Amino acids act as building blocks. They’re the specific forms of protein which our bodies use for growth and repair — making them popular when building muscle. They’re also used to create hormones and neurotransmitters that send messages throughout our bodies. For this reason, people take amino acid supplements to enhance their athletic performance naturally but also balance or improve their mood.
There are different types of amino acids which have different properties and are found from different sources. These are: essential, conditionally essential, and non-essential amino acids.
The question is – how essential are they really when it comes to building muscle?
- What are ‘essential’ amino acids?
- Why take amino acid supplements?
- Different types of amino acid supplements
- What are the benefits of amino acid supplements?
- Who is suitable to take amino acid supplements?
- Amino acid dosage and timing
- Taking amino acids during or after exercise?
What are ‘essential’ amino acids?
There are three types of amino acids; essential, conditionally essential, and non-essential.
As the name suggests, essential amino acids cannot be synthesised by our bodies, therefore we have to consume them through other sources, such as food.
The essential amino acids include:
Leucine: used for protein synthesis, growth, and repair, as well as blood sugar control and wound healing.1
Isoleucine: used for wound healing, hormone synthesis, and stimulating the immune system.2
Lysine: responsible for tissue growth and repair as well as anti-viral actions.3
Methionine: supports detoxifying processes and healthy hair, skin and nails.4
Phenylalanine: helps to create other amino acids as well as providing structure and function to many proteins and enzymes.5
Threonine: helps to support the function of the nervous system as well as fat metabolism.6
Tryptophan: helps to regulate appetite, mood, sleep cycles, and pain in the body.7
Valine: a branched chain amino acid (BAA) that supports muscle growth and repair.8
Conditionally essential amino acids include (can be non-essential if made by the body in adequate amounts):
Arginine: supports healthy circulation and oxygenation of the body.9
Cysteine: supports health metabolism, detoxification, and protein synthesis.10
Glutamine: supports protein synthesis, muscle growth, and removal of waste.11
Tyrosine: can be made from phenylalanine; is essential for producing neurotransmitters like epinephrine and thyroid hormones.11
Glycine: crucial for the growth and repair of cells; helps create antioxidants.13
Ornithine: helps with liver health, detoxification, and waste removal.14
Proline: made from glutamine, supports protein growth and repair and immune system.15
Serine: essential for creating the membrane of healthy brain cells.16
Histidine (essential for children): crucial for tissue growth and repair and protection of nerve cells.17
Non-essential amino acids can be synthesised by our bodies in adequate amounts. They include:
Alanine: key for metabolism and providing energy for our muscles and brain.18
Aspartate: supports creation of other amino acids as well as proteins and hormones.19
Taurine: helps support heart and brain health and acts as an antioxidant.20
One thing which is worth noting is the fact that the body not might be capable of making enough of the ‘non-essential’ or conditionally amino acids. This can be due to external factors, such as illness, certain life stages, or toxins, which inhibit the ability to produce them in the quantities which we require. For this reason, no amino acids should be neglected and we should try to consume enough of each amino acid, essential or not.
Summary: The most important amino acids to pay attention to in your diet are the essential amino acids, which can’t be made by the body: leucine, isoleucine, valine, histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine and tryptophan.
Why take amino acid supplements?
Especially when it comes to the essential amino acids, we often do not get enough of them through diet alone.
They can be found in foods such as chicken, turkey, beef, pork and eggs, as well as dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. It can often be tough to consume enough of these foods daily, as they can not only be expensive but they are also unavailable to some people, such as vegetarians and vegans.
As previously mentioned, if the body cannot synthesise large enough quantities of the conditionally-essential amino acids, supplementation may also be necessary.
Simply put, if you do not consume enough of the essential amino acids through your diet, supplementation will be necessary. Likewise, if you cannot synthesise enough of the non-essential amino acids, then it will be necessary to supplement them also.
Different types of amino acid supplements
Amino acids can be supplemented in a couple of different ways. First of all, you can supplement amino acids in groups, such as essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).
These typically contain the essential amino acids in the following quantities: L Leucine (5g), L Valine (2.2g), L Lysine (2.2g), L Phenylalanine (1.8g), L Threonine (1.5g), L Isoleucine (890mg), L Histidine (710mg), L Methionine (500g), L Tryptophan (200mg).
Similarly, BCAA’s contain L Leucine (2g), L Isoleucine (1g), L Valine (1g) per serving. This is known as the 2:1:1 ratio. They can also be bought in a 4:1:1 ratio with 4g of L Leucine per 1g of L Isoleucine and L Valine.
The way BCAAs are different from the rest of the EAAs is the fact that they are metabolised in the muscles, rather than in the liver. This means that they can be used as an energy source during exercise and is why they can boast the benefit of reduced muscle breakdown. BCAA’s also make up 1/3 of your total muscle protein.
Summary: While some amino acids are made in our body (non-essential), others need to be consumed in our diet or supplement routine to have adequate amounts for optimal function.
Amino acid supplements
These can generally be supplemented on their own, rather than in a group. For example, you can purchase supplements which contain just Glutamine, Alanine, Carnitine, Taurine etc. Each boast their own benefits and are great if you wish to just supplement one or two amino acids into your diet, rather than all (or a few) of them.
Get more info on BCAAs here…
What are the benefits of amino acid supplements?
BCAA’s have been shown to aid the rate of protein synthesis
This is because they’re already broken down into the necessary amino acids that are required by our bodies in order to carry out protein synthesis. When the rate of this reaction increases, recovery times are shortened which means that you can achieve maximum muscle growth.
BCAAs can also reduce protein and muscle breakdown
Essentially what this means is the less protein is broken down, the more muscle can be built.
BCAA’s may help to reduce tiredness, since they inhibit the production of serotonin
The levels of serotonin often rise during exercise. Serotonin increases our perception of fatigue, meaning we will tire more throughout our workouts. Since BCAA’s reduce the amount of serotonin we produce, consequently we will be less fatigued. This means you can push harder in your workouts, building even more muscle.
BCAA’s can help to reduce muscle soreness the following day
This means you will be able to push just as hard on consecutive days following intense exercise.
Summary: Supplementing with amino acids, especially the BCAAs, can help you recover more quickly and feel stronger for your next workout.
Who are amino acid supplements suitable for?
Amino acids are required by everyone, simply put. However, supplementation is only recommended for anyone who does weight training. There has not been much evidence to suggest that supplementing with amino acids is beneficial for endurance athletes.
There has not been enough reliable information to suggest that BCAA’s are safe to supplement with when pregnant or breastfeeding, so if you are then it is best to avoid.
Additionally, supplementation among patients with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Branched-chain ketoaciduria is not recommended.
It’s also not recommended to take amino acid supplements within two weeks of surgery, since they could affect blood sugar levels.
Summary: Amino acid supplements are safe for any healthy individual, but they have not been approved for pregnancy/breastfeeding or other certain medical conditions.
Amino acids | Timing and dosage?
For BCAA’s, it’s recommended to take servings of 5g. These should be taken several times daily. Similarly, EAAs can be taken in servings of 15g, which can be taken 1-2 times daily.
When it comes to timing, things can get a little complicated. There are benefits of taking amino acids supplements before, during and after your workouts.
Taking Amino Acids during and after exercise
Studies have shown that taking BCAA’s during and after exercise can reduce the breakdown of your muscles, which is especially beneficial when cutting down on calories. These supplements may also help when you’re suffering with fatigue when training.
BCAA’s before exercise?
However, taking BCAA’s before training has been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), meaning you can train just as hard the next day without having to worry about aches and pains. This is because taking them pre-exercise causes Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine in the liver to be broken down, directing it to your muscles where protein synthesis occurs.
There has also been reported benefits of taking BCAAs in the evening, before you go to bed, however there is not as much evidence for this as there is for the other times.
The ideal combination is to take a serving of BCAAs before you work out, as well as a serving immediately after you work out. Some like to take them whilst they are in the gym too.
Summary: Taking amino acid supplements before or after exercise are two great opportunities to boost protein synthesis and the quality of your next workout.
Take home message
Amino acids are essential for our bodies to function properly, but we often do not get enough of them. Especially when weight training, it is necessary to supplement with them. The benefits of BCAAs and EAAs should not be ignored, as they can seriously boost the amount of muscle your can produce.
Remember, they aren’t a miracle cure. You should have a good training routine as well as have your meal plan in check; otherwise the results you will see will be minimal.