It seems these days that the building blocks of proteins, affectionately known as “amino acids”, are tiny little gold nuggets that bestow superhuman powers upon anyone lucky enough to stumble upon them in a sports gel, capsule, fizzy drink or cocktail. After all, these little guys are starting to get put by nutrition supplement manufacturers into just about everything, from your engineered pre-workout snack, to your during workout beverage, to your post-workout smoothie mix. Read more about amino acid amide
But why are amino acids so prevalent now?
And more importantly, do amino acids actually work?
We’re about to find out, and have a bit of fun in the process.
Back in biology class, it was convenient to think of a muscle like a big Lego castle (or Lego pirate ship, depending on your tastes), and amino acids as all the little legos that made up the giant Lego structure (your muscle). Convenient, yes. Complete, no. The role of amino acids goes beyond building blocks – they are essential for the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, mental stabilization, and just about every function that takes place within the human body. So using the Legos-are-amino-acids example, a more appropriate analogy would be that you dump all the Legos out of the box and they self-assemble in a magic pirate ship, then float into the air and fly around the room shooting miniature cannon balls.
In other words, the function of amino acids goes far beyond simple “building blocks”.
In the nutrition supplement industry (when I use that word, it seems to denote big fat guys in black suits sitting around an oak conference table, but in reality, most of these folks are skinny athletes in white shoes and shorts), amino acid supplements fall into two basic categories: Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s).
Essential Amino Acids
Essential amino acids, as the name implies, are essential because they can’t be made by our bodies, like all the other amino acids. Instead, we have to get them from our diet. Have you ever heard of Private Tim Hall, AKA Pvt. Tim Hall? If you’re a biology or chemistry geek, you probably have, because he’s the pneumonic commonly used to remember the essential amino acids, which are Phenylanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Histidine, Arginine,Leucine and Lysine. Thanks Tim, we’ll send you a check if we ever win money in Biology Trivial Pursuit.
Anyways, let’s take a look at why the heck Pvt. Tim might do us good during exercise, starting with P.
Phenylalanine is traditionally marketed for it’s analgesic (pain-killing) and antidepressant effect, and is a precursor to the synthesis of norepinephrine and dopamine, two “feel-good” brain chemicals. This could be good because elevated brain levels of norepinephrine and dopamine may actually lower your “RPE” or Rating of Perceived Exertion During Exercise, which means you could be happier when you’re suffering hallway through a killer workout session or Ironman bike ride.
Valine, along with Isoleucine and Leucine, is a real player, because it is BOTH an Essential Amino Acid and a Branched Chain Amino Acid. Valine is an essential amino acid. It can help to prevent muscle proteins from breaking down during exercise. This means that if you take Valine during exercise, you could recover faster because you’d have less muscle damage. More details on that in the section below on BCAA’s.
Threonine research is a bit scant. I personally couldn’t find much at all that explained why threonine could assist with exercise performance, but would hazard a guess that it is included in essential amino acid supplements because it is just that: essential. And many of the studies done on EAA’s just basically use all of them, rather than isolating one, like Threonine. For example, and this is a bit interesting for people who are masochistic enough to like working out starved, there is a significant muscle-preserving effect of an EAA + Carbohydrate solution ingested during training in a fasted state, and decreased indicators of muscle damage and inflammation. This basically means that if you popped some essential amino acids, even if you didn’t eat anything, you might not “cannibalize” as much lean muscle during a fasted workout session.
OK, sorry, I got sidetracked there.
Tryptophan is an interesting one. It is a precursor for serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that can suppress pain, and if you’re taking some before bed at night, even induce a bit of sleepiness. The main reason to take tryptophan would be to increase tolerance to pain during hard workouts, games or races. But studies to this point go back and forth on whether or not that actually improves performance.