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Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Pulling A Fast One On You? – Part 1

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It seems these days that the building blocks of proteins, affectionally known as “amino acids”, are tiny little gold nuggets that bestow superhuman powers upon anyone lucky enough to stumble upon them in a sports gel, capsule, fizzy drink or cocktail. After all, these little guys are starting to get put by nutrition supplement manufacturers into just about everything, from your engineered pre-workout snack, to your during workout beverage, to your post-workout smoothie mix.

But why are amino acids so prevalent now?

And more importantly, do amino acids actually work?

Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Pulling A Fast One On You?

You’re about to find out, and have a bit of fun in the process.

Back in biology class, it was convenient to think of a muscle like a big Lego castle (or Lego pirate ship, depending on your tastes), and amino acids as all the little legos that made up the giant Lego structure (your muscle). Convenient, yes. Complete, no. The role of amino acids goes beyond building blocks – they are essential for the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, mental stabilization, and just about every function that takes place within the human body. So using the Legos-are-amino-acids example, a more appropriate analogy would be that you dump all the Legos out of the box and they self-assemble in a magic pirate ship, then float into the air and fly around the room shooting miniature cannon balls.

In other words, the function of amino acids goes far beyond simple “building blocks”.

In the nutrition supplement industry (when I use that word, it seems to denote big fat guys in black suits sitting around an oak conference table, but in reality, most of these folks are skinny athletes in white shoes and shorts), amino acid supplements fall into two basic categories: Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s).

In Part 1 of this two-part amino acids series, let’s review the first category: the EAA’s (do not pronounce this like a donkey “heehaw”. Just say the letters.)

Essential Amino Acids

Essential amino acids, as the name implies, are essential because they can’t be made by our bodies, like all the other amino acids. Instead, we have to get them from our diet. Have you ever heard of Private Tim Hall, AKA Pvt. Tim Hall? If you’re a biology or chemistry geek, you probably have, because he’s the pneumonic commonly used to remember the essential amino acids, which are Phenylanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Histidine, Arginine,Leucine and Lysine. Thanks Tim, we’ll send you a check if we ever win money in Biology Trivial Pursuit.

Anyways, let’s take a look at why the heck Pvt. Tim might do us good during exercise, starting with P.

Phenylalanine is traditionally marketed for it’s analgesic (pain-killing) and antidepressant effect, and is a precursor to the synthesis of norepinephrine and dopamine, two “feel-good” brain chemicals. This could be good because elevated brain levels of norepinephrine and dopamine may actually lower your “RPE” or Rating of Perceived Exertion During Exercise, which means you could be happier when you’re suffering hallway through a killer workout session or Ironman bike ride.

Valine, along with Isoleucine and Leucine, is a real player, because it is BOTH an Essential Amino Acid and a Branched Chain Amino Acid. Valine is an essential amino acid. It can help to prevent muscle proteins from breaking down during exercise. This means that if you take Valine during exercise, you could recover faster because you’d have less muscle damage. More details on that in the Part 2 of this article, which will focus on BCAA’s.

Threonine research is a bit scant. I personally couldn’t find much at all that explained why threonine could assist with exercise performance, but would hazard a guess that it is included in essential amino acid supplements because it is just that: essential. And many of the studies done on EAA’s just basically use all of them, rather than isolating one, like Threonine. For example, and this is a bit interesting for people who are masochistic enough to like working out starved, there is a significant muscle-preserving effect of an EAA + Carbohydrate solution ingested during training in a fasted state, and decreased indicators of muscle damage and inflammation. This basically means that if you popped some essential amino acids, even if you didn’t eat anything, you might not “cannibalize” as much lean muscle during a fasted workout session.

OK, sorry, I got sidetracked there.

Tryptophan is an interesting one. It is a precursor for serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that can suppress pain, and if you’re taking some before bed at night, even induce a bit of sleepiness. The main reason to take tryptophan would be to increase tolerance to pain during hard workouts, games or races. But studies to this point go back and forth on whether or not that actually improves performance.

Isoleucine, another BCAA/EAA combo, has some of the same advantages of Valine. More on BCAA’s Part 2.

Histidine, as the name implies, is a precursor to histamine, and actually has some antioxidant properties and plays a key role in carnosine synthesis. Looking back, that sentence I just wrote is not very user-friendly, and is pretty much just geek speak. Here’s a clarification: histamine could help you fight off the cell damaging free radicals you produce during exercise, and carnosine helps you get rid of muscle burn more quickly, and helps turn lactic acid back into useable muscle fuel. So hooray for histidine, it gets a gold star sticker.

Next is arginine, and if you’re reading this and you’re an old man who has relied on a little blue sill to have a happier time in the sac, you can thank arginine. Arginine helps with nitric oxide synthesis, and nitric oxide is a vasodilator that increases blood flow and could help with exercise capacity (in the case of the blue pill, for one specific body part). Most of the studies on arginine show that it really helps folks with cardiovascular disease improve exercise capacity, and like tryptophan, the studies go back and forth on whether it really helps with the athletic population – but it has a great deal of promise.

Leucine is yet another BCAA/EAA combo. Yes, we will get to BCAA’s in Part 2.

Lysine is something my Mom used to take to help cold sores that she got from eating citrusy foods. That’s basically because it helps heal mouth tissue. But more importantly for exercising individuals, lysine may actual assist with growth-hormone release, which could vastly improve muscle repair and recovery, although if you take lysine in it’s isolated form, the amount you’d have to take to increase growth hormone release would cause gastrointestinal distress, or as I like to it, sad poopies. But combined with all the other essential amino acids, there may be a growth hormone response in smaller doses, and there is some clinical evidence that essential amino acid supplementation could stimulate growth hormone releasing factors.

That about wraps it up for essential amino acids.

The only thing I didn’t mention is that the EAA’s have a bit of an insulin and cortisol increasing effect. Before you draw back in shock and go flush all your essential amino acids down the toilet because you heard insulin and cortisol make you fat, remember that both insulin and cortisol are crucial (in smaller amounts) for the “anabolic process”, or the growth, repair and recovery of lean muscle tissue. The amount you get in essential amino acids is far different than the stress and insulin/cortisol response you get from eating a pint of ice cream while you drink whisky and work on an all-night project for work.

Not that I eat ice cream and drink whisky that often. But for now, I’ll put aside the chocolatey spoon and shot glass, stop writing, and let you sit back and absorb the information I’ve presented in this article. Don’t you feel all warm and geeky?

Questions so far? Leave them below! Unless you think I made a glaring scientific error, in which case you can shove it. Just kidding, leave your comments below, including the critical ones.

Part 2 coming Friday…

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25 Responses to “Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Pulling A Fast One On You? – Part 1”

  1. Becky H says:

    I read part two over at Everymantri.com, and I had a question about timing and how much for taking each of both the EAAs and BCAAs. I currently take about 1000mg of BCAAs post workout (anything longer than 1 hr or a hard effort) Is that considered a sufficient amount? Would EAAs be taken at the same time, or would it be beneficial to take the two separately. Great articles, thanks!

  2. Becky H says:

    Exactly what I was looking for, thanks!

  3. Bob G. says:

    Do recommend this type of supplimentation for long and slow workouts? I'm training for a 1/2 marathon and our long runs are typically 2 hours and are at a slower pace (1st 1/2 marathon).

  4. RCH says:

    Is there any reason you couldn’t take a complete liquid amino acid complex supplement (before, during and/or after) that has all the BCAA and EAA in it? Since BCAA are part of the EAA group why take them separately?

    FYI – Bragg’s makes a nice spray amino acid that works well as an alternative to salad dressing.

  5. RCH says:

    Bragg’s aside – I too use it as a food alternative only and not necessarily as a supplement for getting my complete AA’s.

    There are complete AA liquid (or pill) supplemented with both the BCAA and EAA in them. Any reason you couldn’t just take that kind of supplement rather than trying to take them separately? I generally take this kind of ‘complete’ AA in the AM before a fasted workout to preserve muscle (and help build post workout). Should I be taking BCAA and EAA separately? I do a lot of HIIT and Weights.

    Thanks as always for your excellent information

  6. What should I be looking for in the supplement. Other than the MAP supplement that you recommended there must be others and I'd like to know what to look out for and what to avoid?

  7. Mer says:

    Have you ever factored in on all the Bragg's controversy over soy, sodium and how it's made? There are so many arguments raging out there that I've just decided to avoid it completely.

    • People equate the glutatamic acid in it to MSG, which is not technically true. they're chemically different HOWEVER I'm not convinced that there couldn't be some heavy processing with Bragg's that may form MSG, so I need to research this. Also, some people throw a fit over the HCL used to neutralize the soy, but your stomach is chock full of HCL. Finally, I *do* agree that soy should be consumed in moderation, and like any processed food, Bragg's does have preservatives and has to use heat, pressure and chemicals in it's treatment. But ultimately, it's a better protein source than the average soy sauce. However, there may be better alternatives. I'll look into this, and thanks for brining it up.

  8. [...] If you missed Part 1 of this article series on the tiny, possibly over-hyped protein building blocks called “amino acids”, you can read “Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Pulling A Fast … [...]

  9. [...] damage, and they also help maintain higher blood levels of amino acids, which, if you recall from Part 1, can make you feel happier even when you’re suffering during exercise.  So as you may have [...]

  10. Jay P says:

    Are there benefits to Methionine? I didn't see it in this article. Thanks much, great overview!

    • Yes, I missed methionine. The body uses methionine to make a sulfur compound abbreviated, SAMe, which is made from methionine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP). SAMe is a methyl donor in a ton of different biochemical reactions, including detoxification of metabolic byproducts and formation of neurotransmitters, cartilage, and glutathione (glutathione is a potent antioxidant).

  11. SERGIO says:

    i am takink amplified creatine every day and taking map amino acids 30 mins before working out . am i doing this right. i work out bout 4 days a week.

  12. Sonya says:

    I have a question, I am limited to impact because I have health problems. The only thing I'm currently cleared to do from the Dr. is to swim, bike on a recubent bike about 40 minutes, and do light weight training. In order to help me medically feel better I need to lose 30lbs. Is this too light of a workout for amino acids? Will amino acids still help me too?

  13. Salah says:

    I know this is 4 months after, but I have a quick question. I am currently working out (weights) 5 days a week as hard as I can, but I'm not breaking a sweat for some reason. I'm still a beginner which may be why. Anyway, I take a whey protein shake after the workout, and I want to start taking amino acids. I also take a optimum nutrition multi vitamins for men, and another protein shake at night after a small at home workout. Should I start take optimum nutrition amino acids? If so, when? Before or after my intense workout at the gym?

    Thanks!

  14. [...] If you enjoyed this infographic, you may also like the following articles: [...]

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