by Ben Greenfield
They're the new darling of the supplement industry.
They're purported to give massive amounts of clean energy, muscle repair and recovery, neurotransmitter precursors, better performance when in ketosis and much more – all without ingesting barely a single calorie.
Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Eckimov all used a regimen of them during the Tour de France to stay highly anabolic during their brutal multi-day cycling race.
But they're also vastly misunderstood, misused and tossed by many supplement manufacturers willy-nilly into everything from pre-workout boosters to endurance formulas to recovery powders – unfortunately without much of a thought as to ratios, balances, amounts, effects on blood sugar or other crucial considerations that affect your health and your wallet.
If you hadn't guessed already, I'm talking about amino acids, and it seems these days that these teeny-tiny building blocks of proteins are viewed as precious gold nuggets that bestow superhuman powers upon anyone lucky enough to stumble upon them in a sports gel, capsule, fizzy drink or other health cocktails.
But why are amino acids so prevalent now as the new darlings of the supplement industry?
And more importantly, do amino acids actually work any better or different than, say, whey protein powder or eggs or a steak?
And of course, when it comes to your hard-earned dollars and which supplements you “prioritize”, do amino acids really help you exercise or function… or are nutrition supplement companies pulling a fast one on you?
You're about to find out and have a bit of educational fun in the process.
How Amino Acids Work
Let's start by taking a trip down memory lane.
When I took my freshman level biology class at the University of Idaho, my professor described to a group of us bright-eyed but informed newbies that a muscle was a bit like a big Lego castle (or Lego pirate ship, depending on your toy preferences), and then described amino acids as all the little Lego parts that made up the giant Lego structure of your muscle.
Convenient explanation? Yes.
Complete explanation? Not exactly.
See, the role of amino acids goes way beyond being Lego-like building blocks. Amino acids are actually essential for the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, mental stabilization, and just about every function that takes place within your body.
So, using the “Legos-are-like-amino-acids” example, a more appropriate analogy would be that you dump all your 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 at pesky flies, fixing holes in the drywall of your house, and then tucking you into bed for a refreshing night of deep sleep. In other words, they do quite a bit more than just building the ship, building the castle or building the muscle.
As a matter of fact, the function of amino acids goes far beyond being simple “building blocks”, and that's why just about any amino acid imbalance or deficit can cause significant negative physiological effects.
In the nutrition supplement industry – which you can feel free to imagine as a bunch of big fat corporate executives in pinstripe suits clustered around a thick, oak conference table or as skinny, spandex-clad athletes in white lab coats, tennis shoes and geeky shorts (it's actually a mix of the two) – amino acid supplements fall into two basic categories: Essential Amino Acids (EAA's) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA's).
And trust me, there's plenty of confusion about the difference between EAA's and BCAA's and plenty of critical mistakes made by the supplement industry when tossing either into your precious supplements. So let's begin by addressing the first category: EAA's (and by the way, using the acronym like I do will make you seem super smart if you hang around any bros at the gym).
Essential Amino Acids
Essential amino acids, as the name implies, are essential because they can't simply be made by your body like all the other amino acids can. Instead, you have to get EAA's from your diet or other exogenous sources.
Essential amino acids are also known as “indispensable amino acids”, and are basically an amino acid that cannot be synthesized de novo (from scratch) by an organism, and thus must be supplied in that organism's diet. The nine amino acids humans cannot synthesize are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine.
Six other amino acids are considered conditionally essential in the human diet, meaning their synthesis can be limited under special conditions, such as prematurity in the infant or individuals in severe catabolic distress (e.g. you decided to do Crossfit Murph with a weighted backpack, twice). These six are arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine. Five other amino acids are dispensable in humans, meaning they can actually be synthesized in your body. These five are alanine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid and serine.
OK, I realize that's quite a mouthful, so let's turn to a handy mnemonic device to help you sort all this out and be that person who can, unlike 99% of the population, actually interpret the label of an amino acids supplement. Have you ever heard of Private Tim Hall, AKA Pvt. Tim Hall? If you're a biology or chemistry geek, you probably have, because his name is the mnemonic commonly used to remember these essential amino acids, which are, once again…
Phenylanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Methionine, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine and Lysine.
Get it? PVT Tim Hall? I knew you were a smart cookie.
Thanks, Private Tim. We'll send you a check if we ever win the jackpot in Biology Trivial Pursuit.
Anyways, let's take a look at why the heck good ol' Pvt. Tim might do us benefit, starting with P.
P: Phenylalanine is traditionally marketed for its 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 halfway through a killer workout session, an Ironman bike ride, an obstacle race, or any voluminous or intense event. It is also needed for the formation of our metabolism-regulating thyroid hormones.
V: Valine, along with Isoleucine and Leucine, is a real player because it is BOTH an Essential Amino Acid and a Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA – more on those pesky amino acids later). 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 below, when we delve into BCAA's. It is also involved in stimulating the central nervous system, regulating blood sugar levels, and with normal growth and development.
T: Threonine research is a bit scant. Its main role is to help maintain the balance of protein within the body, making it essential for normal growth and development. Threonine is required to produce the amino acids serine and glycine. Glycine has been getting a lot of attention lately as research has uncovered its ability to promote muscle growth and inhibit muscle loss, its role in collagen production which repairs and protects the joints, ligaments, and tendons, its role in repairing the digestive tracts, its role in the formation of glutathione, its regulation of the nervous system, and in aiding restful sleep.
T: 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, it even induces 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. Tryptophan is also needed to manufacture vitamin B3, which assists with blood sugar regulation, prevents free radical damage, and prevents the build-up of cholesterol.
I: Isoleucine, another BCAA that has some of the same advantages of Valine. Again…more on BCAA's coming in a sec.
M: Methionine helps your body process and eliminate fat. It contains sulfur, a substance that is required for the production of the body’s most abundant natural antioxidant, glutathione. Your body also needs plenty of methionine to produce two other sulfur-containing amino acids, cysteine and taurine, which help the body eliminate toxins, build strong, healthy tissues, and promote cardiovascular health. Methionine is a “lipotropic”, which means it helps your liver process fats, prevents accumulation of fat in the liver and ensures normal liver function, which is essential for the elimination of toxins from your body. Methionine also supports liver function by regulating glutathione supplies – glutathione is needed to help neutralize toxins in the liver.
H: Histidine, as the name implies, is a precursor to histamine, and actually has some antioxidant properties and plays a key role in carnosine synthesis. What does that mean, exactly? 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. Interestingly, though histidine is often listed as “essential,” it is not technically essential because when you take an EAA supplement, the levels of histidine in your blood will rise within one hour. But Tim and biology professors worldwide might be pissed if we abbreviate Tim Hall to Tim All, so we'll roll with the mnemonic for now.
A: Next is arginine, and if you're reading this and you're an old man who has relied on a little blue pill called Viagra to have a happier time in the sack, 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 also helps folks with cardiovascular disease improve exercise capacity.
L: Leucine is yet another BCAA that supports muscle building. It also helps to maintain the nitrogen balance and energy supply within the body… Yes, as I keep promising, we will get to BCAA's very soon.
L: 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 actually 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 call 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. It is also used in the development of antibodies and has important antiviral properties, both of which help support a healthy immune system.
OK, that almost wraps it up for good ol' Private Tim Hall.
The only thing I didn't mention is that the EAA's have a bit of an insulin and cortisol increasing effect, which confuses some people as to why EAA's would be good. But 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 and stressed, 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.
In addition, the amount of these hormones you get in essential amino acids is far different than the stress and insulin and cortisol response you get from, say, doing burpees with your mother-in-law while eating a pint of ice cream smothered in whiskey as you work on an all-nighter project for work.
In fact, there is a significant muscle-preserving effect of essential amino acids supplements when ingested, especially during training in a fasted state or ketotic state, and this includes 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 wouldn't “cannibalize” as much lean muscle during a fasted workout session, a long intermittent fast, a bout of ketosis, or a marathon, Ironman triathlon or any other long, voluminous or relatively intense event.
This study shows that consuming an essential amino acid mixture after resistance training increases muscle protein synthesis and net muscle protein balance, indicating that ingesting EAA's post-workout may stimulate faster muscle repair, recovery and growth. Yet another study showed the potential for EAA's to cause muscle growth and regeneration through them being a potent rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) activator (activating cell growth), causing muscle satellite cell proliferation. As you age, your muscle produces less or has a delayed ability to proliferate satellite cells in response to exercise, which is bad news, since satellite cells are essential for skeletal muscle regeneration. But older men who consumed EAA's after resistance exercise had greater satellite cell proliferative capacity than those who didn't supplement. This is especially important information if you're at all interested in anti-aging since muscle mass and resistance training keep you young.
So in a nutshell, if you're going to use amino acids, you get far, far more benefit from consuming all the essential amino acids and, as you're about to learn, not too much benefit and some potential negative repercussions from their close cousin – the branched chain amino acids.
And how many essential amino acids should you take? I asked this very question to Dr. Minkoff, and here was his reply:
“For most people who do not have gigantic bodies, 10 grams of amino acids consumed 3 times a day would be maximum the body could use. If more are taken, they will just be metabolized into sugar or stored as fat. Taking more than 10 grams of amino acids at a time can also do the same thing. Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Eckimov did this regimen during the tour and were anabolic during the tour. That was something they were never able to achieve without this formula. They didn’t have body break down and were actually more fit at the end than the beginning. It allowed their bodies to accommodate the stress and get stronger.”
So the answer would be that for supplementing with essential amino acids no more than 30 grams per day (and my personal protocol involves one handful of ten essential amino acid tablets or two spoonfuls of essential amino acid powder taken 1-2 times per day, always on an empty stomach, and usually before, during or after a workout – especially any workout that I perform while in ketosis or in a fasted state on an empty stomach).
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Now come BCAA's, the slightly less well-endowed (albeit much cheaper on the shelf and much less expensive for a supplement company to produce) cousin of EAA's.
BCAA's are quite interesting because they are metabolized in your muscle, rather than in your liver. This means that BCAA's, without any requirement for much digestion or “processing” at all, can be relied on as an actual energy source during exercise, and could therefore prevent premature muscle breakdown. There was actually one compelling study done by a guy named Ohtani that showed exercising individuals who got BCAA's had better exercise efficiency and exercise capacity compared to a group that didn't get BCAA's.
Daily leucine supplementation to untrained men aged 18-29 participating in a resistance training protocol increased their power output from 31% to 40% without affecting lean mass or fat mass changes. BCAA's, particularly leucine, appear to stimulate skeletal muscle protein synthesis.
Other studies have found that BCAA's could increase a variety of factors that are really useful for anyone who cares about their physical performance…like red blood cell count, hemoglobin, hematocrit and serum albumin. They can also lower fasting blood glucose and decrease creatine phosphokinase, which means less inflammation, better red blood cell formation, and better formation of storage carbohydrate.
But that ain't all.
BCAA supplementation after exercise has been shown to cause faster recovery of muscle strength, and even more interestingly, the ability to slow down muscle breakdown even during intense training and “overreaching” (getting very close to overtraining). This same study found an increase in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.
OK, so continuing with the many cool things that BCAA's can do…
This study found that taking BCAA's before and following damaging resistance exercise reduced indices of muscle damage and accelerated recovery in resistance-trained males.
When you supplement with BCAA's, they can decrease the blood indicators of muscle tissue damage after long periods of exercise, thus indicating reduced muscle damage. They also help maintain higher blood levels of amino acids, which, if you recall from the EAA explanation above, can make you feel happier even when you're suffering hard during exercise. So as you may have guessed, low blood levels of BCAA's are correlated with increased fatigue and reduced physical performance.
A 2011 study found that BCAA supplementation caused a 17.2% increase in time to fatigue in glycogen-depleted subjects and enhanced lipid oxidation, or using fat for fuel.
Heck, they even use BCAA's in medicine. BCAA's could help people recover from liver disease, could assist with improvements in patients with lateral sclerosis, and could help recovery in patients who have gone through trauma, extreme physical stress (can you say “triathlon”, “Crossfit WOD”, “obstacle race” or “airline travel”?), kidney failure, and burns. They even help prevent muscle loss in bedridden patients, so if you're injured an unable to exercise, supplementing with amino acids is a good idea.
BCAA's seem to enhance mental performance as well. During a 32 hour offshore sailing event, BCAA's reduced fatigue and mental errors. BCAA's have also been reported to preserve cognition during extended periods of exercise, a useful benefit for sports requiring decision making and reaction time.
But here is what I think could be the most interesting things about BCAA's, especially for fat loss:
1. In his book, “SuperHealth: The Last Diet You'll Ever Need”, my friend KC Craichy swears by them for significantly decreasing your appetite when taken 30-60 minutes prior to exercise.
2. When taken prior to a fasted exercise session, BCAA's could increase fat oxidation (and yes, I'll actually cite a study for this one, it was “Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion.“, by Gualano, et al)
3. This study also found that consuming BCAA's during resistance training increased lean mass, muscle strength, and fat loss.
4. My friend Dominic D' Agostino, ketosis researcher at the University of Florida, swears by BCAA's for maintaining high-intensity performance while in ketosis, a strategy he recently outlined in this recent ketosis podcast with Tim Ferris.
Now I know what you're thinking – why the heck wouldn't you just save your money and use BCAA's instead of EAA's?
Great question. And here's the reason I personally never use BCAA's and only take EAA's for my amino acid supplementation.
- High doses of BCAA's can deplete B vitamins. Enzymes necessary for the breakdown and utilization of BCAA's require B vitamin cofactors, specifically B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B5 (Pantothenic acid) and B6 (Pyridoxine). This is bad news considering B vitamins are essential for converting your food into fuel, nervous system function, cognition, healthy hair, skin and nails, DNA synthesis, hormone production and more. If you're taking high doses of BCAA's, then eventually you will disrupt the hundreds of biological processes that rely on B vitamins.
- BCAA's can deleteriously affect serotonin levels. When BCAA concentrations are high, uptake of tryptophan by the brain is low because they’re both transported by the same carrier system. This is good when using BCAA’s to stave off fatigue during long workouts because as BCAA levels fall, there is an influx of tryptophan which leads to the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, causing fatigue. However, mega-dosing with BCAA’s, especially on a high protein low carb diet may lead to low serotonin levels. Serotonin is a calming and relaxing neurotransmitter that boosts mood and helps you sleep. A shortage of serotonin can cause depression, anxiety, sleep problems, carbohydrate cravings, attention disorders and more.
- BCAA's may cause insulin resistance and dysregulate blood glucose metabolism. Increased BCAA plasma levels are associated with a high risk of metabolic disorder and future insulin resistance and may predict the development of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that the infusion of amino acids induces insulin resistance in experimental settings. Furthermore, and independent of body weight, the addition of BCAAs to a high-fat diet contributes to the development of insulin resistance and impaired glucose homeostasis. A hypothesized mechanism explaining increased levels of BCAAs and type 2 diabetes involves leucine-mediated activation of the mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1), resulting in uncoupling of insulin signaling at an early stage. BCAAs may adversely affect insulin action on glucose metabolism. This study found that acute exposure to amino acids caused a dose-dependent inhibition of insulin-stimulated glucose transport and a blunting effect of amino acids on whole-body and skeletal muscle glucose disposal in humans. This study on healthy young men found that BCAA supplementation after an overnight fast caused an increase in insulin levels, but had almost no effect on glucose levels. No matter which way you look at it, BCAAs mess with insulin and blood glucose levels.
So because I don't want my precious vitamins depleted, my neurotransmitters imbalanced or my blood glucose and insulin regulation screwed up, I really don't go near BCAA's aside from their presence in whole food protein sources that I eat, such as fish, eggs and meat. I'd highly recommend you do the same.
Now here's what I didn't tell you yet, and something that is going to save you a ton of trouble when it comes to how many “bottles” of different supplements you use: any essential amino acid blend also contains all the BCAA's, but in a balanced form along with the other amino acids, meaning you get all the benefits of BCAA's with none of the negative side effects mentioned above. So if you use an EAA formulation that's created with the proper ratios, you get every single benefit you just read about in this article, without having to buy both EAA's and BCAA's.
That's why I don't use BCAA's. Not only are they only giving me less than half of my amino acid needs, but they also aren't necessary for a protocol that already includes EAA's. I only use EAAs.
How To Use EAA's and BCAA's
So if you've stayed with me so far, here's the big takeaway message about amino acids…
…if all EAA's are present, your appetite is satiated, muscle repair and recovery can start before you're even done with your workout, and when you need a fast, nearly instantly absorbable form of protein or you're mentally stretched toward the end of a tough workout, game or race, or a long fast or bout of ketosis, high blood levels of essential amino acids (NOT branched chain amino acids) can allow your body and brain to continue to both repair and to work hard instead of getting cannibalized and shutting down.”
Based on all this, do I personally supplement with amino acids?
You bet I do.
I swear by them for enhancing mental focus during a workout, keeping me from cannibalizing muscle (especially during fasted morning workout sessions), and decreasing post-workout muscle soreness.
I also use them before fasted workouts for a huge pre-workout boost without the need to eat or digest actual food, and I use them when doing longer bouts of fasting or ketosis to maintain energy and focus, and to keep any muscle loss at bay. You'd be surprised at how hard you can hit the weights or high-intensity cardio intervals without nary a calorie in your system, and only amino acids.
I also use essential amino acids when I can't get my hands on quality protein, such as when I don't have time to make a real meal after a workout, or on a plane flight when the “fish” that gets shoved in front of me in the airline meal appears to be a rubber doggie toy laced with chemicals, or during a week or a day when I'm limiting meat consumption (shocker for bacon enthusiasts: I actually do occasionally limit meat consumption as a longevity-enhancing technique), and especially during longer bouts of ketosis or fasting.
So which essential amino acids do I personally take?
I can tell you that I do not take the popular brands that have artificial sweeteners like sucralose or added sugars like maltodextrin.
I also do not take any amino acids that don't come in the necessary ratios, because I do not want to completely waste my money.
Finally, I avoid any amino acids that has a bunch of added fillers, lubricants, chemicals, preservatives or other nasties.
Instead, I use a pure and clean essential amino acids blend called “Kion Aminos“, which comes in a convenient, portable tablet form or powder form, depending on which method of delivery you prefer (e.g. swallow vs. sip). Each tablet contains exactly one gram of EAA's (making it super easy for calculating your dosages) and each scoop of powder contains five grams of EAA's. Of course, both the tablet and the powder contain every single amino acid you've just read about in the exact ratios necessary for achieving lean muscle maintenance, immune system health, staving off central nervous system fatigue during exercise, controlling food cravings, and every other benefit you've just discovered.
So why are Kion Aminos any different than other protein sources, and why wouldn't you just “eat a steak”?
It all comes down to the Amino Acid Utilization (AAU™) that Kion Aminos offers, which is dramatically greater than dietary protein sources. AAU reflects the amount of amino acids from a protein source that your body is actually absorbing and utilizing.
- At the low end of the spectrum are branched chain amino acids – only 1% of their content is utilized by the body, with 99% resulting in waste that your body must then process and eliminate.
- Next are whey and soy proteins – only 18% or less of their content is utilized by the body with 83% leaving as waste.
- Food like meat, fish and poultry fare just a bit better, with 32% being absorbed and 68% being wasted.
- Eggs are the winners in the food category with 48% being utilized and 52% converted to waste.
Now compare those numbers to Kion Aminos – a massive 99% is put to work by the body, with only 1% leaving as waste. Not only that, but Kion Aminos is absorbed by the body within 23 minutes – and there is just 0.4 of a calorie per tablet, meaning a huge anabolic boost, muscle preserving effect, appetite satiation, and even a positive effect on sleep and neurotransmitters, with close to zero calories.
This also means that unlike, say, whey protein powder or meat or eggs or nuts, which can take hours to digest and absorb, Kion Aminos is fully digested within 23 minutes from its ingestion!
In addition, Dr. David Minkoff, who helped develop the Kion Aminos blend, actually lab tested the top-selling amino acid blends on the market, including those pesky BCAA formulas. The net utilization of most blends, which is the percentage of those blends actually used by your body to make protein, only ranged from a paltry 0% (yes, 0%) to 20%.
This seems pretty lousy when you compare this to the Kion Aminos utilization of 99%. Even spirulina was tested, and although I've talked about spirulina before as a much-hallowed protein preference of vegans and vegetarians worldwide, of the 24 different spirulina products tested, the utilization ranged from a low of 0% utilized to a maximum of 6%. So spirulina may be a decent source of amino acids, especially for vegans, but even it does not hold a candle when compared to Kion Aminos.
Here's the complete Kion Aminos label:
On an airplane? I pop 10 Kion Aminos with a can of club soda to crush food cravings and keep me from digging around in my bag for dark chocolate.
Post-workout? I take 5-10 immediately, which is much easier than mixing a protein shake (and zero calories for those of you wanting recovery without the calories).
Injured or sick? I'll take up to 30 in a single day to give my body extra protein without creating digestive strain.
In ketosis or fasting? I completely and instantly crush any appetite or food cravings with a single serving of Kion Aminos tablets or powder.
You get the idea. This is without a doubt one of the most versatile and useful supplements you could have in your health and performance toolbox. Click here to try Kion Aminos now.
Enjoy, and leave your questions, comments or feedback about amino acids in the comments section below.