Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery After Exercise

Amino acids and muscle recovery go hand in hand. You need all 20 amino acids that make up the proteins in your body for optimal muscle recovery. Without amino acid support, your body eats away at its own muscle tissue for energy. We’ve got the scoop.

If you’re a fitness enthusiast, you probably tend to focus much more on the doing—sprinting, lifting, contracting—than on the process of recovery. However, if you don’t allow your muscles to recover, you can’t perform, compete, or train at your best. For just as our brains process information and create and consolidate memories as we sleep, so, too, do our muscles resynthesize, recalibrate, and grow when we rest. But did you know that you can also accelerate muscle growth during recovery by boosting muscle protein synthesis with amino acid nutrition? If you’re interested in increasing both muscle mass and exercise performance, come with us as we explore the fundamental relationship between amino acids and muscle recovery.

What Happens to Muscle During (and After) Exercise?

Every time you engage in exercise your muscles aren’t used to, some muscle damage occurs. And whether you’re an endurance athlete or into strength training, this unfamiliar stress leads to microscopic tears in the muscles. You’ve probably noticed the discomfort this causes a day or two after a high-intensity workout. Known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this post-exercise pain is the result of the tension muscles experience during eccentric (lengthening) exercises.

Believe it or not, these microscopic tears and the muscle protein breakdown they lead to have to happen if muscle strength and mass are to increase. When muscle fibers are damaged, satellite cells rush in to fuse the damaged fibers together, and this creates newer, stronger, and larger muscle fibers.

Think of satellite cells as stem cells for your muscles. Not only are these precursors to skeletal muscle cells made of protein—and therefore amino acids, the building blocks of protein—but they’re also essential for muscle repair after a workout. Moreover, they stimulate the production of more durable muscle, and this leads to better muscle function.

Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery

According to a 1995 study, muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle) is elevated by 50% 4 hours after high-intensity resistance training and by 109% 24 hours post workout. So for the next 24 to 48 hours after intensive exercise, your body needs plenty of protein-rich foods and the amino acids they contain to supply your muscles with the nutrients they need to grow in size and strength.

In other words, amino acids and muscle recovery go hand in hand. In fact, you need all 20 amino acids that make up the proteins in your body for optimal muscle recovery. Eleven of these amino acids are produced in the body, but nine are essential amino acids (EAAs), which means they must be consumed in the diet because they’re not produced in the body.

Increasing protein intake after a workout with the use of a balanced EAA supplement or even protein supplements, such as protein shakes or whey protein—which contain all the EAAs—is an effective way to activate muscle protein synthesis and aid in muscle recovery.

Increasing consumption of EAAs also stimulates reutilization of the 11 nonessential amino acids (NEAAs) for protein synthesis, thereby decreasing their oxidation and resultant increase in the byproducts ammonia and urea, which further aids muscle recovery.

What all this means is that providing your muscles with the amino acid nutritional intervention they require helps keep your muscles protected. The reason for this is that protein is used by the body for almost every biological process, and the majority of that protein is locked up in muscle tissue. So if the availability of amino acids to rebuild the protein lost during muscle breakdown is limited, not only does muscle protein synthesis suffer, but your body also has no choice but to use its own muscle to keep the rest of the machine running.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery

Branched-chain amino acid supplementation has become popular among bodybuilders and other workout buffs to help increase athletic performance. On the face of it, this makes sense, as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, valine, and isoleucine—make up nearly 35% of muscle tissue and are a source of fuel for the muscles.

However, while this may accelerate recovery from muscle soreness, BCAAs are limited in their ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is because all the EAAs are required for a complete protein to be produced. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that taking BCAAs alone has either no effect or only a minor one on the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

Why is this?

Research has shown that the availability of all the EAAs determines the rate of muscle protein synthesis. So even if you’re consuming a BCAA supplement after your workout, the rate of muscle building is still going to be determined by how many of the other EAAs are present. This is because you can’t make a complete protein out of just three amino acids, so unless you’re also getting enough of the other six EAAs, the effectiveness of BCAAs will be limited.

In addition, an excess of BCAAs has been shown to disrupt levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. In fact, a 2013 study found that BCAA supplementation, when used in isolation, lowers levels of several important neurotransmitters, including catecholamines, which are necessary for enhanced athletic performance. So to get the most out of your exercise routine—and your muscles—you must consume BCAAs as part of a balanced mixture of all the EAAs.

However, even though consuming both protein and amino acid supplements after exercise can provide important benefits, it’s important to realize that they’re merely supplements to your regular diet. If you really want to give your muscles the nutritional support they need, focus on refueling your body after your workouts with foods that are abundant in amino acids.

Consuming between 0.5 and 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight should provide you with the right amount of amino acids to help increase your muscle mass and improve your athletic performance.

Foods high in amino acids

Amino Acids and Gaining “Good” Weight After Serious Illness, Surgery or Injury

Recovery almost inevitably involves regaining the weight that was lost. It is important that the regained weight is largely muscle, and that you don’t replace the muscle you lost with new fat. The key to gaining good weight is optimal amino acid nutrition.

Obesity has become such a pervasive problem in the United States that few people think about gaining weight on purpose. That is, until they lose a drastic amount of weight due to serious illness, surgery, or injury. The weight lost in these circumstances includes a significant amount of muscle. Recovery almost inevitably involves regaining the weight that was lost. It is important that the regained weight is largely muscle, and that you don’t replace the muscle you lost with new fat. The key to gaining good weight is optimal amino acid nutrition.

Why Illness, Surgery, or Injury Often Results in Weight Loss

When you become seriously ill, undergo the physical stress associated with major surgery, or suffer a severe injury, your body may enter what’s known as a catabolic state.

The catabolic state refers to the rapid loss of weight, especially muscle, accompanying physiological stress. Some events that might cause a catabolic state include major surgery or trauma, serious chronic diseases like cancer and heart failure, or acute illnesses such as pneumonia. Even a serious case of the flu can create a catabolic state. There are two components of the catabolic state:

  1. Changes in muscle metabolism that are part of the stress response
  2. Decreased appetite

Many catabolic states involve hospitalization during the most severe stage, perhaps even in the intensive care unit. Receiving an adequate intake of nutrients in a severe catabolic state becomes challenging for several reasons. First, the normal anabolic (muscle building) response to protein intake diminishes, a condition called anabolic resistance. Second, glucose metabolism is altered significantly—insulin resistance kicks in and fat accumulates in the liver. And third, fatty acid levels in the blood drastically increase. During the acutely severe stage, the debilitative effects of bedrest are often superimposed onto those fundamental elements of the body’s stress response.

The primary nutritional focus for helping individuals weather a catabolic state with the most minimal damage possible should be the consumption of essential amino acids (EAAs). Providing your body with a steady supply of essential amino acids can effectively slow down the loss of muscle that accompanies anabolic resistance. Even EAAs have a limited effectiveness in the catabolic state, however, and some degree of muscle loss is inevitable.

Full Recovery Involves Gaining Good Weight

Once the initial health issue has passed and you’ve entered the recovery phase, you may actually be happy to have lost some weight. The problem with this perspective is that the stress response specifically targets muscle loss. Although some fat is lost as well, a significant portion of weight loss that occurs in a catabolic state comes directly from your muscle mass.

Further, it’s important to make peace with the fact that you will almost inevitably regain the weight that you lost in one way or another. The key is to restore your lost muscle mass, and avoid unfavorably affecting your body composition by regaining the weight you shed as fat.

Making a Healthy Weight-Gain Meal Plan

Making the decision to gain weight should not be interpreted as a license to binge on high-calorie, sugary, salt-laden junk food. While that could very well provide you with the extra calories required to gain weight, you’ll be undermining your overall health in the process.

The point of gaining good weight is to restore your lost muscle mass and subcutaneous fat, not to build up deposits of belly fat that have been linked to adverse health outcomes including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The best healthy weight-gain strategy for you will depend on your individual circumstances and goals; however, there are certain strategies for devising a healthy weight-gain meal plan and exercise protocol that can be universally beneficial.

The Importance of Protein

Protein should be the macronutrient that dominates your meal plan for gaining good weight. As you may be aware, your muscles are formed from protein. Making protein the base of your diet, therefore, makes it far more likely that the extra calories you take in will be transformed into muscles, not excess body fat.

Initially, anabolic resistance lingers after recovery, which will limit the efficacy of the protein you consume. As your physical condition improves, your body will become more efficient at putting the dietary protein you consume to work promoting muscle growth.

Research has consistently demonstrated that getting your extra calories from protein results in more lean muscle mass gains and less fat mass gains.

A study published in JAMA compared the effects of low-, normal-, and high-protein diets on weight gain and body composition. All participants ate diets designed to provide approximately 40% more calories than needed to maintain their current weights. The authors found that participants on the high-protein diet gained significantly more lean body mass—in other words, muscle mass—than those on the normal- and low-protein diets.

Aim to consume between 25% and 30% of your daily calories in the form of high-quality protein. Another way to conceptualize the amount of protein needed to gain weight is to shoot for between 0.7 and 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Depending on your calorie intake, you may find you have room to increase that.

One thing to keep in mind: protein is highly filling. You may find that increasing the number of grams of protein you eat each day substantially reduces your appetite. That’s why increasing your protein intake is also a helpful strategy for meeting weight-loss goals (albeit, without the overall strategy of eating more than enough calories to meet your body’s energetic needs). While this could make it challenging for you to eat the extra calories needed for weight gain, I’ll provide helpful tips on how to overcome this hurdle later on in the article.

Structuring your diet around protein will involve incorporating a variety of high-quality protein sources, such as:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Many dairy products
  • Legumes
  • Nuts

Unless you have dietary restrictions that rule out animal proteins, I recommend making those the focal point of your healthy weight-gain meal plan. Animal-based proteins, including many dairy products, not only contain all the essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle, but also have a higher ratio of overall calories from protein. On average, about 50% of the calories in animal protein food sources come from protein. In contrast, around 70% or more of the calories in many plant-based protein food sources may come from carbohydrates.

How to Handle Fats and Carbohydrates

Since your primary—and quite likely, unfamiliar—goal is to gain weight, you may need to adjust the way you typically think about food. If you’re accustomed to restricting your carbohydrate or fat intake, this is the moment to let go of that. Placing limits on how much fat or how many carbs you eat will only make it harder for you to eat the calorie-dense foods required for healthy weight gain.

Yet another reason to prioritize animal protein as a mainstay of your meal plan for gaining good weight is that the majority of the non-protein calories in these foods come from fat. While many of us have been conditioned to think eating fat is harmful, that is certainly not the case—especially if you are recovering from a catabolic state. Adding more healthy fats to your diet is a wonderful way to increase your total caloric intake and support your body as it re-builds lost muscle.

If you’re going to worry about eating too much of any of the three macronutrients (and as long as you’re eating healthy, whole foods, there’s little cause for any concern at all), direct your attention to carbohydrate consumption. The metabolism of dietary carbohydrate requires the effective action of insulin, and the catabolic state induces a resistance to the normal action of insulin that may persist for months. Insulin resistance makes carbohydrate metabolism less effective as an energy substrate. In simpler terms, this makes it more likely that the carbohydrates you consume will be converted to fat and stored in the liver.

Because of this potentiality, I find it reasonable to limit carbohydrate consumption to between 20% and 30% of your overall caloric intake. That said, you will likely see the greatest weight-gain results if you include plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates at each meal.

Strive to eat at least three macronutrient-optimized meals per day. If you have a good appetite (and the physical activity routine I describe below will help to stimulate that), you should also feel free to add in energy-dense healthy snacks whenever possible.

As you regain your muscle mass and approach complete recovery, your basic diet should evolve towards one of the diet options that suits your individual needs and preferences. Maintaining a high-protein intake (about 25% of your daily calories) will help to maintain the muscle you have regained during recovery.

24 of the Best Foods to Help You Gain Weight in a Healthy Way

Whole, single-ingredient, healthy foods should form the basis of your healthy weight-gain meal plan. However, as I mentioned in reference to high-protein foods, these foods do tend to be more filling than the quick-and-easy processed foods that can be so tempting to rely on. This can make it challenging to create the calorie surplus necessary to gain weight.

To encourage yourself to eat enough of these foods to gain the weight you lost, get creative with your use of spices, sauces, and condiments. Make your meals so irresistibly delicious that you simply have to clean your plate.

Another helpful tip for getting the amount of calories needed to gain weight fast is to emphasize energy-dense foods. These foods contain a high number of calories relative to their weight. Here are seven types of energy-dense foods to add to your grocery list:

  1. High-fat dairy: There are a plethora of good options in this category. Think whole milk, full-fat yogurt, organic cheese, and so on. If you’re vegan, full-fat coconut milk is your best option.
  2. Meat: Let your tastes, and the usual best practices for buying meat, guide you. Choose pasture-raised or free-range options whenever possible. And the fattier the cut, the better.
  3. Nuts: Go nuts for nuts! Avoid overly processed options—you can always add your own flavor enhancers if you like. Almonds, walnuts, and macadamia nuts are particularly nutrient-rich. Nut butters can be a fabulous, calorie-dense treat, but steer clear of varieties with added sugar.
  4. Fats and oils: It’s hard to get more energy-dense than fats and oils! Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter all have many desirable characteristics. And don’t forget avocados, that beautifully fatty fruit!
  5. Root vegetables: These starchy veggies are the perfect way to add healthy carbohydrates to your plate. Load up on sweet potatoes, yams, rutabaga, turnips, and even plain old potatoes.
  6. Grains: Whole grains can be another solid option when it comes to healthy carbohydrates. Try making oats for breakfast or serving brown rice with your dinner.
  7. Healthy snacks: This is the broadest category, and your personal tastes will, of course, come into play here. Some of my personal favorites include dark chocolate and dried fruit as well as homemade granola and trail mixes.

You may have noticed that few fruits and vegetables appear on the list above. I’m certainly not suggesting that you stop eating fruits and vegetables, however, those foods are unlikely to contribute significantly to the caloric excess you are attempting to create.

Exercising to Rebuild Lost Muscle Mass

Exercise is always important in relation to muscle mass and function, and never more so than when you are recovering from a catabolic state. Exercise is the best way to reverse muscle loss and regain normal function. Prioritizing exercise—and strength training in particular—during your recovery period encourages your body to store the extra calories you eat as muscle, not fat.

However, depending on your particular situation, it may be difficult to follow the general guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine for the amount and intensity of exercise. It may be necessary to go to a physical therapist initially, followed by an experienced trainer, to formulate the best plan for recovery exercises.

The general guideline of resistance exercise 2 times per week and aerobic exercise 5 times per week is appropriate, with the understanding that the level of intensity can be quite limited at first. Try to increase the weight you lift as well as the number of repetitions and sets you do over time. When it comes to cardio, there’s no need to deprive yourself of the fitness benefits associated with this type of exercise, but be sure to adjust your caloric intake to account for the calories you burn off. Remember, your goal at the moment is to consume an excess of calories.

The key to successful recovery is understanding that your exercise capacity will eventually return if you stick with it. This may be easier said than done in the depleted state after recovery from a catabolic state, but there is no substitute for persistence.

Using Essential Amino Acid Supplements to Maximize Your Recovery

As I explained earlier, essential amino acids play a key role in helping your body recover from catabolic stress. That’s part of the reason why it’s so vital that you increase your protein intake.

You may also find it helpful to add on an essential amino acid supplement specifically formulated to target an increase in muscle mass and function.

Ideally, you will want to take your essential amino acid supplement between meals to avoid the muscle loss that normally occurs in the absence of the absorption of dietary protein. As you regain strength, you will want to start coordinating the timing of your supplement intake with your exercise routine. It is optimal to take essential amino acids about 30 minutes before exercise and then again after exercise. Regardless of how light the exercise is, it is, in fact, activating the muscle to begin the process of restoration to full strength. Essential amino acids should be taken in conjunction with whatever physical activity you perform.

You’ll want to choose an amino acid supplement formulated with essential amino acids in a relatively pure form. That means avoiding blends that include other ingredients that simply add non-protein, non-amino acid calories.

The dosage of essential amino acids that gives the greatest stimulation of muscle protein synthesis is 15 grams—more than 15 grams at one time won’t provide much additional benefit. On a gram-for-gram basis, smaller doses may be more effective. A dose as low as 3.6 grams has been shown to be a potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, there is quite a bit of flexibility in dosing.

Nonetheless, the larger the dose (up to 15 grams), the greater the muscle gain with each dosage. For optimal restoration of lost muscle, 15 grams twice per day between meals will give you the fastest results.

The 4 Stages of Wound Healing: How Amino Acids Can Accelerate Wound Repair

Wound healing is a complex series of reactions that involve at least four distinct processes. Let’s first take a look at what happens when you get a wound and the 4 stages of wound healing so that we can better understand how proper nutrition and amino acids can accelerate wound repair.

As a research scientist, I’ve conducted many studies on wound healing and nutritional and metabolic support following serious illness and/or injury. Throughout my 40-year career, amino acid nutrition has emerged as a major nutritive aid for the four stages of wound healing.

These four distinct stages involve a complex series of reactions often referred to as the phases of wound healing. But that implies a sequence of events. While some processes do indeed precede others, some also occur simultaneously.

Let’s take a look at what happens when you get a wound so that we can better understand how proper nutrition and essential amino acid support can accelerate the healing process.

The 4 Stages of Wound Healing

Stage 1: Hemostasis Phase

The first thing your body needs to do when it gets a wound is to stop the bleeding. During the process of hemostasis, blood vessels narrow in order to reduce blood flow, and platelets begin to clump together in order to patch up the tear in the blood vessel wall.

Next, the blood starts to clot as a way of “plugging up” the wound, and an enzyme called thrombin activates the formation of a fibrin mesh (composed of a type of insoluble protein) that covers the platelet plug and helps form a stable clot.

Once blood loss is under control, inflammatory cells migrate to the site of the wound to begin the inflammatory phase of wound healing.

Stage 2: Inflammatory Phase

Inflammation plays a key role in initiating the process of healing. During this second phase, inflammation helps to regulate bleeding and protect against infection by removing debris, bacteria, and pathogens from the wound site.

Inflammatory agents—white blood cells, nutrients, enzymes, and growth factors—create the redness, swelling, and pain typically associated with the inflammatory phase, which, under normal conditions, lasts between 4 and 6 days.

While inflammation is an essential part of the healing process, sustained inflammation is counterproductive and actually slows healing.

4 stages of wound healing

Stage 3: Proliferative Phase

During this tissue growth phase, the wound is filled and covered using new tissue made of collagen (the protein that gives skin its strength and structure) and an extracellular matrix formed from connective tissue cells called fibroblasts. The wound edges (referred to as wound margins) contract and pull toward the center of the wound as new blood vessels and tissues are formed.

During the initial stage of this process, the new tissue that is formed is known as granulation tissue. Healthy granulation tissue can be recognized by its pink or red color and somewhat shiny appearance.

Cells called epithelial cells then move from the wound margins and travel across the wound bed, covering the new tissue. This process can last from as few as 4 days to as many as 24. The collagen that is created during this phase, however, is disordered and thick.

Stage 4: Maturation Phase

Starting at around day 21 of the healing process, the maturation phase—or remodeling phase, as it’s sometimes called—restructures the collagen from type III (the main component of reticular fibers, which act as a supportive mesh) to type I (the most common type of collagen in the body and a major structural component of the skin) so that the collagen lines up with the wound’s tension lines.

As tissue repair continues, collagen creeps ever closer together and cross-links (a process that reduces the thickness of the scar tissue and strengthens the skin growing over the wound). This phase can last more than a year, but healed wounds tend never to regain 100% of their tensile strength (the ability to resist tension and not break).

If one or more of these phases is disrupted or incomplete, successful wound closure can’t occur. A range of factors—from advancing age to inadequate nutrition—can impair the wound healing process. And failure to complete all four stages of wound healing successfully can cause a pathologic inflammatory response and chronic, non-healing wounds.

Factors That Slow Wound Healing

Wound healing isn’t cut and dried. In fact, there are many physiologic factors that can slow this complex process. For example, according to a scientific article published in the Journal of Dental Research, the rate of wound healing can be slowed by:

  • Infection
  • Aging
  • Medications
  • Poor overall health
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Insufficient tissue oxygenation
  • Age and sex hormones
  • Diabetes
  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Alcoholism
  • Smoking

Let’s discuss a few of these factors in more detail.

Infection and Chronic Inflammation

Inflammation is crucial during wound healing because it clears the wound of bacteria and toxins that can cause infection. If all contaminants are not cleared from the wound site, then pro-inflammatory molecules remain elevated indefinitely, the immune system becomes compromised, and the wound becomes vulnerable to infection.

Advancing Age

Between 3 and 6 million people in the United States suffer from chronic wounds. And 85% of them are aged 65 or older. Advancing age is a primary risk factor for impaired wound healing because age-related characteristics affect every phase of wound healing and can delay the entire process.

Interestingly, exercise has demonstrated a protective effect on wound healing in the aging population, as it helps reduce levels of pro-inflammatory molecules in wound tissue.

Medications

Certain medications, such as glucocorticoids (a class of steroids), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and chemotherapeutic drugs, can interfere with platelet function and clot formation and exert undesirable anti-inflammatory effects during wound healing.

Inadequate Protein/Amino Acid Intake

During wound healing, the body needs an increased supply of protein to keep up with the demands of collagen formation. However, if you’re not supplying your body with the increased protein intake it needs during this process, collagen synthesis suffers, wound tissue isn’t as strong, and the wound is more vulnerable to infection.

With regard to nutritional status, inadequate nitrogen intake in the form of amino acids or dietary protein also impairs wound healing. For this reason, adequate amino acid nutrition is crucial during this process.

Diabetes

If a person is insulin resistant, meaning they have a decreased sensitivity to insulin, wound healing will be impaired. Such is the case for people with diabetes, a chronic disease marked by insulin resistance. Older people may also fall prey to insulin resistance and impaired wound healing.

My research team and I discovered that a local insulin-zinc injection can accelerate the wound healing process. (You can read about the study here.) However, without extra amino acids, an increase in insulin has only a modest effect on the net gain of protein in the wound. Insulin helps prime the cells’ response to extra dietary amino acids by increasing the rate of protein synthesis.

The stimulatory effect of the combination of increases in amino acids and insulin stimulates wound healing more than the sum of the individual effects of each treatment. In other words, supportive amino acid nutrition can work with insulin to help build protein and accelerate wound repair.

Amino Acids and Wound Repair

How fast a wound heals depends on how fast proteins can be built. The synthesis of all the proteins in new cells is important, but the most crucial component of wound repair is the synthesis of collagen.

Collagen is the primary protein component of the connective tissue that rebuilds the wound. It’s a somewhat unique protein as well, as it’s composed of approximately 90% nonessential amino acids.

Nonessential amino acids are produced by the body, and you’d not expect them to affect how quickly a protein can be produced. Thus, it’s not surprising that increasing the amount of amino acids you take—as a supplement or by eating more dietary protein—has little effect on how quickly normal skin makes protein.

Although protein synthesis in normal skin does not respond to variations in dietary amino acid intake, increased amino acid intake does stimulate protein synthesis in wounded skin. Specifically, the essential amino acids (those amino acids not produced by the body) have been shown to stimulate collagen production and speed wound repair.

How do essential amino acids help jump-start collagen production in wounds?

Because collagen is composed of less than 10% essential amino acids, there are most likely enough available to stimulate collagen protein building (that’s why collagen synthesis in normal skin isn’t responsive to increased intake of dietary amino acids).

So, it’s not an availability issue. Rather, essential amino acids help regulate the inflammatory process—and not just during stage 2 of wound healing, but throughout all phases.

Essential amino acids decrease the number of inflammatory cells that are activated during the entire process of wound healing. By decreasing these pro-inflammatory cells, the body can make more fibroblasts—the cells that produce collagen during the proliferative stage of wound healing. The result is the faster formation of a dense network of collagen fibers, which produces a stronger wound.

Taking a properly balanced essential amino acid blend optimized for targeted wound healing support can help protect against an overactive immune response and increase the amount and quality of new collagen, for faster and more durable wound healing.

Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Amino Acids

Your organs, tissues, muscles, and even some hormones are all made of protein, your body’s bricks and mortar. There are 20 amino acids that make up the protein in your body. Because your body cannot store excess amino acids, you need to be eating plenty of them every day. Read on to learn what happens when you don’t get enough amino acids.

What happens when you don’t get enough amino acids? Your body starts eating away at its muscle mass, your brain can’t produce the chemicals it needs to stabilize mood and energy levels, and even your immune system suffers. Low amino acid intake, and certainly an amino acid deficiency, has serious health impacts. Let’s find out exactly why and exactly how you can protect your body and mind with a more than adequate amount of amino acids in your diet.

What Are Amino Acids?

Your organs, tissues, muscles, and hormones are all made of protein, your body’s bricks and mortar. There are 20 amino acids that make up the protein in your body, which are why amino acids are aptly referred to as the building blocks of protein.

Your body can manufacture 11 of these amino acids on its own under normal conditions. These are called nonessential amino acids.

Alanine Arginine
Asparagine Aspartic Acid
Cysteine Glutamic Acid
Glutamine Glycine
Proline Serine
Tyrosine

There are nine amino acids, however, that your body can only get from your diet. These are called essential amino acids.

Histidine Isoleucine
Leucine Lysine
Methionine Phenylalanine
Threonine Tryptophan
Valine

Your digestive system breaks down the protein foods you eat into amino acids. Some of the amino acids are used for energy, but most of the amino acids are used to build body proteins that:

  • Produce neurotransmitters that keep our brains and bodies balanced
  • Transport and store nutrients
  • Heal and repair tissues and organs

Because your body cannot store excess amino acids, you need to be eating enough essential amino acids every day. If you’re limited in or missing just one of the essential aminos, then your physical and mental health can suffer.

Early signs of Amino Acid deficiency

The Physical Ramifications of Not Getting Enough Amino Acids

The body works hard to keep amino acid concentrations in the blood stable, even when we are not getting enough amino acids in our diet. If we don’t feed our bodies the essential amino acids it needs, then it will start breaking down our muscle tissue. When muscle is broken down, amino acids are released and sent to tissues and organs that need them to maintain function, such as the heart.

But this isn’t without consequence. When your body eats away at muscle, it leaves you vulnerable to decreased immune response and a greater susceptibility to injury or illness.

A certain degree of muscle catabolism (i.e, muscle breakdown) is inevitable as we age. Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, can begin as early as your 30s. When you don’t sustain your muscles with adequate protein, muscle wasting kicks into overdrive and accelerates the aging process.

When illness and injury occur in this state, your immune system’s capacity to respond is diminished and your body is less equipped to recover as completely or quickly. You may be prone to colds and viruses. You may be battling tiredness and lethargy. Your ability to recover after a workout may be compromised. And you may start to notice changes to the texture of your skin and hair.

The Mental Ramifications of Not Getting Enough Amino Acids

Amino acids produce brain chemicals that keep us mentally and emotionally strong and balanced. If we are not getting enough amino acids, then our bodies may not be making the brain chemicals we need to support our mental faculties and mood. As a result, we could be suffering from depression, anxiety, irritability, and even unceasing hunger.

Lysine deficiency is a prime example of how amino acids can affect our mental well-being. Lysine is the limiting amino acid in wheat, which means wheat contains less lysine than any other essential amino acid. People who eat a lot of wheat can have a lysine deficiency. A 2004 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that when individuals on a wheat-based diet supplemented with lysine their stress and anxiety levels significantly improved. This observation is relevant to all plant-based diets (vegetarian and vegan), as lysine is deficient in many plant food protein sources.

Causes of Protein Deficiency

If we aren’t getting enough protein, then we aren’t getting enough amino acids. While protein deficiency is not common in developed nations such as the United States, it can be an issue among certain populations. Economically challenged individuals, crash dieters on low-protein diets, older adults, and those recovering from surgery, trauma, or illness are most at risk for protein deficiency. It’s crucial to increase your dietary intake of protein to meet your increased protein needs if you fall within one of these categories.

Some people are unable to adequately digest protein, either due to a genetic biochemical abnormality or an insufficient amount of a gastric acid called hydrochloric acid. The stomach secretes hydrochloric acid in order to convert pepsinogen into pepsin—an enzyme that breaks protein into more digestible bits called polypeptides. The body cannot digest protein without pepsin, so if you have low levels of hydrochloric acid, then you have insufficient pepsin and inefficient protein digestion.

Hydrochloric acid levels are especially low in older adults. Stomach acid secretion decreases by approximately 40% from our teens to our 30s, and then lowers an additional half by our 70s. Antacids also decrease already low hydrochloric acid levels, thereby reducing amino acid concentrations in the blood.

How Do You Know If You Need More Protein in Your Diet?

There are two levels of protein deficiency. If you fail to eat the minimal amount of required protein, you will start to recognize some of the symptoms described above. More insidious, you may be eating enough protein to avoid symptoms of deficiency, but eating less than the optimal amount to maximize your strength and health.

Failing to eat the optimal amount of protein is harder to recognize because the body can adapt to some extent to a low level of protein intake.  Adaptation to a lack of protein may mask the fact that you are eating less than optimally.

It is only when you increase the amount of dietary protein that you recognize your body’s positive responses compared to what you were previously eating. This is where education and information become empowering!

The Challenge of Eating Enough Amino Acids

In order to support stable blood amino acid levels, we have to ingest a large amount of amino acids. Even if we eat a balanced diet, it can be difficult to get a balanced composition of amino acids from the sources of protein we eat, especially if our diets are low in animal protein.

The most limited amino acid, meaning the amino acid we eat the least of relative to the requirement for that amino acid, determines how well our body is able to use the rest of the amino acids we eat. We have to consume the ideal amount of each amino acid in order to prevent our bodies from breaking down muscle tissue as a way to meet our amino acid requirements. Taking essential amino acid supplements can help shore the gap in any amino acids you may be lacking.

Everything You Need to Know About Amino Acid Nutrition

To understand optimal amino acid nutrition, we must first understand the relationship between proteins and amino acids. Let’s learn all about the building blocks of life and how nutrition can help enhance both our quality of life and our longevity.

Whether you’re young or old, vegan or omnivore, training for a marathon or relaxing on the couch, you need an optimal supply of amino acids each and every day. For not only are amino acids the building blocks of protein, but protein is second only to water in terms of its importance to the human body. But how do you know you’re getting the amino acids you need to ensure optimal health and well-being? Let’s take a closer look at this important topic and find out everything you need to know about amino acid nutrition.

Amino Acids and Protein

To understand optimal amino acid nutrition, it’s first necessary to understand the important role amino acids play in the life of protein.

Amino acids are involved in almost every biochemical process carried out in the body, from neurotransmitter and energy production to fat metabolism to blood flow, immune system, and blood sugar regulation.

But amino acids are most closely associated with muscle protein synthesis, or the creation of new body proteins.

All the proteins in our bodies are created from long chains of amino acids. Even though the human body uses only 20 different amino acids—11 nonessential amino acids and 9 essential amino acids—the various proteins in our bodies are almost infinitely varied. This is because the type of protein created is determined not only by the number and order of the amino acids in the chain, but also by the way the chain folds in on itself.

On the face of it, this might not seem very impressive. But if you look more deeply at the math, the sheer number of potential proteins is positively mind boggling. For example, the typical protein length is about 300 amino acids. This means that the combinations of amino acids theoretically possible for just the average protein are greater than the number of atoms in the universe!

Of course, like everything else in life, amino acids and proteins have evolved so that only the most stable chains with specific chemical properties are created. Even so, if just one amino acid is missing, protein synthesis can’t occur.

In addition, while the body is able to create the 11 nonessential amino acids on its own, the 9 essential amino acids must be obtained from dietary protein. For this reason, essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival.

Before we move on to the next section, it might be helpful to differentiate between the nonessential and essential amino acids. The 11 nonessential amino acids are:

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

And the nine essential amino acids, including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

How Much Protein Do I Need?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. However, this is only a guideline, as requirements differ based on a variety of factors, including sex, age, and activity level.

To get a better idea of your personal requirements, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a very handy tool for calculating protein needs based on a number of different factors.

What’s the Best Protein to Eat?

As you might imagine, animal protein sources contain the highest levels of amino acids per calorie. Animal proteins are also considered the highest quality proteins based on their ease of digestibility and because they contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.

However, not all animal protein is created equal. For example, organic and grass-fed meat is generally leaner and contains higher levels of healthy fats than industrially raised meat, which is loaded with antibiotics and hormones linked to a number of health risks. And processed meat is packed with nitrates, nitrites, salt, and other preservatives.

In addition, although most plant proteins are considered incomplete due to their low levels or lack of one or more of the essential amino acids, it’s still possible to get a sufficient supply of amino acids by eating a diverse array of plant-based protein sources.

What’s more, some plant protein sources, including quinoa and soy, do contain adequate levels of all amino acids and are thus considered complete proteins.

Best Protein to Eat

Amino Acid Nutrition for Optimal Health

Although a high-protein diet can usually get you where you need to be as far as amino acid nutrition is concerned, eating a limited vegetarian diet can make it more difficult to get all the protein your body requires for overall health. And if you’re eating a strictly vegan diet, you may have even more trouble meeting your daily protein requirements.

In addition, the aging process and certain disease states, like cancer and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), can affect amino acid metabolism, making the body more resistant to dietary protein and increasing daily amino acid requirements.

What causes this negative shift in amino acid metabolism?

Under normal circumstances, the ingestion of dietary protein leads to anabolism, or the production of new protein. Much of this new protein is then incorporated into muscle tissue—the body’s main protein reservoir.

Every time we use our muscles, especially during activities like strenuous exercise, we damage some of the muscle fibers. These damaged fibers are then broken down via a process of catabolism and replaced with new, stronger fibers (anabolism). This cycling between anabolism and catabolism is called muscle protein turnover.

However, if the process of muscle protein turnover becomes compromised by age, illness, or injury, muscle tissue not only becomes more resistant to protein synthesis, but the protein needs of the body’s other organs and tissues also begin to suffer.

Muscle tissue regularly gives up some of its amino acids to help support the rest of the body—whether it’s assisting wound repair, fighting infection, or balancing metabolic processes. So the rise of anabolic resistance can result in a vicious cycle of muscle loss that leads to a cascade of negative health effects throughout the body.

Unfortunately, we can also get caught in this vicious cycle if we don’t get a plentiful supply of amino acids from our diet.

This is where an amino acid supplement can be most helpful, as dietary supplements can provide benefits—including helping to overcome anabolic resistance—that even the highest quality dietary proteins cannot.

For example, clinical trials have shown that essential amino acid supplements can enhance muscle growth, decrease liver and body fat, help prevent metabolic syndrome, and speed recovery from serious injury or surgery.

And unlike protein powders, which are often loaded with carbohydrates, fats, and added sugars, amino acid supplements contain no carbs, fats, or added sugars and only minimal calories.

In fact, amino acids contribute only 4 calories for every gram consumed. So, for example, if you’re taking 4 grams of an amino acid supplement, you’re ingesting only 16 calories per dose—a welcome fact for anyone trying to manage their body weight.

Now compare this with the calories found in even high-quality protein sources like grass-fed meat. The same amount of grass-fed meat provides 100 calories—84 calories more than the equivalent amount of amino acids—half of which are in the form of saturated fat.

Studies have also shown that, gram for gram, essential amino acids are at least 3 times as effective as whey protein when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis.

What’s more, supplemental amino acids are absorbed rapidly and completely, and they quickly reach higher peak concentrations than intact protein—or whole protein, with its strings of individual amino acids connected to one another (as opposed to the separated amino acids found in free-form amino acid supplements).

And unlike protein food sources, amino acid supplements can be formulated to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis based on an individual’s particular needs, whether that be supporting muscle growth and maintenance or blood sugar and weight control or cardiovascular, liver, and immune system health.

An appropriately formulated supplement can also help maintain the optimal balance of available amino acids in the blood—which is critical for everything from proper neurotransmitter production to efficient wound healing.

However, all amino acid supplements are not created equal, as many don’t take into account the fact that all essential amino acids must be present in their optimal amounts if proper protein synthesis is to take place. To reiterate our earlier discussion, if even one amino acid is missing, protein synthesis will stop.

In addition, amino acids compete for transport in both the gastrointestinal tract and at the blood-brain barrier, which means the amino acids present in the highest amounts will be given preferential treatment.

One example that illustrates the problem seen with incomplete amino acid formulations is BCAA supplements.

While BCAAs can be very effective for muscle building, if they’re included in a supplement that doesn’t contain a balanced supply of all the other essential amino acids, their effectiveness is minimized, as muscle protein synthesis requires that all essential amino acids be available.

Therefore, anyone interested in increasing their overall health with amino acid nutrition should be sure to look for a supplement that contains not only a selection of amino acids chosen for their specific health-promoting benefits—from increasing muscle strength to reducing liver fat, promoting blood flow, and speeding recovery from injury—but one that also contains a balanced supply of all nine essential amino acids.