The popularity of natural energy drinks and aromatherapy products is a strong indicator of just how many people are seeking healthful ways to feel more energized and positive in their outlook on life. Even if you exercise routinely and eat a healthy diet with a variety of whole foods, sometimes you may feel like you need an extra pick-me-up. Substances like caffeine and alcohol in moderation can give you a boost, but this energy lift is often short-lived and sometimes followed by a let-down or energy “crash.” However, amino acids for energy naturally fuel your body throughout the day while also boosting your mood.
As building blocks of protein—the most plentiful substance in the body after water—amino acids help you function at your best in a variety of ways. In fact, processes as diverse as immune system function and muscle growth would break down without a steady supply of amino acids on hand to fuel growth, maintenance, and repair.
But what about the brain? If you’re curious to learn how amino acids affect this large and most complex of organs, as well as how your brain reacts to nutritional factors that can influence mood and energy, you first need to have a basic understanding of brain chemistry.
Brain Chemistry 101
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that work in concert to shape how we perceive and learn from the environment around us. These pathways are established during growth and development and are instrumental in forming our personalities and outlook on life.
These same pathways also respond acutely to specific amino acids that cross the blood-brain barrier to act as building blocks of important neurotransmitters—or, in the case of glutamate and aspartate, as neurotransmitters in their own right.
In addition, with the exception of glycine, all amino acids can be found in two forms: L and D. But only the L form is used by the body. Keeping that in mind, here are five individual amino acids for energy that may help optimize neurotransmitter synthesis to help balance your energy levels and mood.
Glutamine and Glutamate
L-glutamine is used to treat fatigue and depression, and also to boost immune function and muscle recovery. Under stressful conditions, your body consumes large amounts of glutamine, which is readily converted to glutamate by removal of an amine group (a group of organic compounds that contain nitrogen).
In fact, extreme stress, such as that caused by disease or severe injury, can deplete levels of glutamine and result in a life-threatening situation, requiring immediate supplementation.
Glutamine also protects the brain from ammonia toxicity, which generates free radicals and is implicated in the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Ammonia interferes with neuronal metabolism and reduces the amount of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the body is able to produce. This has a crucial effect on energy levels, as ATP is also known as the “molecular unit of currency” due to its role in storing and transporting chemical energy within cells.
Because of the number of neurons in the brain, this organ consumes more glucose than any other. And if glucose stores become depleted, the brain compensates by increasing glutamine metabolism. For this reason, glutamine is also known as “brain food,” and its consumption can result in less fatigue and elevated energy and mood.
Glutamate, the anion—or negatively charged ion—of glutamic acid, acts directly as an excitatory neurotransmitter and is also used widely in the brain. It plays a critical role in synaptic maintenance and plasticity, and even contributes to learning and memory.
Glutamate is also the metabolic precursor of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits neural transmissions and acts as an anxiolytic agent, reducing anxiety and calming nervous activity.
Phenylalanine and Tyrosine
Phenylalanine is an important building block for a number of proteins, including those involved in both hormone and neurotransmitter production. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones are three key end products that are necessary for optimal brain and mental function.
Norepinephrine and epinephrine are catecholamines, which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response that increases heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and increases blood glucose. The adrenal glands secrete these neurotransmitters along with other stress hormones. Catecholamines are produced by the brain and sympathetic nervous system as well.
Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter supporting attention and motivation. It plays a key role in the “reward system” of your brain. Drugs and other substances that adversely affect memory, cognition, attention, learning, mood, and fine motor control do so via their effect on dopamine function. Both phenylalanine and tyrosine can serve as dietary precursors of dopamine.
When the amino acid phenylalanine is not used in specific reactions, it’s converted to tyrosine, a nonessential amino acid that is a direct precursor of both dopamine and mood- and energy-affecting catecholamines.
Supplemental L-tyrosine is promoted for alleviating fatigue, low mood and sex drive, depression, and anxiety. It’s also used in those suffering from thyroid problems resulting from an underactive thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism.
Tyrosine and phenylalanine can also be combined in supplement form, though some individuals appear to respond better to one or the other. However, as with many nutrient-based therapies, it’s worth exploring the various available options to find the appropriate balance for your individual needs.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is also known as a “happy chemical” because it creates feelings of calm and well-being. If serotonin levels are low, depression, anxiety, insomnia, extreme anger, and mood swings can occur.
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is derived from both tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). It is a primary regulator of not only mood and sleep but also sexual function, appetite, and digestion.
In fact, serotonin is crucial for normal gastrointestinal (GI) function and plays a critical role in GI motility and immune function, visceral sensitivity, and blood flow. Even more interesting is the fact that abnormalities in reuptake of this neurotransmitter have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Tryptophan supplements, sold commercially as L-tryptophan, have shown efficacy in alleviating symptoms resulting from low serotonin levels, including depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The amino acid also acts quickly to increase these levels. However, the amino acid 5-HTP has been found to be even more beneficial, as it crosses the blood-brain barrier and converts into serotonin more efficiently and has a more pronounced antidepressant effect.
Amino Acid Therapy
There are many nuances to amino acid therapy, as various factors determine which amino acids are able to pass into the brain for conversion into mood-changing neurotransmitters. Protein intake, stress, intense exercise, and even sudden lifestyle changes can all affect amino acid metabolism.
If you’re experiencing issues with malnutrition or extreme stress, it’s a good idea to seek professional medical advice. However, if you’re one of the many simply seeking a natural source of energy to help you feel more energized in your day-to-day life, you might want to first make sure your diet is rich in high-quality proteins to ensure a steady supply of energy- and mood-boosting amino acids.
However, it’s also important to note that some individuals have experienced positive results with various free-form amino acid regimens. For example, most of us are probably familiar with the muscle soreness that follows a particularly intense workout. But a particular set of amino acids known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, has been shown to actually increase the lactate threshold.
This means that you can actually exercise longer before lactic acid builds up in your muscles to the point where pain and soreness begin. BCAAs have also been shown to decrease post-workout muscle fatigue and increase muscle growth. However, BCAAs only work effectively when consumed as part of a complete essential amino acid blend.
So, as you can see, amino acids offer many benefits for energy and mood. Not only do they provide a natural way to shift brain chemistry, but they also offer up the possibility of achieving greater energy levels and a happier mood.