If you want to build a better body you absolutely need at least a basic understanding of all the amino acids, both essential and non-essential, since they are involved in so many physiological processes ranging from energy production, recovery, muscular hypertrophy, fat loss and gains in strength. Here we’ve teamed up with Myprotein.com to take a look at amino acids very generally as well more specifically looking at the individual role each amino plays within the body.
So firstly what exactly are amino acids? An amino acid is a molecule that is the basic ingredient needed to create a protein. They link together in long chains to form proteins. Some amino acids are created by the body, but others can only be obtained by eating foods that contain them, such as fish, beef, chicken, dairy products, lentils or beans. They are necessary to all living cells and an inadequate intake of them can not only affect your training in the gym and your recovery afterwards but can also have serious implications on your health. To keep things simple, there are 20 amino acids in total that can be divided into two groups: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. The 9 essential amino acids are deemed ‘essential’ since they must be obtained through our diet and the foods we eat whereas the twelve non-essential amino acids are deemed ‘non- essential’ based on the body’s ability to synthesize them from other amino acids.
Essential Amino Acids
Non-Essential Amino Acids
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
Now how an amino acid is used is very dependent on what the body needs at that particular moment in time and basically as they circulate around the body, each cell is commanded by its own DNA blue print to draw from the common pool of available amino acids to synthesize all the numerous proteins required for its functions. More specifically for those wanting to increase muscle mass, an adequate supply of both essential and non-essential amino acids is needed for protein synthesis to effectively take place. Protein synthesis is a term used to describe the synthesis of new skeletal muscle proteins. When it happens on a larger scale it’s known as muscular hypertrophy and it’s basically the process that bodybuilders and certain athletes want when they are looking to increase the size of their muscles. However if just one of the essential amino acids is missing then synthesis is halted.
Perhaps the most important application to bodybuilding is the short window of opportunity immediately following your workout when your muscles are most receptive to nutrients (since the blood flow remains high and your muscle glycogen levels are depleted which means they possess a sponge like quality where they can absorb more protein and carbs than normal). Unfortunately research shows a high protein meal (or shake) alone will not put significant levels of amino acids into your blood stream until a couple of hours after you eat it, especially if blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract has been diminished by a hard training sessions. It’s for this very reason that athletes take through free form amino acids (in tablet or powder form) since they are free of chemical bonds to other molecules and so move quickly through the stomach and into the small intestine, where they are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream within 15 minutes. This quick absorption essentially not only prevents muscle catabolism but also more specifically with the essential amino acid leucine for example, stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis by activating a major complex in the anabolic pathway called the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) (S.M Phillips, 1997).The mTOR is basically one of the body’s protein synthesis regulators, energy sensors and nutrient sensors of amino acid availability, specifically of leucine. It’s deactivated when leucine concentrations in the body are low and it signals to the body that there isn’t enough dietary protein present to synthesize new skeletal muscle protein. But conversely as leucine concentrations increase, mTOR is activated and signals to the body there is sufficient dietary protein to synthesize new skeletal muscle protein.
Here we more specifically look at individual amino acids and there particular role within the body:
Leucine is important for building and increasing lean muscle mass. It increases insulin secretion for better uptake of protein and carbohydrates, essential ingredients in the building of muscle and providing energy for the body. It is the most effective BCAA for preventing muscle loss because it can be broken down and converted to glucose more quickly than isoleucine and valine. This increase in glucose supply helps prevent the body’s cannibalization of muscle for energy. Leucine also aids in the production of growth hormone, which can help to heal bones and skin and also speed up recovery after exercise. For these reasons, leucine is often recommended for patients who are recovering from injury or surgery. Deficiency in leucine can lead to headaches, fatigue and even depression.
Isoleucine is essential in stabilising and regulating energy and blood sugar levels and is needed for haemoglobin formation. Its primary function is to boost energy and help the body recover from strenuous activity. It has been shown in studies that isoleucine can help to prevent muscle and tissue breakdown overnight and during extreme levels of exercise such as marathons and other extreme distance events. Deficiencies in isoleucine can result in dizziness, confusion and irritability.
Valine helps the body to maintain a good nitrogen balance in the body, allowing muscle growth. Because of its ability to remove potentially toxic nitrogen from the liver, it is thought that valine can be used to help treat the liver as well as other organs that have been damaged by alcohol abuse. It also aids in muscle metabolism and tissue repair, and is therefore great for recovery from strenuous exercise. Valine helps prevent the breakdown of muscle by supplying the muscles with extra glucose for energy production during intense physical activity. Another benefit of valine is that it helps to stimulate the central nervous system, helping the functioning of the brain.
Originally used as an effective treatment for cold sores and herpes, Lysine has since been shown to play a major role in calcium absorption; building muscle protein; recovering from surgery or sports injuries; and the body’s production of hormones, enzymes and antibodies. But perhaps of more interest to bodybuilders at the Electrochemicals Department in America Harold L. Rice et al (1970) found Lysine supplementation enhanced the nitrogen balance in young men, one reason it’s now being heralded as a mass building amino.
Again originally used to treat liver disease as well as benefitting skin tone, elasticity, hair and nails Methionine has since been shown to enhance the production of creatine and therefore favourably enhance the body’s phospagen system and reproduction of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the molecule needed for all muscle contractions). Therefore scientists believe Methionine supplementation could greatly help with short bursts of exercise, especially on large compound movements such as the squat, bench and deadlift.
L-Phenylalanine is one of two chemical forms of Phenylalanine, the other being D-Phenylalanine. Once in the body, these amino acids are transformed into another amino acid, tyrosine. Tyrosine is then converted into key neurotransmitters, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These are chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells, particularly dopamine is needed for cognitive functioning and motivation, norepinephrine which increases alertness, increases attention span, minimizes the sensation of pain and also suppresses appetite. It also is required for the release of Human Growth Hormone (hGH) and stimulates the release of Luteinizing Hormone Releasing Hormone(LHRH) from the Hypothalamus. Lastly of course Epinephrine is more commonly known as adrenaline which is essential to preparing the body for exercise as it opens up the airways, raises blood pressure and quickens the heart rate.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to 5HTP (5–hydroxytryptophan) which is partially responsible for the production of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for mood and weight control. It is the intermediate step between tryptophan and serotonin. Proper levels of serotonin are necessary for level moods and the ability to maintain a normal weight.
Threonine is used to form the body’s two most important binding substances, collagen and elastin but more specifically for bodybuilders it’s also essential for supporting a healthy immune system since it helps with the production of antibodies and promoting growth and activity of the thymus (obviously very important for any athlete since the immune system is sometimes detrimentally affected by periods of hard training). Also important for athletes threonine has been shown to assist better absorption of other nutrients, so protein sources containing threonine are more bio-available than others.
Alanine and Histidine
Commonly grouped together the non-essential amino acids alanine and histidine have been shown join in the body and form a compound called carnosine, which studies show can reduce the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which in turn, ensures you become less fatigued during your lifts or during your workout as a whole. In a study published in the Journal of Japanese physiology it stated “It has been shown that people whose muscle carnosine was high could exhibit high power during the latter half of the 30 second maximal cycle ergometer sprinting. These results suggested that the muscle carnosine concentration could be one of the important factors determining high-intensity exercise performance.” (Y Suzuki et al 2002.)
Interestingly this is one of few supplements that has been scientifically shown to increase testosterone levels in healthy young men and not castrated rats, elderly men, post-menopausal women, or men suffering from low testosterone. Formed principally in the pituitary gland, hypothalamus, and testes it plays an important role in the production of compounds associated with libido, tissue growth and the production of Luteinizing hormone. D Aspartic Acid stimulates the production of signal molecules which in turn enhance the activity in your testes as well as your pituitary gland. From an athletic perspective this allows your body to produce the compounds that help increase lean growth, strength, power and energy. More specifically scientists from Università di Napoli Parthenope e Fondazione in Italy found that subjects consuming D-aspartic acid supplementation for 20 days experienced improvements in testosterone levels compared to those with a placebo, concluding ‘here we demonstrated that D-aspartic acid, which occurs as a physiological compound in the mammalian pituitary and testis, has a role in the regulation of the release and synthesis of LH and testosterone.’ (Enza Topo et al 2009.) In another study, researchers provided a group of males (aged 27-37) a daily dose of 3.12 grams of D Aspartic acid for twelve consecutive days. Testosterone levels in the subjects that received the supplement had risen by 33% after the twelve days.
Glutamine and Glutamic Acid
Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid that is present in the body in large amounts, in fact at some times it forms 60% of your total amino acid pool. Because it passes through the blood-brain barrier rather easily it’s often called brain-food. In the brain it converts to glutamic acid, which is essential for brain functioning and increase GABA (gamma-amino-butyric-acid, another popular supplemented amino) needed or mental activities. Furthermore we all know we need nitrogen to get big, but too much nitrogen in the body could cause ammonia in the brain. Glutamine helps to get rid of it by attaching itself to the nitrogen and forming Glutamic acid, then escorts it out of the body. Plus during periods of intense training your body’s immune system is detrimentally affected howeverresearch at the Conway Institute for Biomolecular and Biomedical Research at the University College of Dublin found that the amino acid Glutamine’s repairing qualities were so impressive it’s used to treat patients with inflammatory conditions such as infection and injury. Furthermore it’s been noted within a week of glutamine supplementation your muscles become visibly larger since you have an increase in the amount of water driven into the muscle cells similar to the effects that creatine give. This effect is known as “cell volumization.”
Arginine has appeared in many products of the past couple of years, gaining popularity as a non-prescription treatment for high cholesterol and as an active ingredient in sexual support products. In the pancreas it is used to release insulin, in the pituitary gland, it is a component of human growth hormone. It is required in muscle metabolism and helping with weight control since it facilitates the increase of muscle mass, while reducing body fat.
Cysteine and Cystine
Needed for the efficient detoxification of the body, Cysteine is used in producing antioxidants and protects the brain and liver from damage due to the consumption of alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoke. Also again, bodybuilders immune systems are often compromised due to the amount of stress put on the body by performing strenuous endurance exercise therefore supplementing with cysteine is often considered a good idea. Lastly Cysteine is also considered effective in building lean muscle tissue since it is a precursor to taurine. When blood glucose levels are low, Cysteine is effective for producing energy by converting to glucose. This may help to prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue and enhance endurance in bodybuilding.
Tyrosine has been used to help everything from reduce stress, fight fatigue, depression, anxiety, headaches and allergies. However more specifically for athletes it has also been shown to increase energy and enhance libido. Also tyrosine has also been shown to increase the production of thyroid hormones in the body. Thyroid hormones then increase the rate of metabolism, raising body temperature to normal levels. Obviously increased metabolic rate is necessary to achieve weight loss, and tyrosine plays an intricate part in raising metabolism without any unwanted side effects (which are sometimes associated with certain thermogenics.)
Glycine has been shown to not only slow muscle-tissue breakdown and promote healing after intense workouts but also promote growth-hormone release and enhance cell volumising. Also more specifically performance based, glycine has also been shown to control blood sugar levels and protect against ATP depletion which can help you train at your maximum intensity for longer.
Proline is an amino acid needed for the production of collagen and cartilage. It keeps muscles and joints flexible and helps reduce sagging and wrinkling that accompany UV exposure and normal aging of the skin. Both proline and lysine are considered essential for protein synthesis and both needed to make hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine, two amino acids that form collagen. Collagen helps to heal cartilage and to cushion the joints and vertebrae. For this reason, proline is often supplemented by bodybuilders to protect the joints during bouts of heavy lifting.
The body uses serine to make creatine which is essential the reproduction of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which as mentioned before is essential for the efficient contraction of the muscles. It’s also a component of the antibodies and immunoglobulins that fight infections, and it is a component of choline, ethanolamine, sarcosine, and phospholipids involved in the transmission of signals through the nervous system. Lastly it can also be converted to pyruvate, which enables the muscles and the liver to release stored glucose from glycogen. It is also the grandparent of the oxygen transport molecule hemoglobin, the compound that makes blood red and that enables it to oxygenate the whole body. Hemoglobin is made from amino-levulinic acid, which is made from glycine, which is made from serine.
Author: Ross Edgley
Photography: Alpha Design