You may have noticed that there is an ever-increasing number of amino acid supplements coming onto the market. These products promise a wide range of benefits – everything from boosting muscle growth and athletic performance to helping you sleep. But what are amino acids? And what do they do?
Here we take an in-depth look at amino acids and the crucial role they play in many critical biochemical processes. We outline the different types of amino acids, what each does, and where each comes from. We also explore some of the most popular amino acid products, how effective they are, and if you should be taking them.
What are amino acids?
As the key components of protein, amino acids are often called ‘the building blocks of life’. They account for about 20% of body mass, making up everything from bone and muscle to all our crucial organs. Amino acids are also the catalyst or fuel for many important processes within the body.
As such, amino acids are required to maintain good health and keep the body working correctly. These generally come from protein-rich foods, which the body breaks back down into amino acids. It can then use these as is or combine them to form new amino acids.
With this in mind, broadly speaking, there are three main types of amino acids:
- Essential: These are the nine amino acids that our body cannot naturally produce. As such, we need to take them in through dietary sources.
- Branched Chain: These are three essential amino acids that have a unique branched molecular structure. They are widely considered the most important amino acids for muscle growth and health.
- Non-Essential: These are the 11 other amino acids present in the human body, which the body can produce itself. These are further broken down into two key groups:
- Conditionally Essential: These are the six amino acids that the body can normally produce itself but may have issues supplying in certain situations. For example, sickness and stress can limit the supply of a number of otherwise non-essential amino acids.
- Dispensable: These are the five amino acids that the body is fully capable of producing itself.
The most important Amino Acids
While all amino acids play a critical role in maintaining good health and function, some are considered particularly. This is especially true when it comes to boosting athletic performance, with a handful of amino acids providing the greatest benefits. For example, the three Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are well known for their role in promoting muscle growth:
- Isoleucine plays a critical role in muscle metabolism, helping your muscles get the fuel they need to repair and grow. It also plays a role in blood clotting and the production of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body. What’s more, Isoleucine encourages the body to use glucose as fuel during exercise, helping manage energy and blood sugar levels.
- Leucine has been shown to improve strength and is considered to be the best amino acid for boosting muscle growth. This is mostly because it plays a key role in encouraging your body to break down protein. Leucine also helps the body produce growth hormones, control its insulin production, and repair after experiencing trauma or stress.
- Valine plays a key role in managing blood sugar and energy levels and fighting fatigue during workouts. It can also work as a stimulant and is believed to help increase focus and improve physical stamina. What’s more, an increased Valine intake has been shown to help manage a number of health conditions, like liver disease.
The six other essential amino acids also play critical roles in keeping the body in peak condition:
- Histidine plays a critical role in helping tissue cells grow and repair. Some research even suggests that it can help protect tissue from radiation and remove heavy metals from the body. Histidine also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and plays a critical role in developing the body’s immune function.
- Lysine has antiviral properties and has been shown to help boost the immune system. It’s also a crucial component of collagen, which is found in everything from bones and ligaments to nails and hair. What’s more, Lysine has been found to promote good mental health, helping reduce stress and anxiety.
- Methionine is another amino acid with antioxidant properties that helps protect the body from free radicals and remove heavy metals. It also helps the body break down fats, minimising the risk of fatty deposits and helping maintain a healthy liver. Methionine has also been shown to improve skin elasticity and make hair and nails stronger.
- Phenylalanine is a key component of other important amino acids, like the non-essential Tyrosine. As Tyrosine is linked to the production of important neurotransmitters, like dopamine and adrenaline, Phenylalanine is considered a key mood stabiliser. There is also some research suggesting it may be effective in helping manage the effects of depression.
- Threonine is another amino acid linked to the production of collagen and elastin. As there are high levels of it in the central nervous system, some research suggests it can also help reduce spasticity in MS patients. What’s more, Threonine is also linked to improved gut health, protecting the lining against stress and boosting overall immunity.
- Tryptophan is a component of serotonin, which is known as the ‘feel good’ chemical. As such, it plays a role in regulating mood, pain responses, and sleep patterns. Tryptophan is also a component of melatonin, which also helps regulate sleep cycles and energy levels.
There are also a couple of non-essential amino acids that deserve a little attention. While these are naturally produced by the body, they are so critical that some people choose to supplement them. These include:
- Arginine is most known for the role it plays in helping retain nitrogen. As nitrogen is key to breaking down and processing protein, it’s critical to muscle growth and repair. Arginine is also believed to provide a range of other benefits – from boosting the immune system to stimulating growth hormone production.
- Creatine is produced by the liver synthesising arginine, glycine and methionine. It’s mostly stored in muscle cells and has been linked to increased muscle growth and decreased recovery times. Creatine is also thought to boost energy levels, particularly during periods of intense activity (e.g. workouts).
- Cysteine is one of the body’s main sources of sulphur, which helps detoxify the body. As such, it plays a key role in keeping the body healthy and protecting it against harmful substances. Cysteine also helps the body absorb B-vitamins and is believed to play a role in regulating insulin production.
- Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body and plays a number of crucial roles. As it has both direct and indirect effects on memory and other important mental activities, it’s often called ‘brain food’. Glutamine also helps protect muscle mass during times of reduced caloric intake and has been shown to reduce sugar cravings.
Managing your Amino Acid intake
Generally speaking, the average person should be able to get all of their required amino acids from a healthy diet. This is particularly true for people with a diet rich in high-quality lean proteins – like eggs, poultry, fish, and dairy. For those on plant-based diets, getting sufficient amino acids will require a range of protein sources, like legumes, nuts, and grains.
However, if you’re a regular gym-goer or have specific health and fitness goals, you may require a higher amino acid intake. Specifically, you should look at increasing your intake of the amino acids shown to aid in muscle growth and recovery. This can be done by supplementing with:
- BCAAs: As they are widely considered the most important amino acids for muscle growth, BCAAs supplements are particularly popular. Most products will contain all three Branched Chain Amino Acids, often in equal doses. But, if you’re looking to really maximise your gains, we recommend a BCAA supplement with a higher level of Leucine – like MAX’S BCAA 10:1:1 powder.
- Carnitine: While technically not an amino acid, carnitine looks and acts like one and has become extremely popular in bodybuilding circles. This is because it is believed to increase energy levels and help reduce body fat. The optimal dose of carnitine should be calculated based on lean body mass but generally sits between 20 mg and 200 mg. If you’re interested in boosting your carnitine levels, check out MAX’S Acetyl-L Carnitine.
- Creatine: Because of its potential impact on focus and muscle gains, many serious lifters choose to supplement their natural creatine production. To boost the level of intramuscular creatine, this usually starts with a loading phase of around 20 g a day for five days. This then drops back to a maintenance dose of 3 g – 5 g per day. If you’re considering adding creatine to your supplement stack, we recommend MAX’S Creatine Monohydrate.
- Glutamine: If you’re restricting your caloric intake (e.g. you’re shredding), supplementing with Glutamine helps protect your lean muscle mass. Optimal dosing will depend on your goals but taking up 15 g a day could be beneficial. To maximise effectiveness, this should be spread out over three doses – one pre-workout, one post-workout, and one just before going to bed.
- Whey Protein: As a complete protein, whey protein is a great source of all nine essential amino acids. Increasing your total protein intake can also help supercharge your muscle gains or fat loss. If you’re looking for a new whey protein, check out MAX’S wide range of high-quality products.
As with any supplement, amino acids can become toxic if your intake is too great. As such, it’s important to make sure you are taking the right amount. Exactly how much this is will usually depend on the supplement, your goals, and your body size.