Learn about the difference between BCAAs and EAAs, plus the top 10 health benefits of amino acid powders and when it’s best to take them for optimal workout performance.
Amino acid powders are supplements taken much the same way as protein powders like creatine and whey protein. They are important to muscle building for a very simple reason: they are the bricks and mortar of your muscles, and without them your body cannot synthesize new muscle for repair or growth.
Many people are familiar with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), used by bodybuilders and the fitness-minded alike, but BCAAs are only three of the nine essential amino acids (EAAs) required for muscle creation. For more on the difference between BCAA and EAA supplements, plus the benefits you can expect from supplementing with amino acids, read on.
The three BCAAs are valine, leucine, and isoleucine, and they make up about 35% of our muscle protein. They are isolated for supplementation because they reduce the amount of protein breakdown that occurs due to vigorous workouts, and they help preserve the muscle’s stores of glycogen, which is the muscles’ quickest energy source. Leucine is the big player among the three, and it’s also one of the main components of whey protein.
However, the reason people sometimes consume BCAAs instead of whey protein is because when these amino acids aren’t bound up with other components, they can digest and absorb faster, giving them a bigger impact as a workout supplement. The reason some people take complete EAA supplements over BCAAs is similar: you can’t increase your muscle mass without all nine of them, meaning that a full court of EAAs has an even greater positive impact on your fitness goals.
The essential amino acids include:
If you ever need a mnemonic device to remember them (taking a biology quiz maybe?), notice that in this order, the first letter of each essential amino acid spells out Pvt. T.M. Hill: good old private T.M. Hill can help you remember your EAAs, just as Roy G. Biv can help you remember the order of the colors in the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet).
Essential amino acids are so called because they’re needed in your body, but your body can’t create them itself, so it’s essential that you gain them by ingesting them.
Essential amino acids are indispensable, and there are six more amino acids that are considered conditionally essential—arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine. Their creation in the body isn’t always possible (like when we are infants). The rest of the amino acids are made in-house by your body.
The Top 10 Benefits of Amino Acid Powder
When your goal is to build lean muscle with your workouts, protein is key, and you can’t have protein without amino acids. Here are the best benefits you can expect from taking amino acid powder as a workout supplement.
1. Balanced Dosages
The great thing about getting your amino acids in powdered supplement form is the same perk you get when using meal replacement shakes for weight loss: it comes pre-measured, guaranteeing that you receive the proper ratio of amino acids every time. Even high-quality protein supplements don’t always take into account the ideal ratio of amino acids that are scientifically required for building new muscles, so when shopping for the right workout aid, be sure to purchase a comprehensive and balanced amino acid powder, one that has exactly what you need in precisely the right amounts.
Leucine especially shines here, as it has been clinically shown to boost muscle protein synthesis after physical exercise. That window of post-workout recovery is when your muscles are wide open for material to rebuild the cells that were damaged during exercise, and create even more muscle in preparation for the next workout. For more on the best time to take amino acid powder, read (or skip!) to the end of this article.
3. Increased Endurance
Amino acid supplements alter the way your body uses fuel, namely by changing the way you burn carbs and fat. Athletes like sprinters who require short bursts of strong energy have to deal often with glycogen depletion from their muscles. There’s only so much glycogen your muscles can hold, and if you use it up too quickly, you’ll run into fatigue or exhaustion and will have to cut your workout short. With amino acid supplementation, however, glycogen stores are better protected, as was seen in this 2011 study involving 7 men who were put through a workout designed to sap their glycogen supply. Those given amino acids instead of a placebo had a 17.2% increase in how long it took them to hit the wall of exhaustion.
4. Better Fat Burning
Amino acids protect glycogen stores by burning fat instead of glycogen for fuel. Amino acids help to retrain your body’s metabolic processes. For instance, the amino acid L-carnitine has been shown to increase fat loss without any other changes being made to your diet or exercise routine. If you’re on a low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet, even better: your body will learn to access your fat stores for energy as much as possible, because it can’t get the quick energy from carbohydrate intake.
5. Reduced Fatigue
Piggybacking off the above-mentioned benefits, amino acids have the ability to prevent the mental fatigue that can accompany really long workouts. When your amino acids are low, such as during a grueling workout, your body works to produce more, specifically tryptophan. And when the amino acid tryptophan gets too low, its production leads to feelings of mental fatigue and tiredness (it’s why turkey is considered sleep-inducing—the tryptophan in the meat!). If you’re supplementing with the proper amount of amino acids, this process never has to begin, and thus there is no extra tryptophan running around making you feel depleted and tired.
6. Increased Focus
Without extra tryptophan making you soporific, your mental focus is able to sharpen. Amino acid supplements have been shown to boost your short-term memory and mental processing abilities, and so are particularly valuable in competitive sports or contests, when fast strategizing can help you win.
7. Muscle Sparing
When you workout, you’re causing little micro-tears in your muscles. It’s necessary damage, sort of like how you need to be exposed to viruses to develop an immunity to them (it’s the reasoning behind vaccines, which contain deactivated viral cells).
Usually the muscle damage is minimal, just enough to stimulate your body into sending resources to repair and then rebuild bigger, better, and stronger muscles than ever before. Sometimes, however, muscles are broken down out of desperation for energy. This is catabolism, a destructive form of metabolism, and those who work out hard, especially bodybuilders, know to guard against it.
During the day you can feed your body energy, but what is your body eating while you sleep? In some instances it resorts to cannibalizing itself in a sense, breaking down the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build. Amino acids can help prevent catabolism by protecting your muscle fibers from taking too much damage in the first place; plus you can supplement right before going to bed (but more on when to take amino acid powders below).
8. Improved Post-Workout Recovery
Free amino acids in an amino acid powder are quickly absorbed, which helps increase your muscle protein synthesis rate and shorten your post-workout recovery time. The muscle soreness that used to linger can be dispatched much quicker with proper amino acid supplementation. Quicker recoveries mean you can work out again sooner, putting you in a virtuous cycle (the opposite of a vicious cycle), where workout and recovery revolve around one another in beneficial harmony.
When you count up all the ways amino acid supplements aid you and your muscles, the finally tally shows that they improve your overall athletic performance in more ways than one. Smarter, better, faster, stronger: amino acid powders can help you be all of these things with just a few scoops a day.
A number of studies have shown that all nine EAAs play important roles in muscle growth and repair, and when it comes to the timing of when you should consume your essential amino acid powder supplement, you almost can’t go wrong: pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout, plus another helping before bed if you’re concerned about catabolism. While some forms of workout will require more or less supplementation regarding dosage amounts, pairing amino acid supplementation with a high-protein diet will have you covered.
The Amino Advantage
In your quest to build lean muscle mass through working out and eating right, consider adding a high-quality, gluten free, non-GMO amino acid powder like the one we offer here at Amino Co. Amino acid powders give you an extra advantage in all your workout and sporting goals.
Find out the benefits of magnesium malate, the suggested dosage, plus the difference between various forms of magnesium supplementation and which one has the best bioavailability.
Magnesium malate is a form of magnesium that’s highly absorbable by human beings. It provides not only the benefits of magnesium, but also the benefits of malic acid. Malic acid is a nutrient that contributes to our energy production by turning food into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecule that carries energy within our cells. That’s only the beginning of all that magnesium malate can do—read on to discover the scientifically backed benefits that magnesium malate can bring you.
Because elemental magnesium is difficult for the body to absorb on its own, many supplements will bind magnesium to a salt for better absorption. Magnesium malate is one of those salt combinations, formed when magnesium is combined with malic acid.
Malic acid by itself is often taken by those seeking to improve their muscle performance, boost their mental focus, and reduce post-exercise fatigue. All those uses in one supplement means that this particular magnesium formation can help benefit those with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Read on to find out what else magnesium malate can do.
Without enough magnesium, the hormone melatonin cannot function properly. Melatonin is responsible for sleep regulation, and without it you may find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep peacefully. Magnesium malate may help your sleep process, as magnesium is known to play a role in normal sleep regulation.
Magnesium is important for stabilizing the nervous system, which is what allows us to withstand stress. A deficiency in magnesium can lead to heightened levels of stress, fatigue, and anxiety. Though more scientific research needs to be done to refine the understanding of magnesium’s effect on anxiety, it’s generally assumed that magnesium increases the neurotransmitters that block stress, like norepinephrine, while decreasing the ones that cause stress, like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies suggest that magnesium may be an effective treatment of anxiety due to its stress-stopping abilities.
Magnesium Malate for Constipation
Magnesium helps stimulate intestinal peristalsis (involuntary muscle contractions that move food through the digestive system) and helps soften stool by gathering water to the intestinal tract. These actions not only serve to prevent and treat constipation, but they also aid the body in performing its own natural detoxification processes.
Magnesium Malate for Bone Integrity
Magnesium is needed for building bone tissue and for improving the body’s absorption of calcium. This leads to magnesium playing an important role in maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis.
Magnesium Malate for Women’s Reproductive Health
The female reproductive system needs magnesium, and a review of the scientific literature shows that magnesium supplementation is effective in the prevention of premenstrual syndrome, dysmenorrhea, and menstrual migraines. Women with the proper level of magnesium may find their menstrual cycles more manageable, while pregnant women will find magnesium supplementation even more vital because they are more vulnerable to magnesium deficiency. Since magnesium is a mineral needed for fetal development, protein synthesis, and tissue construction, magnesium supplementation is often a part of a woman’s prenatal care.
Magnesium is needed to maintain your calcium levels, and research suggests that too-high levels of calcium in the body cause inflammation. A magnesium deficiency is associated with chronic inflammation and may be a risk factor for conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Due to magnesium’s role in synthesizing the hormones dopamine and serotonin, there is believed to be a link between magnesium deficiency and depression. One study with 126 adults found that magnesium supplementation was helpful in resolving mild-to-moderate depression after just 2 weeks. Though magnesium deficiency is not the only cause of depression, it could be a contributing factor that a magnesium supplement can help eliminate.
Magnesium citrate is another magnesium preparation in salt form. It also increases water in the intestines and is often used as a laxative for the treatment of constipation. However, magnesium citrate has a far lower bioavailability rate than magnesium malate has, meaning you get more magnesium from the malate version.
Magnesium Malate vs. Glycinate
Much like magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate also has lower bioavailability than magnesium malate. Glycinate is the salt form of glycine, which like aspartate or aspartame, activates our NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors. The NMDA receptors on our neurons help control our perception of pain, and when they’re overstimulated it can lead to severe pain, as with the NMDA receptors in the guts of those with colitis. This means that too much magnesium glycinate may actually be detrimental.
Magnesium Malate Dosage
Magnesium malate supplements are often taken orally alongside a meal. The National Institutes of Health give the following recommendations for the appropriate dosage per serving size.
19-30 years: 310 milligrams
31-up: 320 milligrams
19-39 years: 400 milligrams
31-up: 420 milligrams
Dosages of malic acid generally range from 1,200-2,800 milligrams per day. People who are athletes, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic, or under high levels of stress may require more magnesium and should consult with their doctor to determine the optimal dosage.
When looking for magnesium from a dietary supplement, you’ll want to make sure you have the best bioavailable form of magnesium, and magnesium malate may be exactly the form you need. You’ll want to keep the tablets in a cool, dry place, out of reach of children, but other than those precautions, you can easily add it your regimen of multivitamins and gain its amazing health benefits.
When it comes to meditation, there’s a helpful set of practical steps you can take to achieve greatness. Why not put them to use? Here’s how to meditate like a master.
In order to achieve mastery, you must commit yourself wholly. That’s why LeBron James strives to eclipse the incredible records set by Michael Jordan, Ronda Rousey shatters glass ceiling after glass ceiling for female athletes in the world of mixed martial arts, and Tom Brady continues to play in the NFL well past the age most quarterbacks retire. Despite what we might daydream about, most of us lack the requisite genetics and training required to achieve that kind of superstar status with our athletic endeavors. When it comes to meditation, however, we all have the capacity to attain true mastery. So why not try for it?
After all, meditation can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, at virtually any time. The scientifically validated benefits of meditation include:
Enhanced sense of calmness
Greater mental clarity
Though the thought of beginning a meditation practice may intimidate you, the process of learning how to meditate is quite simple. Long before you’ve mastered the nuances of this time-tested means of improving mental health as well as physical well-being, you will begin to experience its benefits.
If you’re ready to set out on the path toward inner peace, read on to learn about:
The goal of meditation
How meditation works in practice
The benefits of meditation for your mental and physical health
Different forms of meditation
Strategies for building a meditation practice
Take a deep breath in, release your worries and hesitations with a long out-breath, and prepare to learn how to truly relax.
What’s the Purpose of Meditation?
Before delving into the specifics of different meditation forms, let’s cover some basics on the purpose of meditation.
The belief that you can achieve your best self here and now forms the basis for the entire practice of meditation. Though meditation can certainly have spiritual elements, the practice itself is both concrete and practical.
If the entire purpose of the art of meditation had to be boiled down to a neat phrase, it might be this: the goal of meditation is to increase awareness.
Awareness of what? Any number of things. The answer varies from person to person as well as from session to session. To help make this abstract concept something you can grab on to, here are several examples of what meditation might bring into your awareness:
Your most pressing thoughts, both conscious and unconscious
Novel solutions to recurring personal problems
Your own unique intuition
Reflections on spirituality and the interconnectivity of things
Your core identity
By attuning yourself to these critical touch points, you can give your overall well-being a boost. What’s more, your new awareness can be mastered through sustained hard work and healthy doses of determination.
By meditating, you can train your mind. This will likely feel quite unfamiliar the first time you try it. Most of us spend little time consciously directing our minds. Left to their own devices, our minds wander freely. We ponder what the future might hold or replay events from the past. Very rarely do we stay completely rooted in the present moment.
By meditating, we can bring ourselves back to the here and now. Rather than fretting about what was or fantasizing about what might be, we can inhabit what is. This practice can bring with it very tangible benefits—studies have even shown that meditating can lower your blood pressure levels.
7 Proven Benefits of Meditation
Modern life brings with it just as many problems as conveniences. From pollution to the constant stream of bills to workweeks that stretch to 60 hours (or beyond), it can feel like every day has its share of obstacles that must be surmounted.
It can be easy to feel that the world is conspiring against you, trapping you like a hamster on a wheel, running in place and unable to think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other. But we are more than the sum of our daily functions, and it’s vital that we make time and space in our lives to recognize that.
This is where mastering meditation comes in. As it builds awareness, meditation reintroduces you to your inner self—the one that got lost in the hustle and bustle of modern living. By committing to a meditation practice, you can begin to live a more fulfilling life.
Not convinced yet? Here are seven scientifically validated ways meditation can benefit your mental and physical health.
1. Increase Sense of Self
In 2011, a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers documented for the first time that meditating can change the brain’s gray matter. The study’s authors found that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program produced measurable changes in brain regions associated with:
Sense of self
The impact on sense of self may prove particularly significant. Previous research, such as this study conducted at the University of Utah, shows that a stronger sense of self correlates with a higher degree of overall well-being.
And remember, the remarkable changes documented in the Harvard study came about after a mere 8 weeks of meditation. The changes seen in the brains of long-term meditation practitioners are even more impressive.
2. Relieve Stress
Of all the reasons people try meditation, perhaps the single most common is stress reduction.
According to a meta-analysis of clinical trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine, meditation delivers the stress-relieving results practitioners hope for. Based on data from 47 trials that enrolled a combined total of 3,515 participants, mindfulness meditation programs can reduce “multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.”
Another study looked specifically at the ability of meditation to decrease the physical inflammatory response associated with psychological stress. The researchers rigorously compared an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention to a well-matched active control intervention, the Health Enhancement Program (HEP). They found that mindfulness meditation resulted in “a significantly smaller post-stress inflammatory response.”
Anxiety and stress often present in similar ways. While stress is your body’s response to a specific trigger and tends to be a short-term experience, anxiety is a sustained condition. Stress commonly triggers anxiety, but the anxiety can linger long after the initial threat that set off the stress response has retreated. When left untreated, anxiety can adversely impact your social life, your work, and your closest relationships.
Researchers have found that meditation can lower long-term anxiety levels to the same degree it quells short-term stress. According to a large systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, meditation can measurably reduce anxiety symptoms.
It also appears that the benefits of a meditation-centric intervention can be quite long-lasting. A very interesting study published in General Hospital Psychiatry shared the results of a 3-year follow-up on the effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety.
The initial study found that an 8-week outpatient stress reduction intervention that taught participants mindfulness meditation led to clinically and statistically significant improvements for subjective and objective symptoms of anxiety and panic. Repeated measures at 3 months and 3 years showed that the improvements endured. Plus, most of the participants maintained a meditation practice after the study ended. The authors concluded that mindfulness meditation can bring about “long-term beneficial effects in the treatment of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders.”
Further research has shown meditation can treat specific symptoms of anxiety disorders, including:
4. Enhance Concentration
Meditation exercises affect your attention span the same way weightlifting exercises affect your muscles: the more time you put into your training, the stronger you get.
A study published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience showed that mindfulness meditation sessions can help you develop and improve your powers of concentration. The authors found that meditation improved participants’ alertness, ability to orient themselves, and conflict monitoring skills. They state that the results of the study suggest mindfulness meditation can enhance the function of specific neurocognitive subcomponents of attention.
Another study which looked specifically at the benefits of meditation for human resource workers found that those who meditated regularly could stay focused on a task for longer and were better able to remember the details of their tasks than peers who did not meditate.
Plus, a review found that meditation can reverse abnormalities in a network of brain neurons called the default mode network that are associated with mind wandering. While mind wandering may sound harmless, these abnormalities can predispose you to depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It appears, however, that meditation can reverse some of those abnormalities, which can result in improved concentration among other benefits.
Delightfully enough, it appears that the beneficial effects of meditation on your ability to concentrate set in quite quickly. One study found significant improvements to participants’ visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning after only 4 days of meditation sessions.
5. Alleviate Sleep Issues
One out of every two individuals will struggle with insomnia at some point in their lives. Research shows that meditation can help you fall asleep more quickly and stay in a state of sleep throughout the night.
According to a 2015 review that evaluated mindfulness meditation as a means of treating insomnia, randomized controlled trials consistently show that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI) result in an overall reduction in sleep latency (meaning participants who meditated fell asleep faster) and total wake time (meaning fewer instances of waking up over course of the night) and increase in total sleep time (that one’s self-explanatory). The researchers concluded that mindfulness matches the effectiveness of other methods for treating insomnia, comes with fewer side effects, and is more readily available.
Experts have theorized that one of the reasons meditation may help with sleep is that it helps you react more skillfully to the racing thoughts that might otherwise keep you awake. Meditation can also teach you techniques for relaxing your body, releasing tension, and entering a peaceful mindstate.
6. Treat Pain
The physical pain you experience stems from signals transmitted back and forth between your body and your brain. Meditation can change the way your brain processes pain signals, resulting in decreased physical sensations of pain.
One study published in the Journal of Neuroscience used a novel MRI technique to investigate how meditation affects pain-related brain processes. The authors recorded baseline measurements for each participant at the beginning of the study. Participants then went through 4 days of mindfulness meditation training including breathing exercises. By practicing meditation techniques when exposed to painful stimuli during the MRI, participants were able to reduce pain by 40%, and their brain scans showed increased activity in regions known to control pain.
7. Lower Blood Pressure Levels
One of the most striking physical benefits of meditation documented so far has been its ability to lower blood pressure levels, which in turn reduces strain on your heart muscles and boosts your overall cardiovascular health.
According to a review of randomized controlled trials as well as systematic reviews, transcendental meditation can be beneficial for individuals with hypertension. Pooled results from a combined total of 996 participants indicated an average reduction of systolic and diastolic blood pressure of -4.36mm Hg and -2.33 mm Hg respectively compared to the control groups. The effect on systolic blood pressure was greatest among older participants, those with higher initial blood pressure levels, and women.
A separate review also found promising data on the ability of meditation to lower blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease. The authors found that regardless of the form of meditation, practitioners experienced better blood pressure control, enhancement in insulin resistance, and reduction of lipid peroxidation and cellular senescence. They concluded that meditation can produce beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, particularly the vascular aspects.
A third review noted that benefits of meditation for blood pressure control appear to come from its positive effects on the nerve signals that regulate heart function, tension in blood vessels, and the fight-or-flight response that raises alertness in stressful situations and that can become problematic in the context of modern life.
Choosing the Best Type of Meditation for You
Meditation has a long, rich, and varied history. Some of the earliest records of meditation come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism and can be dated to around 1500 BCE. Other records indicate that the Taoist and Buddhist traditions of meditation emerged sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.
As you might imagine, we now have many, many different types of meditation to choose from—both religious and secular. In recent years, mindfulness meditation has become the most popular form of meditation among Western practitioners.
The Basics of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively nuanced practice. The central concept is simple: to exist attentively and acceptingly in the present moment. Despite what you may believe, the aim is not to empty your mind or to wipe it clean like a chalkboard. Even advanced meditators have thoughts crop up during their sessions. Instead of fighting against distracting thoughts, the goal is to register where your mind has wandered to, what emotions have been stirred up, and any physical sensations you’re experiencing without judgement. This practice can yield profound results.
Though mindfulness meditation has roots in Buddhist practices, it’s quite possible to take an entirely secular approach to it. Many meditation teachers emphasize how it can be used for benefits such as stress reduction, improved focus, and a greater sense of tranquility rather than spiritual enlightenment.
“There’s a misconception that mindfulness is religious,” Atman Smith, a meditation teacher who has worked with underserved and high-risk youth in Baltimore City Public Schools, drug treatment centers, wellness centers, and colleges since 2001, told the New York Times. “What we have to explain is that it’s a stress reduction technique and a way to get yourself stronger mentally. It’s a self-care practice.”
Differentiating Between Mindfulness and Meditation
It’s common to see the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” used as if they are synonymous; however, that’s really not the case.
The word mindfulness encompasses a way of being. To be mindful is to be open and aware of the moment in which you’re currently existing without succumbing to reflexive judgement, criticism, or distraction.
Meditation can certainly involve being mindful, and when practiced regularly, it can expand your capacity for mindfulness.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach expressed the differences between meditation and mindfulness like this: “Mindfulness is your awareness of what’s going on in the present moment without any judgment. Meditation is the training of attention which cultivates that mindfulness.”
Another reason why it’s helpful not to use the words mindfulness and meditation interchangeably is that mindfulness meditation is not the only form of meditation. Transcendental Meditation, another type that’s quite popular, promotes relaxation through the recitation of a mantra.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
One of the wonderful things about mindfulness meditation is that you can practice it all on your own and in practically any setting. The point of mindfulness meditation is not to relinquish control over your thoughts and allow them to wander at will nor to attempt to empty your mind. The core of the practice is to pay close attention to the present moment, and to your own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations specifically.
Those who are new to meditation often find it helpful to listen to guided meditations. Eventually, it’s helpful to learn to meditate on your own in order to establish a complete, thriving meditation practice. But in the beginning, having the guidance of an experienced teacher can be invaluable. Many expert meditation teachers have recorded perfectly paced instructions to lead you through the experience, help you stay rooted in the present moment, and release any thoughts or judgements that crop up.
Basic mindfulness meditation tends to involve sitting quietly and focusing your full attention on your breath for a set amount of time. However, there are many variations on the practice. As you explore meditation, you may wish to try the following techniques to move you closer to your elusive—but achievable— goals of mastery and self-awareness.
Body scan: Rather than using the breath to keep you grounded in the present moment, this meditation technique asks you to apply your focus to a series of sensations and areas of the body. Typically, you start either at the toes or the head and move slowly toward the other end of the body.
Walking meditation: Even if you struggle to sit still, it’s best to start with sitting meditation before progressing to walking meditation. While there’s no rule to enforce that order, since walking meditation involves more inputs, it can be substantially more difficult to attain the desired mindstate.
Mindful eating: As with walking, this technique requires more intense focus than a basic meditation session. Rather than eating on autopilot, take time to fully appreciate the smell, taste, and mouthfeel of your food. You can begin even before you take your first bite by tuning into the physical sensation you experience as you sit down for your meal.
Cultivating Effortless Presence
Effortless presence meditation has much in common with mindfulness meditation. Rather than concentrating your focus on your breath or physical sensations, however, effortless presence allows you to access the benefits of meditation by doing the exact opposite.
This type of meditation puts the focus on reaching a state in which your attention isn’t actually concentrated on any particular thought or thing. In effortless presence meditation, you work only on being. As in, not striving for any one particular thing. While only being, you should avoid thinking about your bills or mulling the future. When taken to its full expression, effortless presence involves not even acknowledging yourself as a person. While this may sound strange or even impossible, practitioners find it revelatory and remarkably beneficial.
Sustained practice of this technique is thought to reveal the most natural state of your existence to you, one in which your Ego vanishes along with your efforts to control things. We know, this may be a challenging concept—especially during the age of Netflix, Instagram stories, and the never-ending status updates—but why not give it a try? All you have to lose is yourself (in the best possible way).
To perform effortless presence meditation, simply sit and do nothing else whatsoever—just be. Far from emptying your mind, however, effortless presence is about achieving the elusive state of self-awareness mentioned earlier.
To deepen your understanding of effortless presence, watch this video from meditation master Peter Russell.
The Art of Loving Kindness (or Metta) Meditation
If you like the idea of boosting your ability to empathize with others on your journey to self-mastery, you should look into loving kindness, or Metta, meditation.
The focal point of this form of meditation is developing feelings of kindness and benevolence toward yourself and others.
To start, you work on accepting and loving yourself. After all, as the inimitable drag queen and cultural icon RuPaul puts it, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?”
Try following along with this progression:
Take a very comfortable posture.
Focus on breathing in and out from your solar plexus (an area of the chest practitioners of this form of meditation often call the “heart center”).
Anchor your mindfulness only on the sensations emanating from your heart center.
Begin to generate feelings of kindness toward yourself while feeling and freeing yourself from any mental blockage, numbness, self-judgment, or self-hatred.
Continue to breathe in and out. Then, either think or say one of the traditional phrases (or an original and personalized iteration) encapsulating the idea: “May I be happy.”
Once you’re able to generate loving feelings for yourself, the next step is to gradually apply your benevolent feelings to other people and then to the entire universe. There are, naturally, many steps along that path and it can take years of sustained practice to even begin to approach that lofty goal.
To continue to explore the nuances of loving kindness meditation, watch this video from Emma Seppala, Ph.D, author of “The Happiness Track.”
Building a Meditation Practice
To reap the benefits of meditation, especially if you’re new to the practice, it’s important to set aside time for a formal meditation session. This will help you establish a routine and become more comfortable with the various elements that go into meditating.
“Some people complain about taking time out of their day,” said meditation teacher Atman Smith in a New York Times interview. “Practice is important though. It’s a tool you can use to bring yourself back to the present in stressful situations.”
While it is important to make time for meditation, you don’t need to block out an hour from each day. Simply committing to meditate for a few minutes daily can make an incredible difference to both your mental and physical health.
While mastery of anything takes long-term, sustained effort, the first hurdle is to establish the correct mindset. Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes, so when you set out to master the art of meditation, know that committing yourself fully to that pursuit will yield the most impressive results. As part of that commitment, you should strive to meditate every day, even if only for a short time. We create new brain pathways based on the activities we perform each day, making us more effective at performing them, so daily meditation will help you move as rapidly as possible toward the goal of meditating like a master.
With your foundational mindset now firmly in place, here’s some expert advice you may find helpful as you work to achieve your goal.
Handling a Wandering Mind
While meditating, a moment inevitably comes when the mind wanders. Perhaps you will begin to notice something happening in the room or a stray thought will hook you and lead you off on an internal journey. Don’t worry when this happens. This does not make you a bad or unmindful meditator. It’s just as natural for the mind to wander as it is for the lungs to breathe.
When you notice your mind has wandered, note what it is you were thinking about or distracted by. Don’t try to immediately and forcibly redirect your attention. Pause, let go of the thought or distraction, broaden your attention, then gently redirect it to your breath—or whatever the focus (or non-focus) of your meditation session might be.
Just as inevitably, your mind will wander again. And when it does, again, remember this is natural. The goal is not to prevent the mind from wandering, but to develop a skillful way of detecting when that has happened and reorienting our attention.
“Where we build our skill is in the practice of coming back,” Tara Brach said in a New York Times interview. “Coming back again and again. Notice it — thinking — and then pause, and then come back to the present moment.”
Using Mantras to Build Focus
There’s a reason mantras are such an enduring component of multiple forms of meditation. Repeating the same words over a sustained period of time can help you develop calm and focus.
If you find mindfulness meditation or effortless presence too passive, you may do better with a form of meditation centered on mantra chanting. You can choose from a number of Sanskrit mantras or develop your own. Mantras can even be as simple as the word Om.
Setting a Time to Practice
Especially in the beginning, it can be quite beneficial to choose a particular time of day for your meditation practice. The idea is that, as with any habit, it will be easier to follow through on your intention if you build it into your routine. If your schedule varies from day to day, it may be more helpful to link meditation to another activity that’s already part of your routine (like brushing your teeth) rather than tethering it to a precise time.
Many people find it easiest to meditate first thing in the morning. Others find it a refreshing addition to their lunch hour, a wonderful way to mark the end of the work day, or a relaxing element to work into a bedtime ritual.
No matter when you decide to meditate, try your best to be consistent with it.
Locating the Best Spot
In the same way that it can be helpful—especially for meditation novices—to meditate at the same time of day, choosing a specific spot where you will meditate can help you build a lasting practice.
Identify a location where you can sit comfortably and where there will be minimal distractions around you. The fewer the distractions, the easier it will be to stay in the proper meditating headspace.
Don’t worry about folding your legs into a lotus position, and if you find it uncomfortable to sit on the floor, don’t. The key is to find somewhere you can sit upright in a comfortable position with your shoulders rolled back and your spine straight, breathing easily.
Purchasing Essential Meditation Accessories
Despite what advertisers would like you to believe, there are no essential meditation accessories. You may find that using a meditation app, or sitting on a dedicated meditation cushion or stool helps you, but it’s certainly not a requirement for the practice.
The one true essential for meditation is willpower, and no one has found a way to bottle and sell that.
Carrying Mindfulness into Everyday Life
By embracing the techniques and advice outlined in this article, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of meditation. Remember, your thoughts are powerful, and the more insight you gain into how your mind works, the better.
Remember, too, that there’s no need to abandon mindfulness when you stop meditation. Ultimately, mastering meditation means being mindful in all areas of your life. The more you meditate, the more you can show up for whatever life might bring your way with an open mind and heart.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous about that big date or upcoming presentation at work, chronic anxiety can have a negative effect on your life. If you’re suffering from anxiety attacks or persistent feelings of dread, you might have an anxiety disorder. Here are some tips for coping with anxiety.
Everyone gets anxious now and then. And while it’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous about that big date or upcoming presentation at work, chronic, excessive worry that invades your everyday life can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health. So if you’re suffering from anxious thoughts, a general sense of unease, or even full-blown panic attacks, read on to discover important tips for coping with anxiety and improving your well-being and quality of life.
What Is Anxiety?
Occasional anxiety is a normal, even healthy part of life. It can heighten your senses and provide motivation in stressful situations. It can even help save your life when a fight-or-flight situation arises. But when anxiety either doesn’t go away or gets worse with time, it begins to color your entire life and can make even the most basic tasks seem impossible.
When this happens, it becomes what’s known as an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common of all psychiatric conditions, affecting nearly 40 million people in the United States each year. However, determining who will develop an anxiety disorder and who won’t isn’t a simple task. That’s because anxiety is a complex condition that’s influenced by many different factors. Some of these include:
Family history: People with a history of anxiety in the family may have a genetic predisposition toward developing the condition, though not everyone with a family history will develop anxiety.
Personality traits: Studies have shown that children with certain traits, including perfectionism, low self-esteem, and control issues, have a greater chance of developing anxiety.
Stressful events: People who experienced trauma or abuse as a child are more likely to suffer from anxiety. Traumatic events experienced as an adult may also predispose someone to developing an anxiety disorder.
Health problems: People dealing with chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, chronic pain, and heart disease, are more at risk of having anxiety. Anxiety may also be a sign of certain medical problems, as in the case of hyperthyroidism, certain tumors, and drug and alcohol withdrawal.
Mental health conditions: People with coexisting mental illnesses like depression often experience anxiety as well.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
While there are many different forms of anxiety, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), the five major types are:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This disorder involves chronic feelings of worry and tension that interfere with a person’s ability to perform daily activities or enjoy life.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): This is a type of anxiety disorder in which sufferers experience recurrent, unwanted thoughts and sometimes repetitive, compulsive behaviors, such as handwashing, cleaning, or counting. These rituals provide temporary relief from obsessive negative thoughts, and levels of anxiety increase when they’re not performed.
Panic disorder: This is an extreme form of anxiety in which individuals suffer repeated episodes of intense fear, or panic attacks. These anxiety attacks often involve physical symptoms, including chest pain—which may further increase the sense of panic when interpreted as a heart attack—shortness of breath, and dizziness.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This form of anxiety may arise after living through a traumatic experience, such as childhood abuse, a serious accident, or combat, and can lead to recurrent unpleasant symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, and even violent outbursts.
Social anxiety disorder: This type of anxiety disorder is also known as social phobia and is characterized by avoidance of social situations due to feelings of fear and excessive self-consciousness. This type of anxiety can be limited to one type of activity, like public speaking or eating in front of other people, or occur any time contact with other people is necessary. An estimated 7% of Americans experience social anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety isn’t a subtle condition, and when you have it, you tend to know it. Whether it’s a general sense of being ill at ease or the hyperventilation and palpitations that can accompany a panic attack, anxiety lets you know it’s there. But anxiety can also mess with your head, causing you to throw logic out the window and think something positively dreadful is either happening right now or going to happen in a very short time.
If you’ve ever had anxiety, you’re probably familiar with this worry and self-doubt. But because anxiety can throw all sorts of unexpected things your way, it’s sometimes calming just being aware of the different types of symptoms that might arise. With that in mind, we offer the following list of symptoms often associated with anxiety and panic.
Feelings of nervousness and tension
Overwhelming sense of panic or doom
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Sense of detachment or unreality
Fear of losing your mind
Hot flashes or chills
Palpitations or dizziness
Fuzzy thinking or brain fog
Sweating or trembling
Muscle pain and twitching
Abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea
Desire to avoid anxiety triggers
Loss of appetite or overeating
Feelings of exhaustion or weakness
Numbness or tingling sensations
Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks
Coping with Anxiety: Treatments and Strategies
Unfortunately, no single treatment for anxiety works for everyone. However, there’s a host of both conventional and complementary and alternative treatments available for people suffering from anxiety disorders, so with a little patience, everyone should be able to find the therapy that works best for them.
Before getting into the different types of complementary and alternative treatments, let’s first take a look at the more well-known types of therapy for anxiety—medication and psychotherapy.
Various medications are available for treating anxiety. If you and your health care provider feel your symptoms warrant medication, one may be chosen based on the severity of your symptoms, the type of anxiety disorder you have, and whether you also have other physical or mental health issues. Some of the more common options are:
Antidepressants: Certain antidepressants have been found to be effective in treating anxiety disorders, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as escitalopram (Lexapro) and paroxetine (Paxil), and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), including duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR).
Benzodiazepines: While benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan) are widely used in the treatment of anxiety disorders, they carry a high risk of dependence with long-term use.
Buspirone: The anti-anxiety medication buspirone (BuSpar, Vanspar) has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety and has the added plus of carrying a low risk of dependence.
Perhaps the most well-known form of psychotherapy is counseling. This tried and true approach to treating anxiety disorders involves talking with a health care provider to address specific issues and develop strategies for coping with anxiety. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, however, counseling is generally considered a short-term approach. Several longer term methods of psychotherapy are available also. These include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most effective forms of therapy for people suffering from anxiety. This generally short-term treatment is designed to address ongoing problems, find more effective coping strategies, and develop new ways of processing feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. CBT can also help people who’ve experienced traumatic events process and reframe the experience.
Eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy (EMDR): One of the newer forms of psychotherapy, EMDR has been proven effective for a range of anxiety disorders. Based on the observation that certain eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts, EMDR is designed to reduce the impact of these thoughts by utilizing specific eye movements while focusing on particular traumatic events or memories.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): This type of psychotherapy has also been used successfully to treat a range of anxiety disorders. ACT involves learning to stop fighting and accept particular traits or emotions, recognizing that feelings are merely passing sensations, and then choosing the direction you most want to go and taking action to engage in behaviors that will move you toward that goal.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
In addition to the more conventional therapies, a number of complementary and alternative treatments have shown efficacy in treating anxiety. What makes these therapies especially useful is that they not only can be used in conjunction with more traditional forms of treatment in the short term, but they can also be incorporated as a series of lifestyle changes over the long term to help prevent the recurrence of anxiety in the future.
The opposite of the fight-or-flight response of anxiety is the so-called relaxation response. Practicing some of these simple techniques to elicit that response can be very helpful for people suffering from anxiety.
Deep breathing exercises: Taking a series of slow, deep breaths while focusing on nothing but your breathing can help disengage your mind from anxious thoughts.
Body scan: This technique involves a few minutes of deep breathing, followed by progressive muscle relaxation, focusing on one part of the body at a time and mentally releasing any tension.
Guided imagery: This technique involves imagining yourself immersed in a soothing place or experience. Practicing this approach can help create feelings of relaxation and improve focus.
Mindfulness meditation: This form of meditation involves focusing on the breath while bringing attention to the present moment, gently drawing the attention back to the present each time the mind drifts to thoughts of the past or future.
Tai chi, yoga, and qigong: All three of these ancient practices combine rhythmic breathing with flowing movements and specific postures and have been proven to decrease anxiety, help manage stress, and improve flexibility and balance.
Biofeedback: This relaxation technique uses sensors to provide feedback, helping you learn to control certain bodily functions and thus reduce unwanted symptoms.
Emotional Freedom Technique
The emotional freedom technique, or EFT, is a method that involves tapping specific acupressure points on the body while reciting certain phrases. Although EFT is a relatively new method for treating anxiety, at least one study has already found it effective in reducing symptoms.
The use of aromatherapy—essential oils from plants for therapeutic purposes—has long been touted for treating anxiety, and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in several studies.
For example, one study found that aromatherapy was effective in reducing anxiety in patients awaiting surgery, while another found that rose water was useful in reducing anxiety in hemodialysis patients. And yet another study found that lavender essential oil demonstrated many of the benefits of anxiolytics without any of the harmful side effects.
Additional essential oils shown to have relaxing effects include:
Diet and Nutrition
Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids and low in processed foods, sugar, and caffeine can have a tremendous effect on your state of mind. Moreover, studies have shown a link between the deterioration of the Western diet and increasing rates of mental health disorders.
In fact, a study from 2008 not only emphasizes the importance of nutritional therapy in treating mental health conditions but also references almost 30 additional studies that have found a link between nutrient deficiencies and mental illness.
Some of the nutrients found to be associated with mental health conditions include:
Several amino acids, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), tryptophan, and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), have been shown to be beneficial in treating anxiety.
For instance, GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps induce a state of relaxation, and tryptophan and 5-HTP are both precursors of serotonin, low levels of which have been linked to both anxiety and depression. In addition, the amino acid L-theanine, which can be found in green tea, helps reduce anxiety by blocking excitatory stimuli at the brain’s glutamate receptors and by stimulating production of GABA.
A balanced amino acid supplement that emphasizes these particular substances may help provide much needed support for people suffering from anxiety disorders, including helping them get enough sleep, which is crucial for getting symptoms under control.
Finally, perhaps one of the most powerful ways of coping with anxiety is learning not to fear it. This is easier said than done, of course. But the cycle of anxiety and panic can become a self-perpetuating one as a person begins to fear the fear.
What do we mean by this?
The symptoms of a panic attack can be so severe that one begins to fear the very possibility of having one. This fear in itself can trigger another attack until they start happening seemingly out of the blue. And pretty soon, they become so crippling that a person becomes more and more housebound until they’re literally being held hostage by their anxiety.
But when it comes to anxiety, knowledge really is power, and the best way to start combating this vicious cycle is by defusing some of the fear by learning everything one can about anxiety. Then comes the scary part—accepting that to get through it, you must face it.
You see, anxiety is like a bully. If you let it have its way, it’ll just take more from you the next time and the next until you wake up one day to find you’re living a shadow of a life.
So when anxiety rears its ugly head, try not to run from it. Like exercise, it won’t be easy at first, but the more you’re able to accept the fear and sit with it until it passes—and it will pass—the looser its hold on you will be and the more you’ll be free to live your life as you were always meant to.
Of course, if you’re experiencing symptoms of severe anxiety and don’t feel capable of going it alone, don’t hesitate to speak with a health professional. They can help get you through the current crisis and guide you toward the therapy or therapies that work best for you.
You want longevity. A life of happiness and vigor. We can relate. Read on to discover how the power of positive thinking can help you achieve the happiness, vigor, and longevity you desire.
You want longevity. A life of happiness and vigor. We can relate. Because, really, who wouldn’t want these things? The problem is that the many ups and downs of life can make these goals seem like little more than pipe dreams. But what if we told you that living a longer, more vibrant life could be achieved—in great measure—by simply cultivating a positive attitude? And what if we told you that more and more research is suggesting that this is anything but a pipe dream?
Interested? Then read on to discover how the power of positive thinking can help you achieve the happiness, vigor, and longevity you desire.
Attitude Is Everything
You already have the power to starve your negative experiences of too much attention. Because it’s your mental attitude that determines whether negative thoughts from these experiences snowball into something worse. In other words, if bad things are destined to happen—after all, it’s just a natural part of the human experience—you can control how you respond.
Consider the concept of locus of control.
This phrase, taken from personality psychology, refers to the degree to which we believe we have control over our own lives.
A study in the Review of European Studies measured the impact of locus of control on the level of subjective well-being of study participants. Researchers found that a significant relationship exists between an individual’s locus of control expectancy—or expectation of being in control—and their level of happiness.
Specifically, they found that people with high levels of self-confidence and belief in their ability to create positive change feel more contented in their daily lives. But they also found that a balanced approach was important too. It appears that people experience less happiness when they hold on too tightly to control, lack trust in others, and can’t accept that bad situations are a natural part of life.
Recognizing that you have ultimate control over your attitude and outlook doesn’t just help you feel better overall. By consistently practicing positive thinking, you may be able to live a longer life as well.
The Science of Longevity
Studies of centenarians have found that the power of positive thinking is not just a tired cliché. On the contrary, a positive attitude may just be the best way to ensure a long life.
For example, the annual 100@100 surveys conducted by UnitedHealthcare have consistently found that looking on the bright side and maintaining a positive state of mind are essential to a long and happy life. In fact, the 2015 survey of 100 people over the age of 100 found that:
61% view themselves as “very positive” people
84% think laughing and having a sense of humor are important to healthy aging
What’s more, centenarians rank having a positive attitude (25%) as more critical to overall good health than both eating a healthy diet (21%) and getting regular exercise (10%). Finally—and this may seem a bit counterintuitive—almost half of all respondents said that maintaining a positive attitude gets easier with age.
In addition, a study out of Yale University found that people with a positive view of aging live an average of 7-1/2 years longer than those with more negative attitudes.
So how do you resist negative feelings and keep the positive thoughts flowing? While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some practical steps you can take that will help you develop and maintain a more positive outlook.
Developing a Positive Attitude
Becoming a more positive person doesn’t have to be an exercise in futility. Like most things in life, all it takes is a little commitment to personal development and some old-fashioned hard work.
So in this proactive spirit, we now offer up some practical steps you can take to cultivate a positive attitude and increase your longevity.
Drop Dead Weight
It’s difficult to be positive when negative people and situations are weighing you down. So dump them! Well, unless it’s a close relative or life event you can’t avoid, in which case, might we suggest you just do your best to guard your time and maintain perspective. Whatever you can do to limit the time you spend giving energy to the people and situations that only drag you down will not only reduce stress but will also add to your happiness.
Dropping dead weight becomes much easier when you begin to honor yourself. Far from coming from a place of selfishness, honoring yourself means respecting and loving yourself enough to do what’s right for your highest good. When you learn to do that, the dead weight in your life will naturally begin to fall away, and you’ll attract the people and situations that contribute to a healthier and happier life.
Let’s be honest. Most of us tend to take things for granted. It doesn’t matter if it’s the greatest job, the closest family, or the best health, we rarely take a moment to be thankful for what we have. So whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or simply a beautiful wildflower that catches your eye, take a moment to stop and really appreciate it.
Positive affirmations can be a useful tool for encouraging more positive behaviors. By repeating a chosen set of positive words several times throughout the day, you can reprogram self-sabotaging thoughts. What makes this approach so user-friendly (and effective) is both its simplicity and the ease of molding the technique to suit your individual preference. After all, since you’re saying your affirmations in front of an audience of one, there’s no need to dress them up. Just focus on the changes you want to see in your life, compose a few succinct phrases that are easy to remember and worded as if the change has already taken place (such as I have… or I am…), and repeat as often as you like. The more you practice this simple technique—and believe in what you’re saying—the more positive your life will be.
Get a Hobby
In an ongoing study from the University of California Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND), researchers have discovered that people who spend at least 2 hours a day engaged in a hobby are 21% less likely to die early. So if you already have a hobby, keep at it. And if you’ve always wanted one but didn’t think you had the time, indulge yourself. You may just be adding years to your life and added enjoyment to your years.
Just like having a hobby, finding time to have fun is a must for longevity. After all, when you’re having fun, you’re living in the present moment—a place where regrets regarding the past and worries for the future don’t exist. What’s more, having fun releases powerful feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and have some fun!
Get a Pet
Few things keep you more present-focused and positive than having a pet. And there’s actually data to prove it. In a study conducted by the American Psychological Association of people who had pets and those who didn’t, it was found that people with pets had greater levels of physical and psychological well-being—including improved self-esteem—than their counterparts without pets.
When you practice mindfulness—the nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts, internal sensations, surroundings, etc.—whether by engaging in meditation or by simply enjoy a relaxing, thoughtful walk in the woods, you’re focused on the present moment and fully engaged with life. And just like having fun, mindfulness pulls you away from negative emotions like regret and worry and brings a sense of connectedness that can improve your overall well-being.
No matter how old you are, practicing just a few of these techniques on a daily basis can help train your brain to look at life in a more positive way. And as we’ve seen, cultivating a positive attitude may just be the key to a long and fulfilling life.
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):
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:
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:
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:
Tissue growth and repair
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.
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.
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.
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 TheEuropean 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.
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.