One particular supplement impacts your cognition, athleticism,health, and virtually facet of human performance:
- Healthy neurotransmitter production
- Digestion and absorption
- Metabolic health
- Immune system functionality
- Blood sugar
- Sexual health
- Hormone production
- Stable weight
- Mood regulation
- Staving off cravings
- Eenergy generation
- Muscle building
Each of these shares something in common…You build 280,000 different proteins from 22 amino acids. 9 of which must come from your diet or supplementation. Click To Tweet
Contrary to popular opinion, all protein isn’t equal. The two keys to healthy protein intake are:
- Protein quantity
- Protein quality
First consume more protein. Then focus on protein quality. Protein quality depends on the raw materials called amino acids.
Most of us don’t get enough of certain amino acids, and too much of others. Our biology works with the resources available and throttles mental and physical performance as necessary.
Supplementation is a way to even the ratio of imbalanced aminos, orchestrating and harmonizing the body’s many systems.
Long-term amino deficiencies can result in disease. Whether world-class athlete, wellness enthusiast, or hard-charging executive, consuming more essential amino acids can give you the edge.
Your Inner Alchemist (How Proteins & Amino Acids Work)
First, what even is a amino acid?
I wrote off amino acids in school because I didn’t understand them well. I like to think of them through two lenses:
- When constructing a house, builders use large amounts of raw materials: stone, wood, brick, metal, glass, and plastic. Everything from the foundation to the roof is built from a catalog of raw materials. Each structure in the house requires multiple materials. Here, aminos are the materials, and together they make a structure (protein).
- For another analogy, think of Scrabble. Aminos are the letters in your hand. Combine multiple, and the word corresponds to a protein. The best hands include various letters. Such is the case with amino acids. You need specific amounts of each to build different proteins and perform your best.
In science terms, proteins are strings of amino acids. Frequently referred to as “the building blocks of protein”. Each individual amino acid is involved in different bodily processes, and some are more important than others.
Of the 22 total amino acids, your body can produce all but nine (essential) amino acids. Essential amino acids must come from either diet or supplementation. Protein-rich food contains different amounts of each. Animal proteins have particularly beneficial ratios of essential aminos.Whenever your body wants to create something it does so through proteins. Proteins are made from different combinations and ratios of aminos. Amino acids are the foundation of life. Click To Tweet
In fact, human genes are merely blueprints to build proteins.
At one point plants were enough. Throughout history, plant microbes always built the necessary amino acids. Collateral damage from pesticides and insecticides has decimated beneficial plant microbes (by interfering with the Shikimate pathway). Now, plants no longer contain the same levels of medicinal, alkaloid compounds. For more information on how this works, check out any Dr. Zach Bush guest podcast appearance.
I advocate getting most aminos from your food. Then decide if smart supplementation is for you.
Who Should Take EAAs
Unfortunately, dietary protein lacks enough of certain amino “letters”. When your body creates new proteins, it has too much of some and not enough of others. Though you can survive and thrive on amino acids in food alone, peak performance requires more. Essential amino acid supplements fill the gap.Essential amino acids are a "shotgun supplement" with sweeping benefits and little risk. Click To Tweet
Anyone looking to:
- Build bone mineralization, body mass, and muscle mass.
- Lose weight
- Maximize cognition by supporting neurotransmitter production
- Perform their best without counting calories and macros
Aminos are the catalyst for nearly every chemical process in the body, such as enzyme production, hormone regulation, cognitive ability, neurotransmitter balance, and metabolism.
Virtually Everyone Needs More
Essential amino acids are an antidote to insufficient dietary protein intake. Even if you chow down drumsticks, rib eyes, and salmon you’re likely missing specific amino acids critical for your brain and body to operate smoothly.
The folks that stand to benefit most from supplementing EAAs include:
- The elderly
- Athletes and hard-charging Type-A personalities
Some plants do contain all nine EAAs, but not in the right ratios of quantities. Essential amino acids are especially important for vegans because plants lack sufficient anabolic aminos like Leucine.
From my notes, other reasons to supplement EAAs include:
- Appetite regulation to eat less.
- Increased brainpower through adequate tryptophan (which is later converted to serotonin).
- Falling asleep faster and feeling more tired.
- Improved metabolic health.
- Greater energy levels.
“An alternative insurance policy against low performance is to take a supplement containing the essential nine amino acids.”
An Athletic Super Supplement
In my years of competitive collegiate Rugby and Football, I vetted every compound available. I trolled the internet for any new promising compounds. Early in my research I came across amino acids. Before I understood the role of the other aminos, I mistakenly took BCAAs.
Studies of fitness supplements are muddied by a slew of problems, including two of particular interest: funding by vested parties, and studying a very different population. Little research on healthy, high-performance-focused folk exists. Still, I came across study after study showing ergogenic effects of essential aminos. Competitive athletes and bodybuilders benefit in three main ways:
- Increases strength and endurance
- Staves off muscle tissue breakdown
- Prevents bonking, or “hitting the wall”
Here’s what one study had to say:
“[Aminos] can positively affect muscle mass, muscle strength, muscle power and VAT, counterbalancing more than one year of age-related loss of muscle mass and strength”— PubMed
Other reasons to supplement EAAs include:
- Alleviated central nervous system fatigue in a small study of 12 athletes.
- Increases strength and muscle protein synthesis above exercise alone
- Faster injury recovery
- Increases muscle growth while reducing body fat
- Halts tissue breakdown, muscle wasting, and metabolic impairment
- Reduces risk of serious infection in elderly
Essential Amino Acids vs. Branched-Chain Amino Acids vs. Whey
The three most popular forms of dietary aminos are essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids, and whey protein.
- BCAAs: 3/22 amino acids
- EAAs: 9/22 amino acids
- Whey: 18/22 amino acids, but in uneven ratios
Unlike its three-amino acid cousin BCAAs, the nine-amino EAAs are more broad-spectrum and absorbable to the body. The best compound is only as effective as its absorption.
Old-school bodybuilders use BCAAs, but they’re behind the latest research. Branched-chain amino acids don’t work:
- A study of young athletes found no improvement over the supplement-free control group.
- In 2003, researchers found that the muscle growth and recovery effects of aminos come primarily from essential aminos.
- Then in 2016, more research confirmed that EAAs activate the anabolic anti-aging protein mTOR better than BCAAs.
- Large doses of BCAA’s can deplete B vitamins.
- Can harm serotonin levels.
- May cause insulin resistance and dysregulate blood sugar metabolism
But what about essential aminos and whey?
- One study found EAAs more effectively stimulate growth and repair than whey.
- Another showed that whey and EAAs stimulate muscle growth comparably, at least in older women.
- Recent 2020 research suggests that combining EAAs with whey protein is optimal for building muscle.
Get the best of both worlds by combining whey protein and essential amino acids. To summarize:
- EAAs > whey > BCAAs.
- Avoid BCAAs.
Where to Get the Best EAA Supplements
Few companies make quality essential amino supplements. I’ve talked to manufacturers and scrutinized half a dozen products so far. Here’s how to find the highest quality essential amino acid products and avoid common shady practices:
- Check the ingredients. Avoid proprietary blends that hide what’s in the powder.
- Take note of the amino acid quantities. They should be within five- to tenfold of each other.
- Check for certifications. Third-parties should test the supplements for purity and accuracy.
Watch for products spiked with extra leucine. Leucine is cheap, and the shady products on the market fill most of canister with it. Effective formulations balance them. Expect L-Tryptophan to be well below the rest.
The only three EAA products I’ve found that match my standards are:
- Thorne Amino Complex [Amazon]
- NOW Sports Amino-9 Essentials [Amazon]
- Kion Essential Amino Acids [Amazon]
In my experience, NOW Amino-9 is the best value.
Though if you want to go down the natural route, I suggest a form of highly bioavailable amino acids called spirulina (see my post on the best chlorella and spirulina supplements to learn more).
How & When to Take EAAs the Right Way
Once I picked up an amino product (hopefully not BCAAs), I began wondering when I should take it:
- First thing in the morning?
- Before a run or workout?
- Before bed?
Luckily, aminos fit anywhere into a schedule. For the physically active, the best time window to take essential amino acids is beginning 10 minutes before exercise all the way until the end. Unlike protein shakes, amino acids rapidly enter your bloodstream where they protect against the ravages of intense exercise.
- For short exercise, I’ll take them just before.
- For endurance events, I’ll have a serving 10 minutes before, and sip on another over the course of two hours.
If you follow a fasting routine, amino acids do partially break a fast. Specifically, activating mTOR inhibits the cellular recycling process called autophagy. But EAAs don’t cause the same insulin spike that BCAAs do and thus are a better choice. For most intents and purposes, a moderate dose of aminos will not detract at all from a fast and may enhance it.
Most of the research I’ve come across suggest doses between 5-20 grams of EAAs depending on your use case, diet, and lifestyle. However, they’re safe in large doses, and competitive athletes often take more to stay anabolic during grueling events.
Link Between Amino Acids and Disease
You may have heard that too much protein accelerates cancer and other degenerative diseases.
Evidence suggests that restricting certain aminos can extend the lifespan of lab animals.
Of the 21 amino acids, a newer study suggests restricting the following to slow aging:
- BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine)
While increasing glycine correlates strongly with increased lifespan. Perhaps the rich glycine content explains the collagen supplement craze.
This article nicely breaks down the link between amino acids, proteins, and aging.
Essential Amino Acids: The Human Performance Enhancer
You wouldn’t live long without essential amino acids. Your body cannot make them, so you must consume them in food and supplement. That’s where the “essential” part in the name comes from. But today, most of us walk around with insufficient levels. We’re artificially limiting our brains and bodies by starving them of the nutrients needed to repair, regenerate, and grow.
I began taking aminos for sports performance, and continued when I realized they made me feel better off the field.
While amino acid deficiency is rampant, certain populations have an even greater need for supplementation:
- The elderly
- Vegan and vegatarians
- Hard-charging executives
Not long ago, we could get our essential amino acids through plants. Not anymore:
“Widespread use of pesticides kills the Shikimate pathway in plants, preventing them from producing biologically critical amino acids. Even supermarket produce is becoming devoid of protein.”— Unknown
Have you tried essential aminos? If you’re a BCAA fan, give the broad-spectrum EAAs a try and report back. I’m eager to hear your results.