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Amino Acids Primer

Ever wondered whether amino acid supplements really work? We reveal some surprising facts...

FACT: Protein is made from amino acids. So it should follow that amino acid supplements can be combined in many different ways to form proteins in the body. In the same way as when you eat protein, it is broken down in your digestive system into its constituent amino acids and di-peptides (two amino acids attached to each other).

In this article we'll first we'll look at the facts, lay the ground work and build from there, so to speak. We'll look at whether amino acid supplements have a part to play in your bodybuilding protein diet or are just good for window dressing.

There are two varieties of amino acids, the first are called dispensable amino acids (DAAs) as these can be made in the body from other amino acids together with nitrogen and carbohydrate. These are:


* Major component of connective tissue * Key component of the glucose alanine cycle which enables muscles and other tissues to derive energy from amino acids * Immune system builder


* Can increase secretion of insulin, glucagon, growth hormones * Aids repair following injury and immune system stimulation. * Precursor of creatine, gamma amino butric acid (GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain) * May increase sperm count and T-lymphocyte response

Aspartic Acid

* Aids conversion of carbohydrates into muscle energy * Builds immune system immunoglobulins and antibodies * Reduces catabolic ammonia levels after exercises


* Detoxifies harmful chemicals * Stimulates white blood cell activity

Glutamic Acid

* Precursor of glutamine, proline, ornothine, arginine, glutathione, and GABA * A potential source of energy for muscle tissue * Important in metabolism of other amino acids.


* The most abundant amino acid in the human body * Immune system builder * An important source of energy, especially for kidneys and intestines during caloric restrictions. * A brain fuel that is an aid to memory and promotes concentration


* Aids in the manufacture of other amino acids * Has a calming effect * Assists in mobilization of glycogen * Can inhibit sugar cravings


* Ultraviolet absorbing compounds in the skin * Important in the production of red and white blood cells * Used in the treatment of allergic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis and digestive ulcers.


* Component in the formation of connective tissue and heart muscle * Easily used for muscular energy


* Important in energy production in cells * Aids memory and nervous system function * Helps builds up immune system


* Precursor of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, as well as thyroid and growth hormones * Elevates mood


* Aids in the absorption and elimination of fats * May act as a neurotransmitter in some areas of the brain and retina

That leaves the essential amino acids that cannot be produced in the body which means they must be supplied by the diet. These are:


* A branched chain amino acid easily taken up and used for energy by muscle tissue. * Used to prevent muscle wasting * Essential in the formation of haemoglobin


* A branched chain amino acid used as a source of energy * Helps reduce muscle protein breakdown * Promotes healing of skin and broken bones.


* Low levels can slow protein synthesis, affecting muscle and connective tissue * Inhibits viruses * Lysine and Vitamin C together form L-carnitine, a biochemical that enables muscle tissue to use oxygen more efficiently which can delay exercise induced fatigue


* Precursor of cystine and creatine * May increase antioxidant levels (glutathione) and reduce blood cholesterol levels. * Helps remove toxic wastes from the liver and assists in the regeneration of liver and kidney tissue


* May help increase growth hormone secretion in high doses * Aids in immune and liver function


* The major precursor of tyrosine * Enhances learning, memory, mood and alertness * Suppresses appetite


* One of the amino detoxifiers * Helps prevent fatty build up in the liver * Important component of collagen * Tends to be low in vegetarian diets


* Precursor of key neurotransmitter serotonin * Stimulates the release of growth hormones * Free form of this amino acid is unavailable in the U.S. * It is only available in natural food sources and may be indirectly obtained by HTTP-5 supplementation


* A branched chain amino acid * Influences brain uptake of other neurotransmitter precursors (trptophan, phenylalanine and tryosine).

Well, you've seen those branched chain amino acid supplements , and probably used them?but what are they? These are the essential amino acids with a molecular structure that has a branched shape, and include valine, leucine and isoleucine.

These BCAAs are important because they make up around a third of muscle protein in the body. During intense aerobic exercise they may be used in the production of glutamine and alanine that are required by the body. BCAAs are also used as fuel by the muscles, especially when muscle glycogen is depleted. They can contribute around 5-15% of the total calories you burn while training.

As the amino acids in the muscles may be used for the fuel requirements in exercise?some take BCAA supplements before and after workouts to limit any muscle loss that might occur. The idea is to stock up the free amino acid pool in the body so the amino acids in muscle tissue will not need to be cannibalised. This is a major selling point used by the amino acid supplement manufacturers.

It is not good enough though just to consider the quantity of amino acids in the diet, their bioavailability is also a key factor. Bioavailability measures the degree to which any substance reaches its destination or where it is required in the body. So it is essential to be aware of this "efficiency of delivery" and how the actual protein sources taken ultimately achieve their intended purpose.

It is possible that two similar diets could contain exactly the same amount of particular amino acids (the amino acid profile) but have differences in absorption in the body.

The most reliable way to deliver specific amino acids is to consume the actual amino acids themselves. The most bioavailable source for oral use is powdered free form amino acids. Just how quickly can amino acids reach their target sites in the body?

Well, the blood plasma levels of a single unbonded amino acid taken orally can be raised in as little as 15 minutes reaching the site it is needed efficiently.

Amino Acid Supplements ? Do they work?

Over the fifteen or so years I have been reading the bodybuilding and fitness magazines it has always seemed natural to see advertisements for the latest "breakthrough" bodybuilding supplement.

You have seen the sensational claims, the clinical studies and the celebrity endorsements? it all seems so, well, predictable.

You expect to take these "sure fire" products with a pinch of salt...

But, the amino acid supplements, well these always fell well under my B.S radar? to be honest I always thought these had some merit. I mean, pretty much any newbie bodybuilder can tell you that amino acids make up protein? and well, protein is what muscles are made of, right?

So, when it came to researching amino acids for, I thought it would be a case of getting hold of the latest proven studies showing a clear link between amino acid supplementation and increased muscle growth and reduced muscle breakdown following exercise? done deal!

Its true, 'free-form amino acid' supplements are popular and even make up a proportion of protein powder mixes and other meal replacement type drinks. The BCAA caps and powders are also popular.

These supplements contain a lot of nitrogen and this is widely thought to lead to nitrogen retention by the body. In turn, nitrogen retention is understood to enhance the synthesis of proteins by cells and therefore promote muscle growth.

The amino acid supplements available to athletes and bodybuilders claim either to increase Human Growth Hormone (HGH) release or replenish protein depleted from muscles during exercise, thus preventing muscle breakdown.

Lets have a look at the evidence.

It is true that supplementing with certain amino acids can cause the release of HGH? the real question you should be interested in though, is exactly how much of this HGH release will result in muscle growth! A simple distinction, but we will see that it may influence whether you decide to supplement with amino acids?

Here are the results of three separate and independent studies carried out at different times, by different researchers?

The first study: Arginine and Ornithine were taken by subjects in doses of up to 20g per day. Of these, only 1 in 10 experienced any elevation of HGH levels and only minor increases in HGH occurred.

Study 2 showed that taking 1.2 grams (approx 5 x 250mg capsules) of arginine pyroglutamate and the same amount of Lysine, between meals did produce HGH release? but there was no consequent muscle building effect.

Study 3 found that supplementing with Ornithine did promote HGH secretion ? but the quantities of amino acids required made all the subjects sick and...

No muscle growth resulted from the HGH release. I was surprised by these findings? until I remembered that HGH release can be caused by all sorts of factors? a nap, eating, stress, well quite a lot of things actually.

Basically, there are far cheaper ways to stimulate HGH release. But are we missing the point here? The best use and major reason for amino acid supplementation may well be the role they can play in preventing muscle breakdown and in post workout recovery.

Even if they cannot stimulate significant muscle gains, surely if amino acid supplementation prevents the breakdown of muscle tissue during and following exercise then the overall effect is the same? that ultimately you will retain more muscle mass training with amino acids than without.

We say 'retain' because the natural process we all know that results in muscle growth is hypertrophy, literally the breaking down and rebuilding of the existing muscle tissue. Taking one step backwards and two steps forward! If we can somehow reduce the 'back-step' to a minimum, more progress will be made overall?

But what are the best sources of amino acids for assistance in the recovery process? We only have to look at the body's preferred source of muscle fuel to find out! Glycogen stores are the primary food for muscle tissues? but what happens if these stores run low or are depleted during intense exercise?

The next best source of fuel is the Branched-Chain-Amino-Acids (BCAAs)? these are Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine? which help rebuild muscle tissue during and after exercise and are a source of fuel for the muscles also.

So? perhaps if we supplemented with BCAAs, there will be less breakdown of the muscle tissue during and after exercise?

This is exactly what the clinical studies show? It has been shown that supplementing with BCAAs (circa 30% Leucine) before or during endurance training can reduce or eliminate protein breakdown in the muscles.

Another study, relevant to strength trainers showed how weight training can reduce blood plasma Leucine levels by up to 30%... but if Leucine supplements (3 grams per day (12 x 250 mg caps) are taken together with a moderate protein intake of little more than 1 gram protein per Kilogram of bodyweight? there was no decline in blood plasma levels of BCAAs.

So what does this all mean?

It is true that you can get all your daily requirements of BCAAs from good quality protein sources, chicken, tuna, skim milk and eggs? so why bother to supplement separately with BCAA caps?

Although BCAA supplements are relatively cheap, it would seem far more cost effective to pack a brown bag meal with high protein sandwiches for your post workout meal?

There is a downside to this approach however, which is the bioavailability of the amino acids in your meal. Not only will you not necessarily feel like a meal straight after your workout but the digestive process will take between one and two hours for the amino acids to be released from the meal and available for repair and re-growth.

So, perhaps the ideal is to take a whey protein shake after your workouts to replace BCAAs burned up during training? as the amino acid profile of some of the current whey protein powders is ideal for fast absorption. And if you are dedicated, the ideal would be to take glutamine powder before and during the workout to prevent stores being depleted.

Also, bear in mind that the body will only burn up BCAAs if your muscle Glycogen stores are running on empty! So this means if your pre-workout meals are well planned ie high in carbs? then BCAAs will be less in demand during training.

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