When it comes to reaching your athletic and weight-loss goals or keeping your body fit and your health optimized into your golden years, amino acid supplements are the one nutrient booster you don’t want to go without. Their impact on muscle, energy, and mind certainly benefit active individuals who want to maximize performance and strength gains, but these benefits extend to any individual looking to enhance wellness and safeguard against potential health issues now and in the future.
Research validates 10 impressive benefits of amino acid supplements:
- Improved athletic performance
- Increased endurance
- Greater strength
- Bigger muscles
- Superior fat burning
- Reduced fatigue
- More mental energy
- Faster recovery
- Decreased muscle soreness
- Better muscle energy
How Amino Acids Boost Performance, Strength, and Muscle Mass
Amino acids link together in unique arrangements to form specific proteins that serve different functions in the body. We need amino acids to build and repair muscles and tissues, and to make the chemicals our brains and vital organs need to function. One of the primary reasons to take amino acid supplements is the influence they have on muscle protein synthesis, or the building of new muscle protein.
Muscle Protein Synthesis and Turnover
The nine essential amino acids, which are the amino acids the body cannot make on its own and needs to get via diet or supplementation, are the key to stimulating muscle protein synthesis. In fact, essential amino acids are the only dietary macronutrients required for survival.
Muscle protein is in a constant state of turnover, meaning protein is being broken down and built back up continuously. When the balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown tips in favor of breakdown, you are losing muscle protein. When muscle protein synthesis is stimulated to a greater degree than breakdown, you are gaining muscle protein.
It just so happens that when you exercise, you increase the rate of muscle protein breakdown. Some of the amino acids released in the process of protein breakdown are oxidized to produce the energy needed for your muscles to contract. Amino acids that are oxidized are not available to help build new muscle protein.
The oxidation of amino acids is particularly problematic for the essential amino acids because they cannot be produced in the body. This is where amino acid supplements formulated with the appropriate blend of essential amino acids come in handy. When you take amino acid supplements before, during, and after exercise, you minimize the accelerated protein breakdown that would otherwise occur while you work out. Amino acid supplements help support a positive balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during exercise so that you can gain and maintain more muscle than you lose.
The synthesis of new muscle proteins replaces those damaged or metabolically degraded. Stimulating muscle protein synthesis is central to recovery from a workout and is the metabolic basis for improvements in muscle mass and functional capacity. Amino acid supplements improve the functional capacity of muscle by increasing muscle strength and mass and bettering muscle’s ability to metabolize glucose and fatty acids for energy in mitochondria.
Muscle Energy and Mitochondria
Mitochondria are the “power plants” of muscle. Most of the energy we need to perform a workout is in the form of ATP, which is mostly produced in muscle mitochondria. The more mitochondria per unit of muscle volume, the greater the capacity to produce ATP. Essential amino acids, particularly leucine, stimulate the production of new mitochondria, including the production of proteins inside the mitochondria (called enzymes) that process glucose and fatty acids for energy. A proportionately blended amino acid supplement will help increase the number of mitochondria in muscle, thereby augmenting the potential of muscle to generate ATP during exercise.
A small amount of energy is stored in muscle as creatine phosphate. Creatine is an amino acid that is produced by the liver, kidney, and pancreas. Creatine enables the muscle to store more energy as creatine-phosphate. Creatine phosphate is a phosphorylated creatine molecule that is a ready-to-go source of energy—no time required for its production! As a result, creatine is an ideal component of amino acid supplements for providing energy for workouts that involve sudden bursts of energy, such as lifting weights or doing sprints.
Muscle Blood Flow
Exercise requires increased delivery of oxygen and energy substrates to active muscles. To meet these needs, the heart pumps more blood per minute (increased cardiac output). Blood vessels in muscles dilate so that most of the increased blood pumped by the heart is routed to the muscle. Nitric oxide is the molecule responsible for the dilation of blood vessels. The amino acid citrulline is the most effective way to increase the rate of nitric oxide production and boost blood flow to the muscle. An amino acid supplement worth its weight in gold should include citrulline as a component of its formulation.
During a long workout the balance of blood concentrations of amino acid precursors of neurotransmitter synthesis can become altered, favoring increased serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter best known for causing a feeling of sleepiness and fatigue—definitely not what you want during a workout!
For this reason, you’ll want to supplement with an amino acid formula with a balance of essential amino acids that counters the normal increase in the precursor of serotonin (tryptophan). The ideal amino acid formula will inhibit the brain’s uptake of the amino acid tryptophan, and subsequently reduce serotonin levels.
Check the formulation carefully, however, because many amino acid supplements target serotonin but don’t also increase the amino acid precursor of dopamine, the major excitatory brain neurotransmitter. In order to boost mental energy so you can sustain focus during a workout, an amino acid supplement must decrease the ratio of serotonin to dopamine in the brain. It should be formulated to increase the brain’s uptake of the amino acid tyrosine so that dopamine levels also increase. This is one reason why amino acid supplements formulated with only branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) don’t give you all the benefits listed above. Compositions that rely entirely on the BCAAs to modulate serotonin (but not dopamine) production in the brain just can’t boost mental energy to as favorable of a degree.
The Best Amino Acid Supplement
When it comes to choosing the best amino acid supplement, I recommend a blend of eight of the nine essential amino acids. (Tryptophan is not necessary in a dietary supplement designed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and can contribute to feelings of fatigue during your workout.)
The ideal amino acid composition maintains an optimal balance of essential amino acids in the blood to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle protein breakdown. In addition to the eight essential aminos, an amino acid supplement should contain citrulline for boosting nitric oxide production and blood flow, and creatine to help maintain the energy stores of creatine-phosphate in the muscle so that your next workout can be completed effectively and you can recover from intense workouts quicker.
An amino acid supplement should also take electrolyte balance into account. Sweat contains sodium and potassium (called electrolytes because of their role in conducting the electrical signals that enable muscle to contract). Loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle cramps and eventually limit your ability to continue exercising. For this reason, you’ll want to take an amino acid supplement that contains both sodium and potassium. The absorption of electrolytes will be enhanced because the active uptake of amino acids from the intestine is coupled with sodium transport. Therefore, the combination of essential amino acids plus electrolytes results in greater absorption than electrolytes alone.