Amino acid supplements are wildly popular among bodybuilders and workout enthusiasts. They’ve been used by everyone from Lance Armstrong to YouTube influencers. If you’ve hit the gym, you’ve probably seen them or heard someone talking about them.
Proponents of amino acid supplements argue that they help to build muscle mass, improve performance, and boost energy. Here, we’ll delve into the science behind the supplements and show you how they may be beneficial to your workout regimen.
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of the human body. They help synthesize proteins, enzymes, and other compounds to promote proper function. They are essential to everything from sending neurotransmitter signals to building muscle mass. Not only do amino acids form the basis of cellular structures, but they also help to moderate and control movement and signaling.
Essentially, the process goes as follows. The body secretes insulin which plays a role in protein synthesis and aids in the uptake of amino acids. The body also secretes glucagon, which aids in the uptake of amino acids in the liver.
There are two different amino acids types: essential amino acids (EAA’s) and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s).
Essential amino acids are not produced by the body. Instead, these amino acids are absorbed by eating a healthy diet. There are nine essential amino acids, which can be found in foods such as meat, eggs, nuts, and beans. The nine essential amino acids are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, arginine, leucine, and lysine. These amino acids help with everything from nitric oxide synthesis to sleep quality.
Branched-chain amino acids are different from most of the essential amino acids in that the body can synthesize them. They are also broken down in the muscle as opposed to the liver. The benefit of these amino acids is that they are not lost in digestion.
Three of the nine essential amino acids are considered branch-chain amino acids: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. Research on BCAA’s has shown promise when it comes to promoting exercise performance and recovery.
Benefits Of Amino Acids
Amino acids are used to promote muscle growth. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition investigated the impact of branched-chain amino acids on protein synthesis post-workout. The study found that supplementation with amino acids resulted in the activation of enzymes that build muscle. When the supplement was taken during exercise, the amino acids helped to promote recovery after the workout ended (1).
Experts believe taking amino acid supplements may lead to muscle growth and reduced muscle soreness following activity. Research shows that BCAA’s helped to increase the amount of time it took to feel fatigued in people who demonstrated glycogen depletion. The study also showed that the supplements enhanced the body’s ability to convert fat into energy (2).
A second study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined the effects of amino acids on maintaining muscle mass and body weight. The researchers found that BCAA supplementation was able to persevere skeletal muscle and maintain a lean body mass even when consuming a hypocaloric diet (3). That’s because amino acids help in muscle protein synthesis.
Amino acids may also help to promote weight loss. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that supplementing with amino acids resulted in decreased body fat compared to sports drinks. Muscle strength was also increased significantly in the individuals who took BCAA’s (4).
EEA’s vs BCAA’s
For many years, athletes and industry elites argued that branch-chain amino acids were more important that essential amino acids. Today, research is emerging showing that the body needs all of the essential amino acids for mental focus, muscle building, and muscle recovery in relation to endurance exercise.
A study published in Frontiers in Physiology in 2017 found that taking BCAA’s alone does not lead to increased muscle mass and less muscle breakdown during recovery. Researchers found that participants who took all nine essential amino acids — not just the three branch-chain ones — demonstrated the best results (5).
Research also shows that amino acid supplementation is more effective than consuming only whey protein powder or soy protein (6). Experts recommend combining the two into your workout and exercise plan.
Branched-chain amino acids may also be useful in the treatment of liver disease. One study published in the Journal of Nutrition investigated the impacts of BCAA’s on liver health. Improper metabolic synthesis of amino acids is a hallmark of liver disorders. Researchers found that supplementing with BCAA’s helped to decrease complications associated with cirrhosis and improved nutritional health (7).
Dangers of Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acids are safe to consume for the majority of the population. Some small studies have linked BCAA’s to insulin resistance, blood sugar problems, and type 2 diabetes, but the research is new and limited (8). Always talk to a healthcare professional and seek medical advice before taking dietary supplements. People who have diabetes or have a higher risk of developing diabetes should be more cautious when taking BCAA’s.
High BCAA levels have also been associated with B vitamin deficiencies. That’s because BCAA’s use the same enzymes that B vitamins use for metabolic processes. High doses of BCAA’s may also cause a depletion of serotonin, which can lead to fatigue and depression.
The FDA does not regulate supplement so it’s important to buy from a reputable brand. Look for EEA supplements that do not contain added ingredients such as other vitamins and minerals. Researchers don’t yet know how these ingredients may affect the efficacy of amino acid mixtures and supplements. In particular, avoid supplements that include sucralose and maltodextrin.
Amino Acid Supplements Recap
The human body needs all nine essential amino acids to function properly whether it comes to the immune system, digestive system, or nervous system. You can get all the essential amino acids by eating a healthy diet rich in vegetables and lean protein. For people who are trying to build muscle mass, taking an amino acid supplement may be beneficial. These supplements may help decrease muscle damage and boost performance.
Amino acids are typically taken pre-workout in order to encourage muscle building and increased performance. For use as a recovery aid, take the supplement during the workout or post-workout.