When Is the Best Time to Take Protein?

The best time to take protein supplements depends on your activity level, your personal goals, and the types of workouts you engage in. This article will provide you with specific, scientifically backed recommendations, and the reasoning behind that advice.

When taking protein supplements, people often wonder when exactly is the best time of day to consume them. Pre-workout? Post-workout? Is it okay to drink a protein shake before bed? Protein supplements can help people lose weight, build muscle, and recover from tissue damage due to injury or surgery. Because they’re so effective, most people want to be sure they’re utilizing protein the right way. So when is the best time to take protein? Short answer is: that depends on your health goals and the kinds of workouts you’re doing. For the longer answer and more detail, read on.

The Different Types of Protein Supplements

Protein is a source of energy for the body, essential for muscle growth, repairing damaged tissue, and preventing certain infections and diseases. Normal dietary protein comes from foods like meats, eggs, fish, dairy, grains, legumes, and seeds. Though animal products contain the most amount of protein, vegetables are sources of protein too, a fact well-known by those living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Of the most popular protein powders on the market in fact, a significant portion are plant-based.

Plant-based proteins include:

  • Soy protein containing all nine essential amino acids.
  • Rice protein, which is lower in the essential amino acid lysine.
  • Pea protein, which has lower levels of the essential amino acid methionine and nonessential amino acid cysteine.
  • Hemp protein, which is low in lysine but high in fiber, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are essential, meaning your body can’t make them on its own, and needs to gain them from the foods you eat.

Dairy-based proteins include:

  • Whey protein, which is absorbed relatively quickly and contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Casein protein from milk curds, also containing the essential amino acids, and with a slower digestion rate than whey (which is why people often take casein before they sleep, so it will digest throughout the night… more on that timing below).

Animal-based proteins include:

  • Egg protein powder made from pure egg white protein.
  • Creatine, which is not found in plants but can be synthetically created. Though it is an animal protein, depending on its origin source, it may nevertheless be possible for vegans to use creatine as a supplement.

These are among the most commonly known protein powders available to buy, but we here at the Amino Co. have also developed an essential amino acid (EAA) blend that isn’t lacking or low on any of the amino acids required for protein synthesis and new muscle growth. It also blends free-form amino acids with whey protein and creatine, a nonessential protein that nevertheless has great value as a supplement. These forms of protein are used to help those who want to build muscle rapidly, and can even benefit those with muscle, neurological, or neuromuscular diseases.

The Varied Uses of Protein Supplementation

From muscle building to weight loss, here’s a quick look at all that supplemental protein can do to benefit your body.

Exercise Performance and Recovery

Added protein has been shown to increase endurance during training and workouts, as well as reduce soreness and speed up post-workout recovery. The timing of your protein intake matters here, whether you’re eating high-protein foods or taking supplements. Read on to learn about workout-specific timing recommendations.

Muscle Building

Muscles can only be built when you have the proper amount of amino acids for protein synthesis, and when you’re consuming more protein than your body breaks down during workouts. Taking a protein supplement, especially one that contains all the necessary EAAs for muscle growth, can make a huge difference. Finding the right anabolic window, the period of time when the protein you take in will go directly to your muscles, is something the International Society of Sports Nutrition has done extensive research on, and we, too, will provide specific scientific reasoning below.

Muscle Loss Prevention

Muscle mass is lost not only during intensive workouts, but also naturally as we age. Each decade you live after the age of 30 brings with it a higher risk of losing muscle (anywhere between 3-8% per decade). Proper protein intake is not only valuable to athletes, bodybuilders, and anyone who works out regularly, but it’s also important for each and every one of us as we age. Most Americans reserve their protein more for dinner than breakfast (3 times the amount on average is the difference between the two meals), and could use a supplemental boost of protein first thing in the morning to shore up their protein stores and help prevent the loss of muscle mass due to aging.

Fat Loss Facilitation

Protein is filling enough to help curb hunger pangs and chemically contributes to appetite suppression by reducing the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. A high-protein diet raises your metabolism and increases levels of appetite-reducing hormones like peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). More satiety means fewer calories consumed throughout the day, which quickly leads to safe, maintainable weight loss and the reduction of dangerous body fat.

The Enduring Power of Protein

Popular because they’re convenient and effective, protein powders and supplements are here to stay and can offer you a wide variety of options, from self-mix formulas and powders to ready-to-drink protein shakes. If you’ve got your preferred protein supplement ready to go, then it’s time to wonder: when should you drink protein?

The Best Time to Take Protein Depending on Your Workout

Depending on your goals and activities, there are recommended times to take protein for the greatest effectiveness for your energy levels and muscle-building needs. Here are specific recommendations based on different types of workout activity.

The best time to take protein supplements.

Aerobic/Cardiovascular Exercise

Best time to take protein: Pre-workout and post-workout

The amino acid leucine is one of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and it promotes muscle recovery after workouts. Not only that, it activates protein synthesis, prompting new muscle to be built. One might think that due to leucine’s ability to boost endurance and stamina, one should take a BCAA supplement before a workout, but the science contradicts that idea. Not only are BCAAs only three of the nine essential amino acids needed to construct new muscle, leucine and the other BCAAs (isoleucine and valine) experience oxidative degradation during aerobic activity.

BCAAs are Insufficient Pre-Workout

Adding these limited amino acids before your workout, especially in the unbalanced form of BCAAs instead of a complete EAA formula, means that a greater percentage will be oxidized and used for energy instead of muscle building. Your body does not want to be out of balance, so a sudden overabundance of a few amino acids will cause the body to clean up and reduce them in order to maintain equilibrium.

Rather than risk burning off the protein you put in because your body is only looking for energy sources, it’s better to take a full measure of EAAs within the hour after your aerobic workout, when your body is looking for supplies to rebuild. Leucine will be there to prompt muscle protein synthesis, and the rest of the essential amino acids will all be included in the ideal ratio for generating new muscle growth.

EAAs are Effective Pre- and Post-Workout

That being said, taking a complete amino acid protein supplement before an aerobic cardiovascular workout (like a high-intensity interval training or HIIT class), not only provides the necessary ingredients for muscle building, but also helps fight fatigue in a way that only taking BCAAs can’t, by fueling your body with the amino acids that help produce dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

Whether you’re walking, cycling, running stairs, or jumping rope, start by taking your EAA supplement 30 minutes before your workout session. The biggest benefit comes when you take your EAA supplement within an hour after your workout, when your blood flow is strong and active. Not only will the amino acids rush in to replace damaged muscle fibers with new muscle, EAAs can also help calm unnecessary inflammation. That will help quicken your recovery, allowing you to feel only the good side effects of working out, like increased energy and light euphoria, instead of soreness and fatigue.

Resistance Exercise

Best time to take protein: Pre-workout, during, and post-workout

Research has shown that EAAs given 30 minutes before a resistance exercise workout prompt muscle protein synthesis much more effectively than consuming EAAs afterwards does. Taking a protein supplement before this type of workout helps prevent the breakdown of muscle protein during the activity, and also increases blood flow to the muscles, thus getting the amino acids quickly into the muscle where they’re needed.

Consuming EAAs after a resistance workout is not harmful by any means, as that method, too, will prompt the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis, but it’s not ideal to leave the consumption of EAAs until after your resistance training is complete. Our recommendation is to first and foremost take a complete protein supplement before a resistance workout, and if possible take them throughout and/or after as well to get the most benefit.

Bodybuilding

Best time to take protein: Pre- and post-workout, and also before bed.

Immediately before and after a weight-lifting workout, we recommend that you take 15 grams of EAAs each. An EAA supplement has been shown to have a faster effect on muscle protein synthesis than either whey or casein protein alone. However, our Amino Co. blend of free-form EAAs with whey and creatine support ensures that you get a fast dose of EAAs and that the EAAs from whey will digest more slowly as you work out, offering a steady supply to help prevent muscle breakdown. Creatine helps prevent catabolism by supplying faster energy than your body can naturally generate from muscle cell mitochondria. This means more energy for more reps, which ultimately means more work put in and more muscle gained.

An hour after your post-workout dose of EAAs, we recommend another 15-gram dose. On off days, continue taking these same doses, measured between meals instead of surrounding your workout. Lastly, it’s also recommended you take another 15-gram dose before bed to keep your muscles fed as you sleep and to help prevent muscle breakdown as much as possible. You work hard to gain your muscles, and we encourage you to protect those gains at every opportunity. Set your alarm to take one more dose around 4 am if you know you won’t have a problem falling back to sleep, that way your muscles never go hungry for fuel.

It should be noted here that bodybuilders aren’t the only ones who benefit from taking extra protein before bed. One study of 16 elderly men showed that those who consumed casein protein (which digests slowly) before bed had increased muscle growth over those who took a placebo, despite being less active individuals. When you’re sleeping, it’s the protein that counts, and not the activity.

Is There Any Downside to Taking Protein Supplements?

The majority of scientific studies into how our bodies process high amounts of protein show that you can safely consume plenty of protein without risk of harmful side effects. Unless your doctor advises against protein supplements or you have a known kidney issue like rhabdomyolysis, there is no need to worry about excessive protein intake; merely take your products as recommended and spread them throughout your day.

Timing Is Everything

At the end of the day, it’s true that people who work out need more protein, but even those with a less active lifestyle benefit from consuming extra protein for strength, for maintaining healthy weight levels, and for preventing the loss of muscle mass we all experience as we age.

Make a protein shake for breakfast, have another to curb your appetite between meals, and make another as a beneficial treat before bed. Know that the more regularly you take in balanced forms of protein like Amino Co.’s complete EAA blend, the more good you can do for your body. Whether you’re working out or not, upping your daily protein intake is safe and smart. Bulk up, slim down, and stay strong with protein!

What Are the Best Muscle Recovery Foods?

Wondering what muscle recovery foods are good for prevention and relief of delayed onset muscle soreness? This comprehensive list of foods full of healthy fats, amino acids, and natural sugars will support your workout and recovery goals.

After starting a new workout, you’re in for some growing pains. Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS can affect anyone, from those new to working out to elite athletes incorporating different exercises into their routines. Whenever you push your muscles, either with unfamiliar exercises or longer durations, you’re creating microscopic tears to the muscles, which then cause stiffness, soreness, and pain. Are sore muscles a good sign? Yes, in a sense, because it means you’re using your muscles in new ways that will eventually lead to a better fitness profile. But don’t fret! Eating muscle recovery foods can help ease the discomfort and may even help decrease muscle soreness in the first place.

Using food as your method of recovery and prevention may truly be the best road to take. The other suggestions to help muscle recovery either take extra time or come with other risks, and none of them can get in front of DOMS before it starts. Getting a massage after every workout would be great, but do you have the time, the money? Rest and ice packs are perfectly reasonable options too, but it’s the rest that might bother you if you’re really excited about a new workout and seeing results. Do you really want to take a couple of days off after every workout to let your muscles recover? It might not be a bad idea, but with the right foods pre- and post-workout, it might not be necessary either.

The last refuge to treat the ache and pain of muscle soreness is to use painkillers. Whether it’s over the counter fare you’d take for any pains (a wincing headache for example, or to relieve menstrual cramps), or prescription painkillers meant for more serious pains (a wrenched back or dental surgery). And these pain killers come with health-compromising side effects that are best avoided.

So what can you eat that will make a difference? Here are some foods you might want to include on the menu on gym days.

 Muscle recovery foods for prevention and relief.

Muscle Recovery Foods

Whether for their protein content, iron content, anti-inflammatory properties, or amino acids, these foods can help your muscles heal faster.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese has around 27 grams of protein per cup, and is often a regular food in the fitness community for those without any dietary restrictions surrounding milk products. In fact, the casein protein found in cottage cheese curds (as opposed to the whey protein found in watery milk) are often isolated and used as a workout protein supplement. As a slow-digesting protein, casein can help build and rebuild muscle while you sleep if it’s your last snack before bed.

The essential amino acid leucine is also present in cottage cheese, and comprises around 23% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein (the most abundant percentage of them all). Foods with leucine can help you build muscle by activating protein synthesis, and the faster you rebuild your muscle, the faster your muscle repair and workout recovery!

Eat it plain, or combine cottage cheese with some of the other recovery foods on this list to stack the benefits. Cottage cheese can even be used in baked goods and pancakes or included in protein shakes—don’t be afraid to get creative.

Sweet Potatoes

Adding sweet potatoes to your post-workout meal can help replenish your glycogen stores after a tough workout. Sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and beta-carotene as well, and are loaded with fiber which helps to control appetite and maintain healthy digestion and build muscle.

Sweet potatoes can be baked whole in the oven or on a grill, cut into fries, spiced with cinnamon, or made savory with garlic powder and pepper. Enjoy them at the dinner table or on the go: a baked potato wrapped in foil can join you just about anywhere.

Baking Spices

Speaking of what you can put on sweet potatoes, it turns out some baking spices are good for post-workout recovery as well. Not so much in the form of gingerbread cookies or cinnamon rolls, but a study showed that cinnamon or ginger given to 60 trained young women (between the ages of 13 and 25) significantly reduced their muscle soreness post-exercise. If you’re already having a sweet potato, make it a little sweeter with some cinnamon, add it to oatmeal, or put some in your coffee for the extra boost.

Coffee

Did we just mention coffee? Good news: coffee’s on the list too. Research suggests that about 2 cups of caffeinated coffee can reduce post-workout pain by 48%, and another study showed that pairing caffeine with painkilling pharmaceuticals resulted in a 40% reduction of the drugs taken. If you do need pharmaceutical pain relief, maybe coffee can help you minimize just how much you take—caffeine is a much less dangerous stimulant than pain pills.

Turmeric

Another spice on the list, turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, and has been shown to be a proven and reliable pain reliever. Whether it’s helping you with delayed onset muscle soreness or pain from an injury (workout-related or otherwise), turmeric eases both pain and swelling by blocking chemical pain messengers and pro-inflammatory enzymes.

As with the other spices, it can be easily added to baked goods, to coffee, and to oatmeal. With its beautiful golden color, you can even make what’s called “golden milk” or a turmeric latte by combining 2 cups of warm cow’s or almond milk with 1 teaspoon of turmeric and another teaspoon of ginger, and then sip your muscle soreness away.

Oatmeal

Speaking of oatmeal (and isn’t it nice that so many of these ingredients can be easily combined?), it, too, can help relieve muscle soreness. This complex carb gives you a slow and steady release of sugar, along with iron needed to carry oxygen through your blood, and vitamin B1 (thiamin), which can reduce stress and improve alertness. This is why oatmeal is a great way to start the day, but since it also includes selenium, a mineral that protects cells from free-radical damage and lowers the potential for joint inflammation, it’s a great food for those in high-intensity workout training as well (like, up to Olympic level training).

Use oatmeal as a daily vehicle for other healthy ingredients, including the spices on this list, and enjoy its reliable benefits.

Bananas

Easily sliced into oatmeal, included in smoothies, or eaten alone, not only are bananas a healthy way to replace sweets (frozen and blended they can even make a delicious ice cream alternative), bananas are also a great way to get much-needed potassium. Research suggests potassium helps reduce muscle soreness and muscle cramps like the dreaded “Charley horse” spasm that contracts your muscle against your will and might not let up until it causes enough damage to last for days. A banana a day could keep the Charley horse away, and is particularly delicious (and helpful) when paired with its classic mate: peanut butter.

Peanut Butter

The healthy fats and protein found in nut butters like peanut or almond butter can help repair sore muscles. A reliable source of protein for muscle building, with fiber for blood pressure aid, vitamin E for antioxidant properties, and phytosterols for heart health, peanut butter offers up a ton of benefit and is easy to eat anywhere. Make a sandwich, use it to help bind together portable protein balls filled with other ingredients, add it into smoothies, or just eat it from the jar with a spoon (no one’s judging).

Nuts and Seeds

If you’re a fan of protein balls, then you’re well acquainted with nuts and seeds, which are great additions to these protein-rich foods. While providing essential omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, various nuts and seeds can provide you protein for muscle protein synthesis, electrolytes for hydration, and zinc for an immune system boost. Something as simple as a baggie full of almonds, walnuts, pumpkin, and cashews can help maximize your muscles. Mixing in seeds (sunflower, chia, pumpkin) adds a healthy density that can curb your hunger and satisfy your appetite for longer. They’re small but powerful assets in quick muscle recovery.

Manuka Honey

This is not your grocery store honey in its little bear- or hive-shaped bottle. Manuka honey comes from the Manuka bush in New Zealand, with a milder flavor than that of bee honey and a much thicker texture. It’s anti-inflammatory and rich in the carbs needed to replenish glycogen stores and deliver protein to your muscles. Drizzle it over yogurt or stir it into tea to gain its benefits.

Green Tea

Green tea is particularly helpful for muscle recovery purposes. With anti-inflammatory antioxidants, it makes an excellent pre- or post-workout drink to prevent muscle damage related to exercise, and also helps you stay hydrated.

Cacao

Cacao has high levels of magnesium, antioxidants, and B-vitamins, which reduce exercise stress, balance electrolytes, and boost immunity and energy levels. The antioxidant flavanols in cacao also help up the production of nitric oxide in your body, which allows your blood vessel walls to relax, lowering blood pressure and promoting healthy blood flow. Adding cacao powder to your high-quality protein shakes or a glass of cow/almond/coconut milk post-workout will bring you its benefits.

Tart Cherries

Tart cherry juice has been shown to minimize post-run muscle pain, reduce muscle damage, and improve recovery time in professional athletes like lifters, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Enjoy tart cherry juice as a drink, or include the dried fruit as a part of your own muscle-building trail mix with the nuts and seeds discussed above. It’s not the only fruit or fruit juice you might include either. The nutrients in fruits like oranges, pineapples, and raspberries can also help speed up your recovery.

Salmon

Rich with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, muscle-building protein, and antioxidants, salmon is an extremely efficient post-workout food. Not an option if you are vegan or vegetarian, of course, but for the meat eaters among us, or those on the Paleo diet, salmon can specifically help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and provide you with an abundance of the protein needed for muscle growth. Eat this protein within 45 minutes after working out for maximum effect, either grilled, cooked up in salmon cakes, or raw in the form of sushi or sashimi. All of the above goes for tuna as well, by the way—reasons you might become a pescatarian.

Eggs

If you are an omnivore or ovo-vegetarian, eggs are great way to gain protein first thing in the morning, and an even more effective food to have immediately post-workout to help prevent DOMS. Like cottage cheese, eggs are a rich provider of leucine, and like salmon, eggs contain vitamin D (in their yolks). For your convenience, eggs can be boiled and brought along for immediate consumption after your training. Boil a dozen at the start of each week during your meal prep, and have an easy protein source in the palm of your hand every other day of the week.

Spinach

Did we really get all the way to the end of the list without a vegetable? So sorry! Let’s fix that with spinach. A powerhouse of antioxidants, not only can spinach help prevent diseases like heart disease and various cancers, but it also helps you recover quickly from intense exercise. Spinach’s nitrates help to strengthen your muscles, and its magnesium content helps maintain nerve function. Spinach helps to regulate your blood sugar (in case you worry about the spikes you might get from the sweeter items on this list), and can be added to many dinners, snuck into smoothies, or eaten on its own either raw or sautéed in olive oil.

Resist Damage and Recovery Quickly

These foods help with recovery from DOMS and reduce the amount of soreness you get in the first place by providing your body with the proteins and nutrients it craves when you’re working out to the best of your ability.

A quick note before you go. In your quest for pain-free muscles, you’ll want to avoid:

  • Refined sugar: Just one sugary soda a day can increase your inflammatory markers, as can white bread and other products with refined sugar. Natural sugars don’t bring that kind of adverse effect, so get your sugar from whole foods instead.
  • Alcohol: The dehydration caused by alcohol requires its own special recovery, and will deplete many of your vitamins (especially B vitamins). Some research suggests that alcohol can interfere with how your body breaks down lactic acid, which would increase muscle soreness. If you’re on a mission to build muscle, it’s best to avoid alcohol.

If you’re eating pretty well and avoiding what you shouldn’t eat, but still find muscle soreness a burden after working out, there is always the option to supplement.

What is the best supplement for muscle recovery? Evidence shows that getting all your body’s essential amino acids in balance will help specifically with muscle sprains and pulls, so when supplementing, just make sure you cover the waterfront (rather than choosing one or two essentials and neglecting the rest). Other than that, a diverse diet can be had in choosing natural preventions and remedies for healthy muscle recovery.

What Are Nonpolar Amino Acids?

What are nonpolar amino acids? This article will help explain how these amino acids are designated and what purpose they serve in the body.

Of the 20 common amino acids in the human body that build protein structures, 9 of them are essential (meaning we must eat or otherwise consume them to get them), and half of them are nonpolar. What are nonpolar amino acids? Which are they, and what does “nonpolar” mean? The review of the topic in this article will help explain.

The Definition of a Nonpolar Molecule

The nonpolar molecules we’ll be talking about are hydrophobic amino acids, meaning “water fearing” because they don’t mix with water molecules. You know how oil and water don’t mix? That’s because oil is hydrophobic.

The opposite of a nonpolar molecule is, as you might guess, polar. Polar molecules are hydrophilic, meaning “water loving.” If you’d like to visualize: polar molecules are like puppy dogs who love water so much that they’ll go barreling straight into muddy or smelly water after a tennis ball, with no hesitation at all. That would make nonpolar molecules like cats, better known for avoiding water, no thank you, and cleaning themselves without it.

Molecules are classified this way based on the charges on the atoms bonded together to form the molecule. If you remember your first taste of high school chemistry, you may remember that atoms have a nucleus of neutral neutrons and positive protons in the middle, and negative electrons swirling all around. Protons have a positive charge that draws electrons to it, like how opposites attract.

When two atoms bond together, they share electrons. Two atoms of the same element have equal positivity, so don’t have the power to steal electrons from the other. These molecules are nonpolar because they have no resulting charge. When atoms of two different elements connect together, invariably one of them will have the higher charge and attract the most electrons to its end of the joint molecule. That means the molecule is polar, or charged, and that charge will then be identified as either a positive or negative charge.

Examples of Nonpolar Molecules

Methane gas is an example of a nonpolar molecule that is created during the breakdown of food and released as a gas (or more colloquially, a fart). Methane is made up of one carbon atom that is bound to four hydrogen atoms: this hydrogen bonding allows the atoms to all share electrons equally, so this smelly molecule has no charge and is nonpolar.

Inside our body, we have both polar and nonpolar molecules, which includes those 20 amino acids mentioned above.

Nonpolar Amino Acids

The chemical properties of amino acids are largely determined by one group of molecules, what’s known as the R group: a side chain that differs on each amino acid. To visualize the amino acid groups, picture a pizza with four toppings, and a little support table in the middle that’s there to keep the cheese from sticking to the lid. That table is the alpha carbon to which all the groups or toppings are attached.

Every amino acid has three groups/toppings in common: the amino group (-NH2), the carboxyl group (COOH), and a hydrogen atom, which in pizza terms would be three standard toppings, say pepperoni, sausage, and cheese (cheese is hydrogen, which is just one atom and not a group of them, and so it gets the plainest topping). That fourth quarter of the pizza? That is the R group, the functional group that identifies and characterizes different amino acids—when you think of the R group, think R for Radical, because that is a completely different and unique topping, and every R group amino acid side chain has a distinct flavor of its own. To get up to 20 it would have to be pineapple, spinach, olives, Canadian bacon, jalapeño, garlic, anchovies, bell pepper, salami, feta cheese, beef, oregano, bacon, barbecue sauce, chicken, pesto, chorizo, broccoli, eggplant, and mushroom. Some are weirder than others.

The nonpolar amino acids have R groups mostly made up of hydrocarbons, though the amino acids methionine and cysteine also each feature a sulphur atom. The nonpolar amino acids are as follows, with more information on each one.

Glycine

  • Three letter code: gly
  • One letter code: G

The body needs glycine to make compounds like as glutathione, creatine, and collagen, which is the most abundant protein in your body. Collagen is a vital part of your muscles, blood, skin, cartilage, ligaments, and bones. Glycine may also protect your liver from alcohol damage, contribute to heart health, and improve your sleep quality. Glycine might also protect those with type 2 diabetes from muscle-wasting. You can gain more glycine by eating certain meat products or by taking a collagen supplement.

Alanine

  • Three letter code: ala
  • One letter code: A

Alanine is an amino acid that helps convert glucose into energy and helps eliminate excess toxins from your liver. Alanine keeps muscle protein from being cannibalized by the body during intense aerobic exercise or activity, and it’s needed to balance nitrogen and glucose levels in the body, which it does via the alanine cycle.

Alanine is a nonessential amino acid, which means that usually your body can make the substance on its own and doesn’t need you to ingest it from outside. However, people with eating disorders, extremely low-protein diets, diabetes, liver disease, or certain genetic conditions that cause UCDs (urea cycle disorders), may need to take a supplement or adjust their diet to gain this amino acid.

Good sources of alanine are meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, as well as some protein-rich plant foods, like avocado. There are supplements containing alanine on the market, however, taking any one amino acid alone could upset the balance of nitrogen in the body, putting stress on the liver and kidneys as they try to eliminate waste. It is advisable that those with liver or kidney disease should consult a trusted medical professional before taking any amino acid supplement.

Proline

  • Three letter code: pro
  • One letter code: P

Proline is needed for the manufacture of cartilage and collagen, which helps heal cartilage and cushion our joints and vertebrae. It keeps joints flexible, and skin supple when it is affected by sun damage or signs of normal aging. Proline breaks down proteins for cell creation, and is essential at sites of injury where the tissue must be rebuilt to heal. Proline supplementation is sometimes valuable to people with chronic back pain or osteoarthritis.

Proline is also needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue, and is sometimes found low in long-distance runners and other serious athletes. Proline is usually nonessential, as the body naturally derives proline from its supplies of glutamic acid. However, if necessary, proline can be found in natural sources like dairy, meat, and eggs, or can be gained from amino acid supplementation.

Valine

  • Three letter code: val
  • One letter code: V

Valine is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that works with the other two BCAAs (isoleucine and leucine) to regulate blood sugar, repair tissues, and provide the body with energy. Valine assists in stimulating the central nervous system and is necessary for mental functioning. Valine helps provide muscles with extra glucose energy during intense physical activity, which prevents muscle breakdown, and helps remove toxic excess nitrogen from the liver. Valine may help the liver and gallbladder recover from damage due to alcoholism or drug abuse, as well as help possibly reverse alcohol-related brain damage, or hepatic encephalopathy.

Valine is an essential amino acid, and must be obtained through a diet including meats, mushrooms, dairy products, peanuts, and/or soy protein. Most people have no problem getting enough valine, however maple syrup urine disease or MSUD is caused by an inability to metabolize leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Supplementation is sometimes warranted in those with low-protein diets or who are trying to build muscle mass, but be advised that too much valine intake will make one’s skin feel like it is crawling, and may cause hallucinations. Supplements should always be taken responsibly.

Leucine

  • Three letter code: leu
  • One letter code: L

Leucine helps with blood sugar regulation, muscle repair, and energy production. It also helps burn fat located deep inside the body that is hard to reach through diet and exercise alone.

Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) along with valine and isoleucine, all of which help to promote post-exercise muscle recovery, leucine being particularly effective, as it converts to glucose the fastest of the three. That is also why leucine is closely linked with the regulation of blood sugar, and why a leucine deficiency causes symptoms like hypoglycemia: headaches, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, depression, and irritability.

Leucine promotes the recovery of skin, bones, and muscle tissue after injury or surgery. Natural sources of this essential amino acid are meat, nuts, soy flour, brown rice, beans, and whole wheat.

Isoleucine

  • Three letter code: ile
  • One letter code: I

An isolated form of leucine, isoleucine is prized by bodybuilders for its ability to increase endurance, help repair muscle tissue, and encourage clotting at sites of injury. Isoleucine is broken down for energy inside muscle tissue, and helps stabilize energy levels by aiding in blood sugar regulation. An isoleucine deficiency also produces symptoms that mimic hypoglycemia.

Isoleucine is an essential amino acid, and food sources include high-protein options like nuts, peas, lentils, seeds, meat, eggs, fish, and soy protein.

Methionine

  • Three letter code: met
  • One letter code: M

An essential amino acid that helps the body process and eliminate fat, methionine contains sulfur, a substance required for the production of the body’s natural antioxidant, glutathione. The body also needs methionine to produce two other sulfur-containing amino acids, cysteine and taurine, which help the body eliminate toxins, build tissues, and promote cardiovascular health.

Methionine helps the liver process fats (lipids), preventing accumulation of too much fat in the liver, which is essential for the elimination of toxins to stay functional. Methionine is needed to make creatine, a nutrient found mainly in muscle tissue and often taken as a supplement to boost athletic performance. Methionine is also needed for collagen formation, which is then used to make skin, nails, and connective tissue. One study suggested that taking 6 grams of methionine a day can improve memory recall in AIDS patients who otherwise show a marked methionine deficiency. Methionine may also help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Methionine is an essential amino acid, and can be gained from eating garlic, beans, seeds, eggs, fish, lentils (in lower levels), meat, onions, soybeans, and yogurt.

Tryptophan

  • Three letter code: trp
  • One letter code: W

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps balance nitrogen in adults and growth in infants. It also creates niacin, which is needed to create the “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin. In this way, tryptophan helps influence relief from depression and anxiety, managing pain tolerance and increased emotional well-being. Tryptophan is also associated with promoting deeper sleep.

You can get tryptophan through certain foods or a supplement in powder form. Natural food sources include cheese, milk, fish, turkey (famously), chicken, eggs, pumpkin and sesame seeds, chocolate, as well as tofu and soy.

Phenylalanine

  • Three letter code: phe
  • One letter code: F

Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that is needed for the functioning of the central nervous system. It has been successfully used to help control feelings of depression and chronic pain, and other diseases linked to a malfunctioning central nervous system. Especially effective for treating brain disorders, phenylalanine is able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, and only chemicals that are able to cross that barrier can directly influence brain function.

Phenylalanine is used to make epinephrine, dopamine, and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that control how you perceive and interact with the world around you. Phenylalanine supplementation can help you feel happier and more alert, and it also has been used to treat chronic pain and improve cognitive function. An essential amino acid, phenylalanine is normally obtained from high-protein foods like meat, fish, chicken, eggs, milk, dairy products, beans, and nuts.

Cysteine

  • Three letter code: cys
  • One letter code: C

Cysteine is an amino acid containing a sulfur atom, and is used to form healthy bones, skin, hair, and connective tissue. It is also needed to make glutathione, one of the body’s natural antioxidants that fight free-radical damage. Cysteine and glutathione work together to remove toxins from the liver, and cysteine is often used in emergency rooms to treat acetaminophen overdoses before they can cause liver damage. It also protects the brain and liver against toxins from alcohol and cigarettes, and may be useful in preventing hangovers.

Cysteine is a nonessential amino acid, which means the body manufactures it in-house, but foods such as meat, eggs, dairy products, and whole grains are also good sources of cysteine.

Nonpolar Knowledge

There you have the rundown of the amino acid nonpolar side chains, the nonpolar aminos that variously help form protein molecules in our bodies, and do so much to keep us alive and functioning at top form.

What Do Amino Acids Do? Their Role in the Human Body

The main role of amino acids in the human body is as components of body proteins, but amino acids serve many additional functions. Certain amino acids serve as neurotransmitters. Others play a direct part in the regulation of blood flow and blood pressure. Amino acids also support immune function and detoxification!

We’ve all heard of amino acids, and most of us have probably even heard the term “essential amino acids” before. But how many of us have ever stopped to ask ourselves, what do amino acids do?

The term “amino acids” refers to a class of simple organic compounds whose members contain at least one amino group (–NH2) and one carboxyl group (–COOH). The word “amino” is a direct reference to the nitrogen (N) atom contained in the molecule. As such, the presence of nitrogen can be considered the defining characteristic of amino acids.

You may recall learning about the building blocks of protein in your high school biology class. But that’s actually a very accurate description of the role amino acids play in the body. Without them, protein would not be created and we would not be here discussing this topic at all.

But how exactly is this feat of protein synthesis accomplished?

Protein Synthesis (and Breakdown)

Your body uses amino acids in a number of different ways, but amino acids are most closely associated with the process of protein synthesis, whereby our cells generate new proteins.

There are actually more than 300 common amino acids, but only 20 of these are incorporated into body proteins. And of these 20 different amino acids, 9 are considered essential because they are not synthesized in the body and must be obtained through dietary sources.

Proteins are actually made up of long chains of amino acids. And even though 20 amino acids may not seem like very many, the body can actually put these 20 amino acids together in seemingly endless combinations, creating literally thousands of different proteins.

In fact, amino acids are so important that essential amino acids (EAAs) are the only dietary macronutrients (nutrients required in large amounts) that must be consumed for survival.

Let that bit of information just sink in for a moment.

Believe it or not, after infancy, we can survive without any carbohydrates at all for the rest of our lives, and we can last 6 months or more without any fats. But our bodies don’t have the ability to store proteins. And since our cells need proteins to function, without amino acids, we wouldn’t survive for long.

Because the body needs proteins to function, these same proteins will eventually be broken down as they’re used by the cells. Amino acids thus play a further role in maintaining the balance between this breakdown and synthesis of new proteins.

Here’s how this process works.

In the process of protein breakdown, amino acids are released. These amino acids can then become precursors for the synthesis of new proteins. However, some of the amino acids released as byproducts of protein breakdown will be irreversibly oxidized (chemically combined with oxygen), making them unavailable for reincorporation into new proteins.

Nonessential amino acids (NEAAs) help produce new proteins so that the rates of protein breakdown and synthesis remain balanced. These particular amino acids are produced by the body, so we don’t need to obtain them through dietary sources.

Most dietary proteins are also composed of at least 50% to 60% NEAAs, so in most circumstances, we consume more than enough NEAAs through the food we eat.

By contrast, EAAs can only be obtained from the diet. So, if our diets are lacking in plenty of healthy whole foods, unless we’re supplementing with a high-quality amino acid program for nutritive support, we probably won’t be getting enough EAAs.

And this will result in a progressive loss of protein because the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown will be lost, with the rate of breakdown outpacing the rate of synthesis.

To avoid this imbalance and ensure our bodies have access to a steady supply of EAAs, we need to be sure we’re including plenty of protein sources in our diets. Some great sources of EAAs include:

Meat Quinoa Lentils
Poultry Pumpkin seeds Beans
Eggs Whole grains Nuts
Dairy products Tofu Seeds

Amino Acids and Muscles

If we’re not giving our bodies the fuel they crave, one of the first areas we may notice the imbalance is in our muscles.

In other words, without the amino acids the body needs for muscle tissue growth, maintenance, and repair, muscle mass will be lost and exercise performance—and even basic functioning—will suffer.

Let’s break this down and see why amino acids are so important for muscle health.

Muscle Growth and Repair

As we stated earlier, if the balance between protein synthesis and breakdown is tilted in favor of protein breakdown, the amount of protein in the body will decrease.

For muscles, less protein being synthesized means less muscle growth and more muscle breakdown.

Muscles are also the main reservoir of amino acids in the body. If the daily intake of amino acids can’t keep up with the demands of protein synthesis, your muscles will actually release some of their amino acids for use by other parts of the body.

Over time, this emphasis on protein turnover instead of protein synthesis can have implications for everything from exercise performance to maintenance of activities of daily living.

To correct this imbalance and, indeed, shift the focus heavily toward muscle protein synthesis, the world of bodybuilders and endurance athletes has long been interested in the benefits of branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs.

The BCAAs—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are touted by fitness junkies for their ability to preserve muscle stores of glycogen (the primary fuel used by muscles during exercise), minimize protein breakdown during exercise, and reduce post-workout muscle soreness and muscle recovery.

On the face of it, that does sound great.

However, as we’ve learned, muscle protein synthesis involves all 20 amino acids working together—linking together—in specific ways to build the protein our bodies need.

If any single EAA is in short supply, protein synthesis will stop as soon as we’ve exhausted its supply. The amino acid in shortest supply during protein synthesis is therefore known as the limiting amino acid.

Making a complete protein requires sufficient quantities of each of the 20 amino acids. Therefore, there is no single best amino acid or group of amino acids for both muscle growth and muscle repair, as the body needs all of them to produce protein.

However, balanced formulations of essential amino acid supplements that emphasize specific amino acids to target specific areas can be helpful.

Amino Acids for Complete Health and Wellness

With all this focus on protein synthesis, we may have given you the impression that that’s all amino acids do. But that would be far from the truth.

In fact, amino acids are involved in an array of processes that go far beyond their role as building blocks of proteins.

For example, certain amino acids serve as neurotransmitters or precursors for the production of other neurotransmitters, and thus help balance our moods and minds.

Amino acids also play a direct role in the regulation of blood flow and blood pressure and the production of nitric oxide—a potent vasodilator affecting everything from cardiovascular to brain health.

In addition, amino acids support immune function, serve as antioxidants, and promote detoxification of harmful substances in the liver.

As you can see, there are many benefits of amino acids, from building muscle to regulating blood flow to detoxifying the body. So, if somebody ever asks you, what do amino acids do? don’t be shy. You now have an answer for them.