5 Amino Acids for Energy and Mood

Looking for a natural pick-me-up? Amino acids for energy naturally fuel your body throughout the day while also boosting your mood, and these five can be especially beneficial!

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.

Amino Acids for Energy

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

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 acids for energy and mood.

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.

Beta-Alanine and Carnosine: Which Supplement Should I Take?

Beta-alanine and carnosine have a relationship worth exploring. With all the marketing claims of beta-alanine and carnosine supplements, there’s some confusion. Let’s set the beta-alanine and carnosine record straight.

For supplement connoisseurs, beta-alanine and carnosine have a relationship worth exploring. Carnosine helps you reach peak performance during high-intensity exercise, and beta-alanine helps boost carnosine levels in muscle. With all the marketing claims of beta-alanine supplements and carnosine supplements, there’s quite a bit of confusion in between. Let’s set the beta-alanine and carnosine record straight.

Beta-Alanine and Carnosine’s Relationship

Beta-alanine (also known as b-alanine, β-alanine, and a carnosine precursor) is an amino acid produced in the liver. It differs structurally (but not chemically) from its more abundant counterpart L-alpha-alanine.

L-alpha-alanine is one of the most abundant nonessential amino acids in the body. L-alpha-alanine serves as a constituent of almost all proteins in the body and plays an important role in shuttling nitrogen—released as a byproduct of amino acid degradation in muscle—to the liver. The liver then incorporates some of the L-alpha-alanine into proteins, and the leftover L-alpha-alanine serves as a precursor for the production of urea, which is then excreted in urine.

In contrast to L-alpha-alanine, beta-alanine is not credited with serving any direct role in the body. Beta-alanine is neither a component of body protein nor does it play a role in metabolic regulation (the process by which our cells regulate every chemical process required for life). The principal role of beta-alanine is to combine with the amino acid histidine to form the peptide carnosine. Benefits of beta-alanine on exercise performance are attributed to its role in the production of carnosine in muscle.

What Science Tells Us About Carnosine

Found in abundance in meat, poultry, and fish, carnosine (sometimes referred to as L-carnosine) is a dipeptide composed of two amino acids, beta-alanine and L-histidine, hooked together. A non-enzymatic free radical scavenger and natural antioxidant, carnosine mainly hangs out in muscle and brain.

Carnosine acts to reduce the rate of formation of a variety of substances that can be factors in the development or exacerbation of diseases including diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic renal failure, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have found that carnosine can be particularly helpful when it comes to preventing damage caused by excessively high levels of sugar in the body. Both glucose and fructose molecules can bind with proteins, a process known as glycosylation. Not only does this damage the protein molecules, but it also stimulates inflammatory processes throughout the body. In fact, the glycosylation of protein is one of the four major destructive pathways activated by oxidative stress.

The metabolic effects of carnosine have contributed to its reputation as an “anti-aging” nutrient. As with other anti-aging compounds, carnosine levels decline with age. However, your carnosine intake affects the levels of carnosine in your muscle cells and throughout your body more than any other factor, including your age.

Carnosine helps you reach peak performance during high-intensity exercise, and beta-alanine helps boost carnosine levels in muscle.

How Carnosine Impacts Exercise

We’ve known for more than 50 years that carnosine functions as a buffer against acid produced in muscles during high-intensity exercise. The importance of carnosine as a buffer is debated, but there is a consensus that increasing muscle carnosine concentrations improves exercise performance during high-intensity activities. It is important, however, to understand the relationship between acid/base balance and exercise in order to appreciate the limit of circumstances in which carnosine in both Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers extends its benefits.

When you engage in high-intensity exercise, hydrogen ions begin to accumulate in your muscle fibers. This leads to an increase in acid production and drop in intramuscular pH, which adversely impacts your performance.

Can you recall the burning sensation you feel in your muscles when you sprint? The feeling that tells you it will be impossible to sustain that level of exertion for longer than a few minutes? That’s the result of lactic acid accumulation.

If lactic acid were to build up in exercises of the non-high-intensity variety, such as endurance sports, there would be no endurance athletes, as a buildup of lactic acid cannot be sustained beyond a short period of time. A consequence of this effect is that even competitive endurance exercise is performed below the “lactic acid threshold,” or the level of exercise intensity that can be performed without any buildup of lactic acid. For example, lactic acid levels remain close to the minimal level throughout a marathon. The action of carnosine on buffering acid production in muscle can, therefore, only be expected to be of significant benefit during high-intensity exercise. This may be why the body innately produces higher concentrations of carnosine in the fast-twitch, Type 2 muscle fibers that power you through rapid, explosive movements.

Research indicates that boosting muscle carnosine synthesis can reduce the acidity in active muscles during high-intensity exercise. A Belgian research team examined how muscle carnosine content affects fatigue experienced by trained sprinters during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts. Their placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that increased levels of carnosine significantly decreased fatigue during repeated bouts of exhaustive dynamic contractions.

In addition to its buffering capacity, carnosine has several other physiological effects that can improve your athletic performance.

As I stated earlier, carnosine has impressive antioxidant properties. Levels of a type of free radical called reactive oxygen species (ROS) can spike during exercise, which some believe may increase muscle fatigue. Carnosine can help to flush those free radicals from your muscles, which may lower fatigue levels.

Carnosine also influences enzyme regulation related to activation of myosin ATPase your body uses to maintain ATP stores. As you may know, your body generates energy from its ATP (adenosine triphosphate) stores.

Research-Backed Benefits of Beta-Alanine

The primary focus of research conducted to date on beta-alanine supplementation has been the effect of beta-alanine on physical performance and body composition.

Carnosine helps you reach peak performance during high-intensity exercise, and beta-alanine helps boost carnosine levels in muscle.

The effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscular endurance has the most research behind it. At least eight high-quality studies have shown that beta-alanine can lead to a significant increase in muscular endurance.

According to a double-blind trial published in Amino Acids, a peer-reviewed journal, after 28 days of beta-alanine supplementation, participants experienced less muscle fatigue and had a greater workload capacity at peak exhaustion.

The beneficial effects of beta-alanine supplementation on power output have also been well-documented. The authors of a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine had participants complete a resistance-training program while taking 4.8 grams of beta-alanine daily for 30 days. They found that this level of beta-alanine supplementation resulted in impressive gains as measured both by power output and work volume. One particularly indicative finding: at the end of the trial, participants who supplemented with beta-alanine could perform 22% more repetitions at 70% of their one-repetition maximum than those in the placebo group.

Beta-alanine can also influence your body composition by encouraging fat loss and stimulating muscle growth.

According to a double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted by researchers from the Human Performance and Physical Education Department at Adams State College in Colorado, beta-alanine supplementation can lead to the loss of fat mass without accompanying decreases to muscle mass.

The authors of a separate double-blind trial looked at the results of combining beta-alanine supplementation with high-intensity exercise. Participants who supplemented with beta-alanine while engaged in 6 weeks of high-intensity interval training benefited from a number of improvements that the placebo group who carried out the same training regimen did not, including increased lean body mass.

Beta-alanine supplementation can also enhance your anaerobic capacity, which has major implications for endurance performance. When you run, swim, cycle, or carry out any other form of aerobic exercise at a fast speed for a long enough period of time, your body will reach a point at which it’s consuming the maximum amount of oxygen it can. This is the moment when your anaerobic capacity comes into play. The greater the capacity of your muscles to work anaerobically—without the addition of more oxygen—the faster and longer you’ll be able to sustain that pace.

Findings published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and elsewhere have shown that beta alanine supplementation can positively affect your anaerobic capacity. This effect appears to stem from improved muscular endurance and reduced fatigue rather than cardiopulmonary interactions.

A number of studies have found that beta-alanine can help you exert yourself at a higher rate for longer periods of time while preventing fatigue. One study published in Nutrition Research showed that beta-alanine supplementation can lead to measurable decreases in fatigue rates, particularly when participants were working at maximum capacity. Subjective feelings of soreness and fatigue were also lower for the participants taking beta-alanine supplements than for those in the placebo group.

A separate double-blind, placebo-controlled study specifically examined how beta-alanine affects neuromuscular fatigue. The study’s authors enrolled participants with an average age of approximately 73, since the aging process depletes skeletal muscle carnosine content, which has been linked to a reduced muscular buffering capacity that then results in increased rates of fatigue. The authors found that beta-alanine markedly delayed the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and led to significant increases—28.6%—to participants’ physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold.

The Pros and Cons of Carnosine Supplements

Carnosine supplements are available from a variety of sources and marketed as being able to slow the aging process and help prevent and treat complications of diabetes. Carnosine supplementation is also advocated as a treatment for cardiometabolic health and cognitive function.

Despite the multitude of beneficial effects credited to carnosine in the body, there are limitations to its value as a nutritional supplement. Orally ingested carnosine is rapidly broken down to its component amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine). Plus, scientists have repeatedly found evidence of poor intestinal absorption of carnosine. For example, one study found large amounts of carnosine—up to 14% of the ingested dose—in participants’ urine 5 hours after they had ingested it.

Furthermore, a diet of beef, pork, and chicken is rich in carnosine, and the amount of carnosine recommended for a dietary supplement (1 gram per day) adds an insignificant amount to the total daily intake for meat eaters. Therefore, carnosine supplementation is not an effective way to increase the amount of carnosine in muscle. In the case of a vegetarian diet, carnosine supplementation may play a more prominent role in maintaining carnosine concentration in muscle.

Why Most People Benefit More from Beta-Alanine Supplements

The production of carnosine in muscle is limited by the availability of beta-alanine. As a result, dietary supplementation with beta-alanine is advocated as the most effective way to increase carnosine levels in muscle. The International Society of Sports Nutrition has issued a position statement on the effectiveness of beta-alanine as a nutritional supplement to raise muscle carnosine levels. The highlights of this report are as follows:

  1. Four weeks of consuming 4-6 grams of beta-alanine daily significantly increases muscle carnosine levels.
  2. Beta-alanine supplements appear to be safe.
  3. Tingling is the only reported side effect.
  4. Daily supplementation with 4-6 grams of beta-alanine improves high-intensity exercise performance in events lasting 1-4 minutes.
  5. Daily supplementation with beta-alanine may reduce the impact of neuromuscular fatigue in older subjects.
  6. Combining beta-alanine supplements with other supplements (such as essential amino acids) may be beneficial.

Carnosine Supplementation vs. Beta Alanine Supplementation: The Bottom Line

Carnosine can act as a buffer in muscle, thereby lessening the effects of excess acidity resulting from high-intensity exercise. This effect can improve high-intensity exercise performance but is unlikely to have much effect on endurance exercise. Other beneficial effects have been proposed (although not proven). Carnosine supplementation is ineffective in increasing the amount of carnosine in muscle because it is broken down to its constituent amino acids before tissue uptake can occur.

Beta-alanine is not known to have any direct physiological role but is the rate-limiting factor for carnosine synthesis. Studies have shown that beta-alanine supplementation can increase muscle carnosine content, and therefore, the buffering capacity of your muscles. This can result in significant improvements to physical performance as well as body composition.

Carnosine helps you reach peak performance during high-intensity exercise, and beta-alanine helps boost carnosine levels in muscle.

If you’re seeking to benefit from increased concentrations of carnosine, supplementing with carnosine itself is not the best way to achieve that goal. Instead, you’ll see far more profound effects from beta-alanine supplementation.

Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Turnover: Keeping Your Muscles Strong and Healthy

Amino acids are the building blocks of the protein that makes up muscle. We know for certain that amino acids, particularly essential amino acids, stimulate the growth of new muscle proteins, keeping your muscles strong and healthy. Learn all about the relationship between amino acids and muscle health.

Muscle has always been recognized for its importance in mobility and physical activity, and there’s currently a newfound appreciation for the importance of maintaining muscle for better health outcomes. Likewise, there’s also a growing appreciation for the complex relationship that exists between amino acids and muscle tissue.

But before we proceed to discuss that relationship, let’s get comfortable with some key muscle terminology.

Three Components of Muscle Health

The process of building muscle (anabolism) is known as muscle protein synthesis, and the process of breaking down muscle (catabolism) is known as muscle protein breakdown. Muscle protein turnover refers to the cycle of muscle being made and broken down and then made again.

Here’s where amino acids come into the picture.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins that make up muscle. And when there’s not a plentiful supply of amino acids coming from your diet—whether from whole food sources or supplements such as whey protein or other forms of protein powder—your muscles will release amino acids during muscle protein turnover so they can be used as needed by other organs and tissues.

Muscle can therefore be thought of as the main reservoir of amino acids for the body.

And in combination with a high-protein diet and/or amino acid and protein supplementation, weight training usually increases both muscle mass and strength.

So, muscle health comes down to three key components:

  • High-protein diet
  • Essential amino acid (EAA) supplementation
  • Regular weight training

Anabolic and Catabolic Stimuli

When we refer to anabolic stimuli, we’re talking about factors and lifestyle choices that promote the growth or synthesis of new muscle. These include:

  • Dietary protein intake
  • Exercise (particularly weight-bearing or resistance exercise)
  • Anabolic hormones (such as growth hormone and testosterone)

We know for certain that amino acids, particularly EAAs, stimulate the growth of new proteins.

Factors that are catabolic, or promote muscle breakdown and loss, include:

  • Low-protein diets
  • Low-energy diets
  • Illness and stress

During times of illness and stress, we have an increased need for amino acids to support immune system function and to respond to the actions of catabolic hormones that are released in response to stress.

Amino acids are the building blocks of the protein that makes up muscle.

Another Quick Lesson on Amino Acids and Muscle Protein

Muscles are made up of individual fibers constructed of proteins, and these proteins are made up of amino acids connected to one another in long strings of almost infinite variety.

Some amino acids are derived from dietary protein, but others are synthesized by the body via chemical reactions that occur in the liver and other select sites.

Amino acids that must be obtained from the diet are called EAAs, and amino acids that can be made in the body are called nonessential amino acids (NEAAs).

The Production of New Muscle Protein

Muscle proteins are assembled from amino acids using information encoded in our genetic material—deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The sequence of amino acids in a protein is unique and distinguishes one protein from another. But for protein synthesis to occur, all 20 “proteinogenic” (aka protein-creating) amino acids must be present.

Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) is the nucleic acid that carries instructions from the nuclear DNA—the DNA within each cell’s nucleus—into the part of the cell where protein is synthesized (ribosome).

There’s also another type of RNA known as transfer RNA (tRNA). Transfer RNA carries amino acids to the proper site for protein synthesis. When protein synthesis is taking place, enzymes link tRNA molecules to amino acids in a highly specific manner.

Transcription is one of the first processes to occur in protein synthesis, and it refers basically to the creation of the RNA strands that carry the genetic code.

The genetic code is then transferred to an amino acid sequence in a protein through a process known as translation. During this process, the amino acids carried by tRNA molecules are positioned sequentially and linked together.

One by one, amino acids are added to the growing chain until a signal to stop is received. After the protein has been synthesized completely, it’s removed from the cell structure that makes the protein for both further processing and to perform its function.

While all of this might seem complicated, a simple way to think about muscle protein synthesis is to compare it to the construction of a building.

The DNA is basically the idea for the design of the building. The mRNA is the written plan or blueprint, and transcription is the process of writing up that plan. The charged tRNA and process of translation—or tRNA plus its amino acid—are the construction company that builds the product by “putting the bricks together.” And the protein is the final product—or completed building—ready to serve its function.

Amino acids are the building blocks of the protein that makes up muscle.

There are many detailed molecular studies of all the independent steps along these complicated biochemical pathways of muscle growth and breakdown, but these don’t always predict what will be observed in human beings. For example, mRNA may be produced to initiate protein synthesis, but if amino acids are not available, the protein cannot be made.

What’s the Deal with Muscle Protein Breakdown?

It’s easy to understand the importance of muscle protein synthesis, as that’s the metabolic basis for muscle building. But why do muscles need to be broken down as part of muscle protein turnover?

We’ve already learned that muscle protein breakdown is essential when other important tissues and organs are in need of a constant supply of EAAs. However, muscle protein breakdown also helps improve muscle function.

You see, muscle fibers become damaged during exercise and unable to generate the same contractile force as new fibers. Without the process of muscle protein turnover, our bodies wouldn’t be able to get rid of the older, damaged fibers (protein breakdown) and replace them with new, better functioning ones (protein synthesis).

In fact, accelerated muscle protein turnover can improve exercise performance even if total muscle mass does not change. This is because a heavy workout induces local inflammation due to the damaged muscle fibers. But the more rapid the muscle turnover, the more quickly the post-workout inflammation will subside.

Amino Acids and Muscle

EAAs are the most potent stimulators of muscle protein turnover. Without an adequate supply of these amino acids, muscle protein turnover is limited because there are not enough EAAs to maintain muscle protein synthesis at an accelerated rate.

In order to stimulate muscle protein turnover, since EAAs can’t be produced in the body, you must get them from your diet. However, it’s difficult to get enough EAAs from food alone. This is where a balanced EEA supplement can come in handy.

Amino acid supplements can help improve skeletal muscle function without increasing muscle mass—if that’s your goal.

For example, an endurance runner will improve muscle function and decrease inflammation by consuming EAAs after a workout without adding extra muscle weight.

However, if you’re looking for strength gains and your goal is to increase muscle mass, then supplementing with an EAA powder is also a must. But to build muscle and add to the extra mass, you’ll want to be sure you’re consuming EAAs with sufficient calories from non-protein sources.

Whether you’re interested in increasing muscle mass or muscle function, or simply want to grow old with as much ease and mobility as possible, supporting healthy muscle protein turnover is essential. And striving to achieve a balanced intake of EAAs each day will help ensure all these goals are within your reach.

5 Proven Health Benefits of Amino Acids

Amino acid supplements are popular in the bodybuilding world. But amino acids, while key muscle makers, perform many more health-enhancing feats. They can help improve mood, keep stress at bay, and even strengthen the immune system. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most celebrated benefits of amino acids.

Amino acids, fittingly nicknamed the building blocks of proteins, not only make up the protein you eat, but also join together to form proteins in your body. These proteins are the very foundation of your hair, nails, bones, muscles, cartilage, connective tissues, and skin. They are the proteins your body uses to build and repair tissues and to synthesize hormones and enzymes. When you eat dietary protein, your body breaks amino acids into their individual parts, and then uses these amino acids to build the protein your body requires. Given that amino acids are so integrated into the makeup of the human body, it’s hardly surprising that researchers have uncovered a plethora of health benefits of amino acids.

Amino acids play a key role in muscle health, and, for this reason, amino acid supplements are popular in the bodybuilding world. But amino acids, while key muscle makers, perform many more health-enhancing feats. While they undoubtedly play vital roles in processes such as muscle growth and muscle recovery, they also contribute to brain function. Research indicates that increasing your amino acid intake from food sources or by taking supplements can help improve mood and keep stress at bay. Plus, they can strengthen the immune system. Before diving deep into five scientifically validated health benefits of amino acids, let’s take a moment to go over some amino acid basics.

The Basics of Amino Acids

In scientific terms, amino acids can be defined as organic compounds composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, along with a variable side chain group. Scientists have identified 20 different amino acids that the human body requires in order to properly develop and maintain itself. Though all 20 make essential contributions to your overall health, 9 of those amino acids have been categorized as essential amino acids (EAAs):

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

The reason scientists deemed those nine amino acids essential is that your body cannot independently produce them, making it essential that you obtain them from the food you eat or supplements you take.

Three of the nine essential amino acids exist in their own subcategory: the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Those amino acids are:

  1. Isoleucine
  2. Leucine
  3. Valine

While many have touted the benefits of BCAA supplements, based on the impressive effects of those three specific amino acids, the truth is that to benefit from an increased supply of one amino acid, your body must have a balanced amount of all the essential amino acids.

The 11 amino acids necessary for human health that the body can produce on its own are called nonessential amino acids (NEAAs), because it’s not essential that you consume them.

However, the dividing line between essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids has more wiggle room than their names might initially lead you to believe. Enter the conditionally essential amino acids. Of the 11 nonessential amino acids, 7 have been identified as conditionally essential:

  1. Arginine
  2. Cysteine
  3. Glutamine
  4. Glycine
  5. Proline
  6. Serine
  7. Tyrosine

While your body has the ability to generate these amino acids, that ability becomes compromised under certain conditions, like if you become ill or are dealing with chronic stress. To illustrate this idea, let’s look at how this plays out with one specific conditionally essential amino acid: arginine. Researchers have found that your body cannot produce enough arginine on its own while fighting diseases such as cancer. Under those conditions, it becomes essential to augment your body’s supply of naturally produced arginine with supplemental arginine.

Now that you have a working understanding of the different types of amino acids relevant to human health, we can discuss some of the most exciting, research-backed health benefits associated with individual amino acids.

5 Proven Benefits of Amino Acids for Your Body and Mind

We rely on amino acids to perform a multitude of roles. An adequate intake of amino acids helps us build muscle, maintain mental focus, maximize exercise performance, and more. Amino acids contribute to crucial bodily functions such as:

  • Protein synthesis
  • Tissue growth and repair
  • Energy production
  • Immune defenses
  • Wound healing
  • Nutrient absorption

Individual amino acids have been shown to prevent muscle loss, increase energy, boost endurance and stamina, improve mood, decrease body fat percentage, speed recovery time, enhance immune health, optimize sleep quality, and more.

The essential amino acids, which your body cannot generate, can be found in high-quality sources of dietary protein. While eating a vegetarian or vegan diet may necessitate that you pay closer attention to your amino acid intake, it’s certainly possible to meet your body’s needs using only plant-based proteins. Furthermore, it can be beneficial to take concentrated doses in supplemental forms regardless of how healthy and balanced a diet you eat.

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

Amino Acid Benefit #1: Muscle Protector

Muscle tissue consists mainly of proteins, and protein is made of amino acids. It stands to reason that amino acids would have a pronounced effect on muscle growth. As you may be aware, increasing your amino acid intake can boost muscle mass, strength, and function by stimulating muscle protein synthesis, or the building of new muscle tissue.

Did you know, however, that amino acids also help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise or between meals? In other words, they not only encourage muscle growth, but they also protect the gains you’ve worked so hard to build.

When you exercise, your body uses glucose, fats, and protein as fuel sources. If the body is low in fuel, it will start pulling protein from muscles, chipping away at your overall muscle mass. For instance, endurance activities quickly drain your stores of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). To avoid muscle loss, it’s important to supply your body with more essential amino acids, either by eating dietary protein or supplementing with amino acids. This ensures amino acid levels in your bloodstream stay stable and keeps your muscles protected.

Amino Acid Benefit #2: Energy Generator

As I touched on above, your body requires fuel to carry out tasks such as contracting your muscles. However, the body stores very little energy. The energy stored in your muscle takes the form of creatine phosphate.

Three amino acids—arginine, methionine, and glycine—join together to form creatine. The process of breaking down creatine phosphate releases energy that can provide an immediate source of fuel for muscle contraction. It gives us the energy boost we need for activities like sprinting or lifting heavy weights.

Because only a small quantity of creatine phosphate can be stored in our muscles at any given time, we depend on a different kind of cellular energy called adenosine triphosphate (typically abbreviated to ATP) for more sustained exercise activities. As with creatine phosphate, the breakdown of ATP provides energy that can fuel muscle contraction. When ATP is broken down, it forms adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Your body then regenerates ATP from ADP and phosphate in small organelles in the muscle called mitochondria.

There are a number of proteins in the mitochondria that enable the production of ATP from the oxidation of glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids. These specialized proteins are called enzymes. The more mitochondrial enzymes you have, the more ATP can be produced and the more energy is available to fuel muscle function. The number of mitochondrial enzymes depend on the number of mitochondria and the number of oxidative enzymes in each mitochondria.

Amino acids play a crucial role in increasing both the number of mitochondria available to generate ATP as well as the number of enzymes within each mitochondria. Both the formation of new mitochondria and the enzymes they contain result from protein synthesis.

A proportionately blended amino acid supplement stimulates the production of new mitochondria and increases the number of enzymes in the mitochondria by stimulating mitochondrial protein synthesis. Thus, an ample availability of dietary amino acids is an indispensable part of producing the energy our bodies need to keep functioning and to perform at their best.

Amino Acid Benefit #3: Endurance Enhancer

In addition to increasing your body’s ability to produce physical energy to fuel exercise performance, amino acids can help improve mental energy during a long workout.

Your mental energy depends on the balance between the inhibitory neurotransmitter serotonin (which brings on feelings of calm) and the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine (which stimulates feelings of excitement). These neurotransmitters are made inside the brain from amino acids circulating in your bloodstream. The amino acid tryptophan serves as a precursor to serotonin production and tyrosine fulfills the same role for dopamine.

During long, grueling workouts, the balance between tryptophan uptake and tyrosine uptake can be disrupted. The brain begins to let in more tryptophan, and as production of serotonin outstrips production of dopamine, you end up feeling mental fatigue. You have plenty of physical energy to keep going, but not the cognitive drive you need.

Taking an amino acid supplement with a balance of essential amino acids can counter the increased uptake of tryptophan by the brain, helping you work out for longer by reducing serotonin production and thus delaying the mental perception of fatigue.

It is important to use an appropriately balanced amino acid mixture that also increases dopamine production, as it is the balance between serotonin and dopamine that determines your mental energy level.

As I briefly mentioned earlier when introducing the concept of branched-chain amino acids, taking an imbalanced mixture of amino acids will not yield the results you hope for. While taking a BCAA supplement can reduce the uptake of tryptophan by the brain, it will also reduce the amount of tyrosine taken up by the brain.

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. Decreasing the amount of serotonin will have minimal effect on brain focus and energy if the amount of dopamine is also reduced. It is, therefore, important that you use a balanced amino acid supplement that not only decreases brain tryptophan uptake, but also increases the dopamine precursor tyrosine.

Amino Acid Benefit #4: Mood Stabilizer

As we just discussed, too much serotonin can cause fatigue during workouts. Too little serotonin, however, has been linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and overall moodiness. While tryptophan, and subsequently serotonin production, is ideally down-regulated during exercise, it can have a palliative effect when it is increased in individuals battling mood disorders.

Low tryptophan can be especially problematic when you are dieting. Dieting generally calls for eating fewer calories, which typically entails eating less protein, even if you’re on a so-called high protein diet. So, it is especially important to consume sufficient tryptophan if you’re on a diet.

There are two other standout amino acids for promoting balanced moods. The first, which I introduced in the preceding section, is tyrosine. This amino acid functions as a precursor not only for dopamine, but also for the equally influential brain chemicals epinephrine and norepinephrine. Increasing your intake of tyrosine has been shown to significantly amplify energy, strengthen motivation, elevate sexual function, and heighten concentration, thereby benefiting mood. The best route to increasing tyrosine levels, however, is not to up your intake of tyrosine itself but rather to focus on the essential amino acid phenylalanine, which the body then converts into tyrosine.

The third amino acid that’s particularly important when it comes to promoting balanced moods is glutamate. This nonessential amino acid can act as a neurotransmitter itself, but is probably more relevant as a mood enhancer due to its role as the precursor of gamma-aminobutyric acid, better known as GABA. As the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA helps us feel calm and relaxed and prevents overstimulation of nerve cells. Glutamate is produced from glutamine, so both glutamine and glutamate have similar effects on GABA production.

It’s also worth noting that theanine, a non-dietary amino acid, mimics some of the properties of glutamate and GABA. Green tea is one of the few natural source of theanine, and probably responsible for green tea’s reputation as a mood enhancer.

Amino Acids Benefit #5: Immune Strengthener

Nutritional deficiencies, stress, and environmental toxins can take a toll on our immune systems. Amino acid support can help keep our immune systems strong.

People with compromised immune systems tend to have low levels of the amino acid cysteine, which is a precursor of the master antioxidant glutathione. To efficiently and effectively increase your stores of this vital amino acid, select a balanced essential amino acid supplement that contains cysteine in the form of N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC).

Research consistently demonstrates that an increased intake of cysteine can fortify the immune system. According to one study published in The European Respiratory Journal, supplementing with cysteine significantly decreased flu symptoms in elderly patients.

Since cysteine is produced from the essential amino acid methionine, it’s also possible to use methionine supplementation to achieve similar effects while promoting the production of proteins involved in the immune response.

Lysine is another amino acid noted for its antiviral and immune-boosting properties. It is traditionally recommended as a preventative nutraceutical for flare-ups of the herpes virus and shingles.

If only one piece of information from this article stays with you, I hope that it is this: in order to benefit from the properties of any individual amino acid, it is vital that you supply your body with an appropriate quantity of all the essential amino acids. That’s why research consistently shows that the most reliable way to access the health benefits of amino acids is by taking a carefully formulated essential amino acid supplement.

Should I Take Amino Acids Pre-Workout?

The before, during, or after debate on amino acids for working out can leave you utterly confused as to when you should take your amino acid supplement. I’ll cover the details, but the quick and easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes!

The before, during, or after debate on amino acids for working out can leave you utterly confused as to when you should take your amino acid supplement. I’ll cover the details, but the quick and easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes! An amino acid pre-workout powder can help support muscle building, reduce the breakdown of muscle, increase blood flow to the muscle during your workout, and help prevent fatigue and boost performance.

Why Amino Acids Make Ideal Pre-Workout Supplements

You’re taking your sports nutrition goals seriously. You load your plate with whole foods and make sure to prioritize quality protein at every meal. Maybe you’re even incorporating protein powder or other dietary supplements into your regimen. You commit to each training session. You should be seeing major muscle growth gains and yet, you seem to be stuck.

The problem may be that you’re ignoring just how essential a role the fittingly named essential amino acids play when it comes to increasing your muscle mass. No matter how much time you put into weight training, if you fail to provide your muscles with the raw materials they need to grow, you won’t see the results you’re craving.

Key Facts About Amino Acids

You may have heard amino acids described as the building blocks of protein. That’s not a bad description, but it doesn’t entirely do justice to the importance of amino acids.

Not only do amino acids provide structural integrity to protein, but they’re also vital to the synthesis and metabolism of proteins, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. They regulate the activity of numerous metabolic pathways. They contribute to cognitive function. In short, amino acids are involved in just about everything that occurs inside the human body.

There are 20 amino acids present in the human body. Nine of those are called essential amino acids because unlike the others, your body cannot synthesize them de novo—in plain English, they can’t be made from scratch. Instead, it’s essential that you supply your body with these amino acids via the food you eat or supplements you take.

Researchers have categorized six of the other amino acids as conditionally essential. Under most circumstances, your body can produce these amino acids, but when you’re under extreme duress, that ability becomes compromised.

The remaining four amino acids get grouped together as nonessential. In some instances, you’ll see people refer to 11 nonessential amino acids—when they do so, they’re simply lumping in the 7 conditionally essential amino acids listed above. Your body absolutely needs the nonessential amino acids, but it also has the ability to synthesize them, so it’s nonessential that you get them from your diet.

The easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes! An amino acid pre-workout powder can help support muscle building and boost performance.

When it comes to using amino acid supplements to facilitate muscle growth and muscle recovery, all the key players can be found on that list of the nine essential amino acids. Here are some key facts about what each of these amino acids does inside your body.

Phenylalanine 

The analgesic (pain-killing) and antidepressant properties of this amino acid typically spark the most excitement. It’s also a precursor to norepinephrine and dopamine, two of the feel-good brain chemicals. When it comes to sports nutrition, the primary benefit of phenylalanine is that due to its ability to raise norepinephrine and dopamine levels in your brain, it may lower your rate of perceived exertion during exercise, helping you stay in a positive headspace through even the most grueling endurance exercise workouts. Our bodies also need phenylalanine to produce metabolism-regulating thyroid hormones.

Valine

A true power player when it comes to muscle synthesis, valine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA)—more on these later. One of valine’s main functions is preventing muscle breakdown. That means if you take valine prior to or during an exercise session, it can help decrease muscle damage, allowing you to recover faster. Valine also stimulates your central nervous systems and regulates blood sugar levels.

Threonine

This amino acid helps keep your connective tissues and muscles strong and elastic, in part because it’s a precursor for two other amino acids: serine and glycine. The benefits of glycine have received a lot of attention from researchers lately. Studies show it can encourage muscle growth as well as decrease muscle loss, among other desirable effects. Threonine can also shorten the time it takes your body to heal wounds and recover from injuries. Plus, it supports healthy fat metabolism and stops fat from building up in the liver.

Tryptophan

Another amino acid that serves as a precursor for a feel-good brain chemical—in this case, serotonin, which can help quell physical sensations of pain. That means boosting your tryptophan can increase your tolerance for pain during challenging workouts. The human body also needs tryptophan to manufacture vitamin B3, which ensures your blood sugar levels stay balanced, forestalls free radical damage, and stymies the accumulation of cholesterol.

Isoleucine

Like valine, isoleucine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid. It’s a crucial component of hemoglobin, the protein in your red blood cells that transports oxygen. Our bodies also use isoleucine for muscle repair, which means upping your isoleucine levels lets you bounce back faster from taxing workout sessions.

Methionine

The principal task of this amino acid is to assist your body with metabolizing fat. Plus, it provides your body with the sulfur it needs to produce glutathione, its most abundant antioxidant compound, as well as cysteine and taurine, two other amino acids that contain sulfur. Thanks to its lipotropic properties, methionine can safeguard your liver function by preventing the buildup of fats.

Histidine

This amino acid, which has some antioxidant properties itself, is a precursor to histamine and helps your body synthesize carnosine. This can directly impact your physical performance because histamine can flush the potentially damaging free radicals generated during exercise from your system, while caronsine keeps lactic acid from accumulating in your muscles.

Leucine

Along with valine and isoleucine, leucine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid. It’s the most abundant amino acid found in human muscle tissue. In addition to enhancing stamina and endurance as well as promoting muscle recovery, leucine initiates the process of protein synthesis and helps to maintain your body’s nitrogen balance and energy supplies.

Lysine

Research indicates that lysine can simulate the release of growth hormone, meaning it can offer vital support to your muscle-building efforts. Lysine also ensures you body properly absorbs calcium. Plus, it demonstrates significant antiviral properties and encourages the production of antibodies, making it a phenomenal immune system booster.

Understanding Branched-Chain Amino Acids

Scientific analysis shows that 35% of your muscle protein is composed of three essential amino acids: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. These are, as you may have noticed if you’ve been paying close attention, the infamous branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). These amino acids get their name from their molecular structures, which have distinctive, branch-like shapes.

The popularity of BCAA supplements with athletes skyrocketed based on studies indicating that they can help to reduce physical fatigue, sharpen mental focus, decrease muscle breakdown, preserve muscle glycogen stores, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle soreness, and more.

Leucine, found in high concentrations in whey protein, is arguably the most important BCAA. But as I mentioned earlier, simply increasing your intake of dietary protein or even adding a whey protein supplement is not the most effective way to benefit from leucine or other amino acids. When taken in supplement form, amino acids can be digested and absorbed more quickly, which maximizes their impact.

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, taking BCAA supplements is also not the most effective way to increase muscle concentrations of these beneficial compounds. There’s no question that BCAAs facilitate muscle growth and optimize athletic performance, but when you take them on their own, they have a minimal impact.

That’s because in order for your body to build complete proteins, it requires all the essential amino acids—and in their appropriate concentrations. Taking a supplement that contains only BCAAs throws off your amino acid balance. Taking an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement that contains the appropriate ratios of all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis is a far better way to amplify your muscle-building results.

When Should I Take My Amino Acids?

Now that you have an increased understanding of how amino acids prevent protein breakdown, facilitate healthy weight loss, improve recovery, and increase energy levels, among other benefits pertinent to those engaged in various physical pursuits, let’s discuss the optimal timing for taking an amino acid supplement.

One of the main reasons to take amino acids for fitness is to build muscle. When you exercise, muscle breaks down in order to release amino acids for the energy the muscles need to contract. Some of the released amino acids are used to rebuild the lost muscle protein. But many of the amino acids are oxidized and cannot be used for muscle protein synthesis. That’s where taking amino acids pre-workout comes in. They help replace the amino acids that are oxidized when your muscle protein breaks down as you exercise.

Taking an amino acid pre-workout powder before resistance exercise is especially important to maintaining and building muscle mass. During resistance exercise blood flows to the muscles at an increased rate. When you ingest amino acids pre-workout, there are more essential amino acids available to strengthen and build muscle.

Taking amino acids before a cardiovascular workout, such as a high-intensity interval training (HIIT class), can help reduce fatigue by balancing the uptake of amino acids that are responsible for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

That said, taking amino acids after a workout (within an hour after exercise) gives your body a boost when it comes to replacing damaged muscle fibers with new muscle protein. Essential amino acids are also important for reducing inflammation, thereby accelerating workout recovery.

To maximize all the beneficial effects of amino acids, it’s best to take a high-quality essential amino acid blend both before and after exercise. If you’re carrying out a resistance-training regimen, you may also see benefits from taking amino acids during your training sessions. This approach to amino acid supplementation is optimal for improving muscle strength as well as accelerating recovery.