AMINO ACIDS: A Primer

by David Spindel, M.S., C.P.F.T.
  • What are Amino Acids?
  • What do amino acids do?
  • Who should take amino acids?
  • What kinds to take?
  • When to take amino acids?
  • Capsules vs. Tablets?
  • Truth in Labeling
    With the market place currently being saturated with many different forms of amino acid products, the potential user is left scratching his head as to which kind to take, which brand to use, when to take them, or more fundamentally - why take them in the first place. As a consumer you are faced with amino acids that are; predigested, free form, hydrolysates, branched chained, made from egg, made from casein, liquids, powders, capsules, tablets, time-released and more. When you read the magazine advertisements, they all present a case as to why "theirs is better". With the minimal amount of factual background and understanding of the subject that most potential users have, the choice typically falls to choosing the product with the classiest, sexiest, or most outlandish advertisement. Of course, the only results that these advertisements produce is more sales for the advertiser. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on this field. With a fundamental understanding of the issues you can, then, make an educated and sensible purchase that will help you to advance the achievement of your goals. Therefore, let's start with the very basics.

    What are Amino Acids?

    Amino acids are organic molecules that form the basic constituents of protein. Proteins are simply collections of large particles of accumulated links of peptides (or poly-peptides). In the digestion process proteins are broken down, in a process called hydrolyzation, from poly-peptides to smaller oligo-peptides, then to di-peptides or tri-peptides, which are made up of two or three links of specific amino acids, called free form amino acids, that are finally absorbed into the bloodstream. Therefore, we can see that amino acids are, quite simply, the most basic building blocks of proteins.

    Typically, discussions of amino acids revolve around about 20 or so amino acids that are involved in body function. Of these, 8 (some say 10) are deemed to be essential due to the fact that; 1) the body can not make them so that they must be taken in from an external source, and 2) the body can not survive with a deficiency of any one of them. The essential amino acids are; Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine, Methionine, Lysine, Threonine, Phenylalanine, and yes, Tryptophan. The first three, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine, are commonly referred to as the branched chained amino acids and are of particular importance due to their ability to provide the body with about 70% of its nitrogen needs. Studies have shown that a shortage of branched chained amino acids, coupled with increased physical demands on the body, can lead to a cannibalization of muscle tissue to respond to the body's need for nitrogen.

    What do amino acids do?

    In the human body, amino acids not only form the building blocks of our voluntary, or skeletal, muscle tissue, such as the biceps, quadriceps, etc., but they also form the building blocks of our less ego oriented involuntary muscles, such as the heart. In addition to this muscle building function, each individual amino acid has a specific function in the body. These functions include among others in; assisting in transporting long chain triglycerides, or dietary fat, into the cells for energy; stimulating the pituitary to secrete growth hormone, which is involved in developing lean muscle tissue as well as mobilizing fatty acids from the adipose tissue (i.e., dropping bodyfat); supplying the body with nitrogen; and much, much, more.

    Who should take amino acids?

    From the previous discussion we can see that an obvious source of amino acids is from the dietary intake of protein. However, as we will now see there are some reasons that this source may not always be the most desirable. First, a quick look down the nutrition charts will reveal that foods that are high in protein tend to, also, be high in fat. Second, as we age our level of digestive enzymes tends to decrease, thus impairing our ability to efficiently utilize proteins. At best, our digestive systems are extremely inefficient. Third, for the athlete, meals that present an incomplete amino acid profile (i.e., a shortage of the essential amino acids) to our system will be of marginal use to the muscle building process. Therefore, a well balanced amino acid supplement can prove to be extremely cost effective for individuals desiring to maximize their protein intake at a minimal caloric cost.

    What kinds to take?

    As was mentioned earlier the end products in the digestion (hydrolyzation) of protein are tri-peptides, di-peptides, and free form amino acids. Therefore, it stands to reason, that if we are looking to take in proteins with a minimal amount of further digestion required, then we should try to find protein sources that are already close to this end state. Free form amino acids and high-degree hydrolysates with a good supply of the eight essentials are excellent choices to fill this need. Unfortunately, there are many suppliers of amino acid supplements that take the "short cut" (to profits) by producing products that are very little more than egg, milk, whey, or soy protein compressed into a pill and sold as an amino acid product. Do these products contain amino acids? Yes. Are you getting a supplement that is going to give you a large amount of usable end products, without loss due to digestion? No. A quality amino acid product will either be a complete free form product or a free form/hydrolysate mix that identifies a quality base material, such as casein (milk protein) or egg protein, and that the hydrolyzation process was conducted using the same protein-splitting enzymes that are used in the human digestive process (i.e., pancreatic enzymes). As a side issue, there are constructional constraints (that are unrelated to P.E.R.) that make casein the best choice for a base material. In addition, since the object of amino acid supplementation is to rapidly and efficiently supply the body with these protein end products, the notion of timed-release amino acids is rather comical.

    Specifically, at the Beverly International Sports Nutrition Center (now the Essential Fitness Center) we incorporate both free form and hydrolyzed amino acids into our programs. Typically, due to its cost to benefit ratio, we will use the hydrolysates for individuals looking to maximize protein at a minimum cost (yes, dollars too). However, for certain individuals, such as athletes that are within 6 weeks of a bodybuilding contest, we will recommend specific free form configurations. In addition to satisfying an increased protein need, we will suggest specific blends of amino acids such as the branched chained amino acids, the "GH releasers", or other configurations of specific free form amino acids based on the individual's needs.

    When to take amino acids?

    It must be kept in mind that the timing, as well as the presence of certain co-factors, such as vitamins and minerals, are essential to the success of these programs. By understanding the processes that ultimately lead these building blocks to the muscle cells it is possible to optimize their usage. At the Center we always recommend that amino acids (with the exception of specific free form combinations, i.e, GH releasers) should be taken with meals. The reason for this is three fold. First, we are not chickens. We do not deal well with swallowing hard masses. The meal serves as a buffering, or softening, agent for the aminos. Second, if we eat a meal that has an incomplete amino acid profile then the muscle building benefits will be considerably reduced. A quality amino acid supplement can help us to "get more" from our meals. Third, the transport of amino acids from the bloodstream into the muscle cells appears to be regulated by the hormone, insulin. Due to the fact that our meals traditionally have some carbohydrate value, the corresponding insulin release will facilitate the increased utilization of the amino acids. The prior reasoning combined with considerable clinical experience has led us to utilize this administration approach that, while flying in the face of traditional "gym wisdom", has led us to produce a considerable number of world class athletes.

    Capsules vs. Tablets?

    One of the more controversial topics regarding aminos today is capsule absorption versus the value of using tablets. In past years, capsules definitely proved to have a quicker entry time into the system. However this is no longer true. Due to advances in tabletting technology, using magnesium stearate and various brewers yeast bases, the modern tablet today can actually dissolve faster than most capsules. The true value of capsules today is the simple fact that you do not have binders, fillers or coating, some of which may contain potentially allergenic factors. Don't let yourself get caught up in the mass advertising hype pertaining to this matter. The simple truth is they are both good. It's simply your choice as to which you prefer to take.

    Truth in Labeling

    In conclusion, when purchasing amino acids be sure you understand what you are getting. Some manufacturers take "poetic license" with their label descriptions which, while being legally proper, can in many cases be misleading. Understand the difference between free form and hydrolyzed amino acids and above all, ensure that the product you are using has not been beefed up with soy, calcium sulfate, or cheap forms of protein powders to increase the label amino acid profile. One quick and effective test, to ascertain the degree of hydrolyzation for a "hydrolysate" is to quite simply bite into the tablet. It should be bitter and repulsive. If it tastes good you are probably getting nothing more than an expensive tabletted protein powder and not what you paid for. This brings up another equally poor choice for an amino acid delivery system: liquid aminos. In order to mask the horrible taste that is inherent to the high degree hydrolysate/free form products, these liquids, like their low quality pill counterparts, tend to use very low levels of aminos fortified with an inexpensive protein food, and then are sweetened with sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup. Not a great recipe for success.

    Your hard earned time and money must be spent wisely. Through a better understanding of the issues you can choose a path of QUALITY amino acid supplementation that will be extremely beneficial to the rapid achievement of your goals.


    Copyright 1991 by David A. Spindel
    All rights reserved. No part of this work may reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical or electronic, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. For permission or further information, call or write to:

    David Spindel
    Essential Fitness
    14500 Smoketown Rd.
    Woodbridge, VA 22193

    Return to Amino Acid Products


    Return to Nutrition & Fitness Tips


    Return to Essential Fitness Online Store