How to Get the Best Amino Acids for Muscle Growth

Discover the important differences between BCAAs and EAAs for athletic performance, including the best amino acids for muscle growth, workout recovery, plus improved sleep, mood, energy, and fat metabolism.

Muscle protein turnover is a constant state of activity: repairing, replacing, and rebuilding every day. This is true for everyone, though for those who work out or do strenuous labor regularly, the rate is even faster. It’s also true that as we age, this process slows down, meaning the more we do and the older we get, the more support we need to maintain and grow our muscles. Those who hit the gym frequently have probably heard about amino acid supplements, but which are the best amino acids for muscle growth? Branched-chain aminos? The ones in creatine or whey protein? This article has the rundown on the amino acids responsible for muscle synthesis, and advice on how to get all the relevant amino acids for new muscle growth.

Branched-Chain vs. Essential Amino Acids

Branched-chain amino acid supplements (or BCAAs) are incredibly popular workout supplements among athletes and bodybuilders for their purported muscle-building abilities, but BCAAs are only a third of the essential amino acids (EAAs) needed to create new muscle. Here are the important differences when it comes to amino acids for working out.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids

BCAAs are taken as supplements to increase muscle gain, improve muscle recovery, and boost athletic performance. However, it’s a little more nuanced than that on the molecular level.

Branched-chain aminos are so-called because of their chemical structures, the branching chains of their chemical bonds. They are valine, leucine, and isoleucine, and they do indeed play vital and irreplaceable roles in muscle building.

BCAAs are metabolized in your muscles, not via the liver, which means they hit your bloodstream fast when you consume a BCAA supplement, and are especially useful for workout energy. Scientific studies show a link between BCAA consumption and improved glycogen energy storage, decreased workout fatigue, and greater muscle mass. So…what could possibly be the drawback?

The Issue with BCAA Supplements

BCAAs cannot work alone. This meta-analysis of the relevant research done over 30 years (between 1985-2017) found that there are no human studies that show BCAAs working independently to improve athletic performance or increase protein synthesis. While they definitely play a role in new muscle growth, they are not the magic bullet that many fitness enthusiasts are led to believe. How can that be so?

Well, the meta-analysis referenced above highlighted two distinct studies that both showed BCAA supplementation can actually decrease muscle protein synthesis when they are overabundant. As mentioned previously, it takes all nine of the essential amino acids to create new muscle, and without a sufficient amount of every EAA, the excessive amount of BCAAs in the body may accelerate the catabolic rate of muscles (catabolism being a destructive metabolism, the very thing most bodybuilders take supplements to guard against).

In two of the studies profiled, muscle tissue was being broken down much faster than it was being repaired due to the fact that the overwhelming amount of BCAAs in the subjects were seeking to complete their job: achieve protein synthesis. To do this they cannibalized muscle tissue to derive the other six essential amino acids that could not be found quickly enough anywhere else. It’s sort of like the way certain parasites kill their hosts, even though it’s an illogical action: molecules and basic organisms aren’t thinking about the bigger picture, they have one purpose and will clear a path of destruction to complete it if necessary.

Long story short, BCAAs cannot create new muscle alone, without all the ingredients necessary for new protein synthesis, they can actually work against your goals.

Other BCAA Concerns

BCAAs only work to improve muscle growth in those who just so happen to have a sufficient amount of the other essential amino acids in their bloodstreams. Too many BCAAs taken as a solo supplement can have some other negative side effects.

  • A too-high dose of BCAAs can interrupt serotonin production: Serotonin is one of your happy hormones, part of the group of chemicals like dopamine and your endorphins that keep you from feelings of depression and anxiety (among others). Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan, which uses the same carrier as BCAAs to reach the brain. With extra BCAAs clogging the brain bus, tryptophan uptake decreases, and serotonin production declines.
  • Increased amounts of BCAAs lead to B vitamin depletion: The metabolic requirements of utilizing extra BCAAs includes using several B vitamins, which then leads to a B vitamin shortage. B vitamins are needed for a multitude of other bodily functions, and a deficiency in B vitamins can interrupt hormone production, nervous system functioning, and digestion.
  • Excessive BCAA concentrations can lead to blood sugar and insulin issues: Increased levels of BCAAs may be a predictor of type 2 diabetes onset, and are linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance.

The best amino acids for muscle growth.

Essential Amino Acids

The positive promises of branched-chain amino acid supplements can still be had, so long as you get them in proper balance with the rest of the essential aminos. The best supplements for muscle growth will include all of the amino acids you can’t make yourself, which includes those treasured BCAAs.

Essential vs. Nonessential Amino Acids

Amino acids are known as the building blocks of protein in the body, and have everything to do with muscle gain and protein synthesis. They also have a firm hand in our hormone production, our enzyme creation, our cognitive functioning, and our metabolism.

There are 20 main amino acids in the human body, and while 11 of them can be synthesized in-house and are deemed nonessential, 9 of them are essential to consume from outside the body (like plant and animal protein sources: fish, eggs, beans, etc.). Those nine essential aminos are:

  1. Valine (BCAA): Aids in energy production and stimulates muscle regeneration.
  2. Isoleucine (BCAA): Prevents muscle breakdown and is important in energy regulation and immune system activity.
  3. Leucine (BCAA): Vital in blood sugar regulation, growth hormone synthesis, and protein synthesis.
  4. Lysine: One of the amino acids for joint pain due to its role in collagen, elastin, and our connective tissues.
  5. Methionine: Supports liver function, heart health, and the processing and elimination of body fat.
  6. PhenylalanineHelps synthesize dopamine and norepinephrine, providing antidepressant and pain-killing effects.
  7. ThreonineAnother player in connective tissue (like lysine) and fat metabolism (like methionine).
  8. Tryptophan: The precursor for serotonin, important for appetite, mood, and healthy sleep.
  9. HistidinePrecursor to carnosine, which reduces lactic acid buildup and helps relieve muscle soreness.

Each of the essential amino acids plays a role in either muscle building, fat burning, energy creation, or joint health, or all of the above. Don’t stop at BCAAs when supplementing. Get the full deck of essential amino acids to truly improve your workout and increase your muscle growth.

Get the Essentials for Muscle Growth

To reiterate: BCAAs aren’t bad, they just aren’t the full package that amino acid supplements have to offer. They can’t build muscle all on their own, and too many BCAAs without the rest of their EAA cohort can have counterproductive or even destructive effects on your health.

A full roster of essential amino acids can aid muscle repair, improve exercise recovery, help suppress your appetite (due to the EAAs which work in the brain to regulate satiety and hunger hormones), improve cognitive function, aid weight loss, enhance metabolic processes, and lead to better sleep.

With EAAs, your post-workout recovery improves alongside your body weight, blood flow, lean muscle mass, and muscle strength. Add a complete, well-balanced EAA supplement to your sports nutrition regimen to get the very best of everything.

Amino Acids for Arthritis

Arthritis is the number one cause of disability in the United States, with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis ranking as the most common culprits. Studies have shown that certain amino acids for arthritis can help support cartilage and joint health, thereby helping to mitigate painful symptoms.

Arthritis generally refers to joint pain or joint disease marked by inflammation of one or more joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are more than 100 types of arthritis and associated conditions afflicting more than 50 million Americans. Arthritis is the number one cause of disability in the United States, with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis ranking as the most common culprits.

Cartilage is a firm connective tissue that covers the ends of bone right at the joints. Overtime, wear and tear, injury, or infection can cause damage to cartilage, resulting in bone grinding on bone. This deterioration of cartilage is called osteoarthritis, a painful arthritic condition that can afflict any joint, but particularly the knee, hip, and thumb joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the synovial membrane (the lining of the joint capsules), eventually degrading cartilage and bone inside the joint to the point of joint deformity.

Risk factors include a genetic predisposition to arthritis, gender (women are more prone to rheumatoid arthritis and men to gout), excess weight that puts stress on the joints, and prior joint injuries. Studies have shown that certain amino acids for arthritis can support cartilage and joint health, thereby helping to mitigate the painful symptoms.

Methionine for Arthritis

Methionine is a sulfur-bearing essential amino acid that has been shown to be an effective joint pain supplement.

Joint cartilage cannot form without sulfur. For arthritis sufferers, a lack of sulfur in the body can have devastating consequences. Studies have shown that the cartilage of healthy people contains approximately three times more sulfur than the cartilage of arthritis patients. For this reason, some doctors recommend supplementing with methionine in conjunction with B vitamins as a way to increase sulfur production in the body.  

Methionine helps ease the symptoms of arthritis because it acts as both an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic, meaning it has pain-relieving properties. A study in The Journal of Family Practice demonstrated the efficacy of s-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)—which is methionine bound to an ATP molecule. Supplementing with methionine for arthritis worked just as well as NSAIDs did at treating osteoarthritis, but without the adverse side effects that come with NSAIDs. Methionine significantly lowered pain and improved functional limitation in osteoarthritis patients. A different study showed that methionine supplementation was just as effective in reducing pain caused by knee osteoarthritis as the prescription pain-reliever Celecoxib, but without the unwanted side effects.

Methionine also encourages cartilage cells to create more cartilage tissue. Owing to its capacity to form sulfurous chains which, in turn, connect with each other, methionine is able to strengthen the structure of hair, nails, and joints.

Sulfur cannot be taken in tablet form or as a dietary supplement, but methionine is a good dietary approach for boosting sulfur levels in the body. Keep in mind that methionine is an essential amino acid that is crucial for the formation of all the proteins in the body. Therefore it is optimal to take methionine as part of a balanced formulation containing all the essential amino acids to avoid an imbalance in the plasma levels. An isolated excess of methionine can potentially lead to an increase in cysteine, which has adverse effects.

In addition to dietary supplements, you can also eat methionine-rich foods combined with foods high in vitamin B6 and folic acid, such as:

  •      Brazil nuts
  •      Sesame seeds
  •      Fish
  •      Meat
  •      Egg yolks
  •      Legumes
  •      Spinach
  •      Broccoli
  •      Banana
  •      Peaches
  •      Soy

Cysteine for Arthritis

Like methionine, cysteine is an amino acid that helps to produce sulfur in the body. It is a nonessential amino acid that is produced in the body from methionine. It has potent antioxidant properties that protect cells from oxidative stress, and it stimulates the immune system and the production of collagen, a structural component of protein in your body that is particularly important in bone.

Cysteine supplementation may also help improve joint flexibility in those with rheumatoid arthritis. Cysteine is required in the production of taurine, a sulfur-containing compound that is a constituent of bile. Taurine also plays a role as an antioxidant and is essential for cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function.

Dietary sources of cysteine include:

  •      Soybeans
  •      Beef
  •      Lamb
  •      Sunflower seeds
  •      Chicken
  •      Oats
  •      Pork
  •      Fish
  •      Cheese
  •      Eggs
  •      Legumes

Arginine for Arthritis

Arginine is an anti-inflammatory amino acid that helps calm the pain associated with joint inflammation by strengthening the immune system and supporting the production of nitric oxide for improved circulation and nutrient delivery to the joints.

For extra arginine in your diet, look to:

  •      Chickpeas
  •      Soybeans
  •      Seafood
  •      Wheat germ
  •      Buckwheat
  •      Oatmeal dairy products
  •      Meat