The protein in food and in your body is a combination of chemical units called amino acids. A diet lacking even one amino acid can have a negative effect on your health. Supplements may be needed to help your body work more efficiently and to treat disease.
What are they?
Every cell in the body needs and uses amino acids. Your body breaks down the protein from foods into its individual amino acids, which are then recombined to create the specific types of proteins the body requires. (Each cell, in fact, is programmed to produce exactly the right combination for its needs). There are two types of amino acids non-essential and essential. The body can manufacture non-essential amino acids, but must obtain essential amino acids from the foods you eat. Non-essential amino acids include alanine, asparagines, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, taurine and tyrosine. Essential amino acids include isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Two other amino acids, arginine and histidine, are essential in children but not in adults.
What they do?
Amino acids are needed to maintain and repair muscles, tendons, skins, ligaments, organs, glands, nails and hair. They also aid in the production of hormones (such as insulin), neurotransmitters (message-carrying chemicals within the brain), various body fluids, and enzymes that trigger bodily functions. When even one amino acid is lacking, serious health problems will eventually occur.
Though the major cause of an amino acid deficiency is a poor diet (particularly one low in protein), amino acids may also be affected by infection, trauma, stress, medications, age and chemical imbalances within the body. Nutritionally oriented doctors often give blood or urine tests to determine whether the patient has a deficiency or an excess. Supplements can compensate for deficiencies and can also be taken therapeutically for a variety of health problems.
Specific amino acids (and their by-products) are very effective in the treatment of heart disease. Highly concentrated in the cells of the heart muscle, carnitine – a substance similar to an amino acid that the body produces from lysine – strengthens the heart, helps those with congestive heart failure, and can improve the chances of surviving a heart attack. Because it is also involved in fat metabolism, carnitine may help lower high levels of triglycerides (blood fats related to cholesterol). The amino acid arginine reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure; it eases the symptoms and pains of angina as well. Taurine treats congestive heart failure and lowers high blood pressure by balancing the blood' sodium-to-potassium ratio and by regulating excessive activity of the central nervous system.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a by-product of the amino acid cysteine that's better absorbed than cysteine, stimulates the body's production of antioxidants and may be an antioxidant itself. As such, it aids in repairing cell damage and boosting the immune system. NAC also thins the mucus of chronic bronchitis and has been used to protect the liver in overdoses of paracetemol. It may also be of value for disorders involving damage to brain or nerve cells, such as multiple sclerosis.
Concentrated in the cells of the digestive tract, glutamine can help heal ulcers and soothe irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis. By enhancing the production of certain brain chemicals, taurine may be a boon to people with epilepsy. It's also a key element in bile and may prevent gallstones. People with diabetes can also benefit from taurine because it facilitates the body's use of insulin.
Carnitine feeds the muscles by making it possible for them to burn fats for energy. Lysine is one of the most effective treatments for cold sores and is also useful for shingles and mouth ulcers. (Arginine, on the other hand, can trigger outbreaks of cold sores or genital herpes.)
- Treat heart disease.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Boost immune function.
- Improve some nerve disorders.
- Pregnant women or anyone with liver or kidney disease should consult a doctor about using amino acid supplements.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
For the recommended dosage of individual amino acids, see the appropriate ailment entry. When using any individual amino acid for longer than one month, take it with a mixed amino acid complex – a supplement that contains a variety of amino acids – to be sure you are receiving adequate, balance amounts to all the amino acids.
Guidelines for use:
Amino acid supplements are more effective when they don't have to compete with the amino acids in high-protein foods. Take the supplements at least an hour and a half before or after meals (first thing in the morning or at bedtime may be best).
Individual amino acid supplements should not be used for longer than three months, unless you are under the supervision of a doctor familiar with their use. Take mixed amino acid supplements on an empty stomach and also at a different time of day than you take the individual supplement.
Possible side effects
Amino acid supplements have no side effects as long as they are taken in the recommended amounts. High doses of certain amino acids, however, may be toxic and produce nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
On supplement labels, amino acids are often prefaced by an L (L-carnitine, for example) or by a D. Buy the L forms: they most closely resemble the amino acids in the body. The D forms may be toxic in high doses. (One exception: D-L phenylalanine may be used for chronic pain.)
- Carnitine improved the symptoms of intermittent claudication (leg pain caused by the blockage of large arteries in legs) in 73% of people taking a specialized form of it, according to a study from Italy. Often people with this condition can't walk very far. L-carnitine in doses of up to 2000 mg a day increased the distance that the participants could walk without pain.
- Researchers at Stanford University in California found that arginine supplements may prevent clots that cause heart attacks and strokes by reducing the tendency for blood platelets to stick to each other and to artery walls. Arginine particularly benefits people with high cholesterol because they have stickier platelets than those with normal cholesterol.
Did you know?
Concentrated protein foods are animal foods – eggs (the richest source), meat, chicken and fish. Vegetarians need to combine their foods – legumes with grains, nuts and seeds, or soya benas with couscous, for example – to get the correct balance of amino acids.