Forty years of research by NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and prestigious medical and scientific institutions around the globe confirms—supplementing with amino acids, the building blocks of protein, boosts muscle growth, strength, and function...improves physical and mental performance...promotes weight loss...reduces inflammation and the risk of infection...accelerates recovery from injury, illness, or surgery...and supports heart, liver, and kidney health.
Supplement manufacturers are clamoring to stake their claim in the amino acids market, valued at USD 21.18 billion in 2019. Unfortunately, the power of amino acids is easily diluted. The proven benefits can only be experienced with the right type of amino acids in the right doses. Which is why we’ve created this guide to the best amino acid supplements, so that when you’re investing in a protein supplement, you’re truly investing in your health and longevity.
The Truth About BCAA Supplements
Do a quick Google or Amazon search and you'll quickly see that the most popular type of amino acid supplements are BCAA capsules and powders. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have a pronounced effect on muscle repair, muscle gain, and athletic performance, so much so they’ve become the amino acid darlings of the supplement industry. This is only half of the picture.
Research shows that BCAAs could harm overall health and may actually inhibit muscle growth when taken incorrectly.
Essential amino acids are the amino acids that the body cannot produce itself (unlike the nonessential amino acids). We must get essential amino acids from exogenous (outside) sources, such as diet or supplementation. The branched-chain amino acids are the essential amino acids with a chain that branches off to the side. There are three of them—isoleucine, leucine, and valine.
- Isoleucine: Helps quicken recovery by preventing muscle breakdown during exercise, bolstering immune function, and improving energy regulation and red blood cell production.
- Leucine: Activates muscle protein synthesis, keeps blood sugar levels stable, and supports growth hormone production.
- Valine: Plays a critical role in energy production and stimulates muscle repair and recovery.
They’ve gained such a following in the fitness world because studies indicate that they can improve glycogen storage, reduce fatigue, and be used for quick energy since they are metabolized in muscle and not in the liver. But this is an incomplete look at the findings.
Where BCAAs Fall Short
A recent meta-analysis of studies published between 1985 and 2017 paints a more complete picture (1). It turns out that BCAAs on their own are not responsible for gains in muscle mass or performance. Two studies even highlight that BCAAs can slow the rate of muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle breakdown.
How can this be?
When you supplement solely with the three BCAAs, you haven’t given your body the complete essential amino acid profile it needs to complete muscle protein synthesis. Muscles start to break down to supply the six missing essential amino acids. The body requires all nine essential amino acids, not just the BCAAs, to experience the potent muscle-building and health protective benefits of amino acid supplements.
Many BCAA supplements, like MuscleTech’s Amino Build Next Gen, combine BCAAs with other purported muscle-building and energizing ingredients, like glutamine, alanine, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. These don't do the trick. It's the other six essential amino acids that make the BCAAs so effective.
BCAA supplements have also been shown to strip the body of B vitamins, which disrupts nervous system function, cognitive function, digestion, and hormone production. And when grams of BCAAs are too high, serotonin production dips because tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, competes for entrance into the brain. Depression, sleep troubles, anxiety, cravings for carbs, and lack of focus can follow. Finally, BCAAs have been implicated in insulin resistance and increased risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic disorders.
It sounds like enough to swear off amino acid supplements for good. Not so fast!
Remember, the benefits come from the right amino acids in the right doses. That means the best amino acid supplements have all nine essential amino acids, which includes the BCAAs!
The Best Amino Acid Supplements Have All the Essentials
All the best BCAA benefits can be found in an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement, and with no negative side effects. We’ve already seen how the BCAAs support the body (they kick muscle protein synthesis into gear), but it takes the rest of the essential amino acids to get the job done. Let’s take a look at the functions of the other six essential amino acids.
- Histidine: This amino acid turns into histamine, which signals an allergic reaction. Histidine also prevents free radical damage from exercise and synthesizes carnosine, which reduces lactic acid buildup and helps defend against muscle soreness.
- Lysine: This antiviral promotes the release of growth hormone for muscle recovery. It also makes up collagen and elastin to help build connective tissue in our bodies.
- Methionine: This heart-healthy essential amino acid helps the body process and flush out fat while protecting the heart and liver from toxins.
- Phenylalanine: This pain-relieving essential helps produce norepinephrine and dopamine and has an antidepressant effect. It can also give a boost to performance.
- Threonine: This immune-strengthening essential amino acid promotes fat metabolism and makes up structural proteins and connective tissue.
- Tryptophan: As the precursor of serotonin, tryptophan controls appetite, mood, and sleep, and can help reduce pain during strenuous exercise sessions.
The best amino acid supplement is a complete essential amino acid supplement balanced in the precise ratio needed to treat your specific health need. Amino acids can be formulated for the following:
- To build muscle: When taken post- and pre-workout, EAAs help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, suppress muscle protein breakdown, and increase muscle mass, strength, and function, while lowering inflammation and accelerating recovery.
- To recover: By increasing net protein balance, EAAs help you recover faster post-workout, but they have also been proven to help maintain muscle mass during injury, illness, and surgery, and speed healing.
- To control appetite: EAAs stimulate brain cells and hormones that induce hunger and satiety, thereby helping to regulate appetite.
- To sharpen the brain: Amino acids such as tryptophan and phenylalanine act as precursors to neurotransmitters that help improve brain function, mood, and sleep.
- To improve metabolic health: EAAs help improve lipid profiles by lowering LDL and triglyceride levels. They also increase red blood cell production and serum albumin levels while lowering blood sugar levels and replenishing glycogen stores.
- To support fasting and the keto diet: If you take a BCAA with high levels of leucine you may break a fast by spiking insulin levels. But when appropriately balanced in a complete amino acid supplement, the insulin response is optimized for more efficient ketosis and fasting.
The Best Amino Acid Supplement Reviewed
If you’re on the search for the best amino acid supplement, whether it’s to support your bodybuilding goals or to eliminate body fat, keep these considerations in mind.
As we’ve said before, an essential amino acid supplement provides the benefits of BCAAs that a supplement of only BCAAs, like Optimum Nutrition BCAA Powder, Scivation Xtend BCAAs, or BSN Amino X, simply cannot. Exercise caution with popular amino acid supplements such as Cellucor’s Alpha Amino, which contains just six of the essential amino acids.
Many workout supplements, including whey protein powders, contain unnecessary and unhealthy artificial fillers, sweeteners, colors, and additives. Research every brand carefully, looking at labels, reading reviews, and reaching out to the company to make sure it meets your dietary requirements and restrictions.
Amino Co. essential amino acid blends are targeted for specific health needs in precise and patented ratios and made with only natural flavors (unflavored amino acid powders aren’t palatable...trust us!) They are also guaranteed:
- Vegetarian or vegan
- GMO free
- Gluten free
- Soy free
- Patent protected
- Keto friendly
We are in the process of patenting several targeted blends, but our current product line of premium dietary supplements can help with anti-aging, surgical recovery, and athletic performance. We formulate our products to the exact specifications to build lean muscle mass, support fat loss, and optimize overall health and well-being.
To every blend we add ingredients that work synergistically with EAAs. Like creatine in our athletic performance and recovery blends, which provides an extra jolt of energy and helps muscle tissue recover faster from workouts. And citrulline, an amino acid that converts to l-arginine for better blood flow and blood pressure.
Amino Co scientists are committed to developing the best amino acid supplements that provide the cleanest, most bioavailable fuel for the body to meet all your energy and metabolic needs. Learn more about our essentials here.