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…