taken first thing in the morning, pre workout, post workout and before bed in order to limited muscle fatigue and maximise muscle anabolism and recovery.
A Take Home Message
Hopefully this article has cleared up your understanding about amino acids and answered your question “do I need amino acid supplements?”. Amino acids are vital during exercise and if often enough the amount we consume through the diet is not enough to meet the body’s demands. Supplementing with amino acids can help prevent injury and aid you on your fitness goals.