The body’s muscles are made up of proteins. During exercise, your muscles are damaged. It’s when you rest from exercise that you grow, because the damage from exercise triggers growth. For growth to happen, the body needs extra proteins from the diet.
A protein is made up of 20 amino acids. Each of these aminos has a very important job! You don’t have to remember each one, but here they are in case you’re curious. Another reason they’re listed here is because you can find all of these amino acids sold as supplements online.
While protein in your diet usually includes these aminos (as long as it’s complete protein), taking an individual amino acid separately in larger quantities than you’d get from dietary protein alone means that amino will perform its function in a more pronounced way. For example, arginine releases growth hormone into the body. By taking arginine pills, you will get even more growth hormone than simply getting arginine from protein. Growth hormone helps burn fat and builds muscle, so this information is important. GABA helps put you to sleep at night, so taking GABA pills can really help you zone out and sleep.
All the Aminos and What They Do, Simplified:
Alanine – converts easily into sugar, allowing your own sugar stores to last longer. This is good for marathon runners.
Arginine – promotes growth hormone (which builds muscle and burns fat), and promotes blood flow (don’t take it in supplemental form with medication for cold sores, or if you’ve had heart trouble)
Asparagine – does nothing
Aspartic acid – increases brain activity, spares glycogen (letting your own glycogen last longer; again, good for marathon runners). In supplemental form, an overdose can cause excitotoxicity (too much brain activity / seizures). If MSG or Aspartame exist in your diet, do not supplement with aspartic acid.
Citruline – cleans up the blood, and help with detoxification.
Cysteine – aids in making strong hair and nails. In emergency room situations, is sometimes administered to stop damage done by drug overdoses.
Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) – decreases brain activity, aids sleep, aids focus, and is counter-anxiety. Effects are enhanced when taken with vitamin B6, manganese, taurine, or lysine. In supplemental form, GABA must be taken with food, or improper absorption may occur, which can cause shortness of breath or dizziness.
Glutamatic acid – clears ammonia build up, increases brain activity (opposite of GABA), shares similar functions to glutamine. Is also found in MSG – do not supplement if MSG exists in your diet. Glutamatic acid also mediates how well other aminos can be used.
Glutamine – stops catabolism, fuels brain and nerve function, prevents muscle wasting, prevents sickness, fuels immune system during times of extreme stress, speeds recovery, and maintains gut health and liver health. In high doses, it is used in cancer treatment.
Glutathione – also known as alpha-glutamyl-cysteinyl-glycine, simply because it is a bond of 3 other amino acids: glutamate, cysteine, and glycine. Acts as a powerful antioxidant, cleans blood, removes toxins, and is important for older athletes. Direct supplementation may not be possible – it is more practical to supplement with substances which will assist the body to increase its own Glutathione levels. These include acetylcysteine, choline, alpha lipoic acid, B12, vitamin E, and Selenium.
Glycine – precursor for many things, but most notably, creatine and growth hormone, and is a neuro-inhibitor (decreases brain activity).
Histidine – boost immunity, increases red blood cell count, speeds recovery and repair from injuries, reduces inflammation, and can help with intimacy performance.
Isoleucine, Leucine, Valine (These 3 are the Branch Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs) – exceptionally anabolic, can markedly speed recovery, and improve performance. Extremely important note: endurance athletes may need up to 5 times the amount of Leucine, as the body metabolizes it quickly. All 3 are essential.
Lysine – absorbs calcium, helps make carnitine, fights herpes, soft tissue maintenance, is essential.
Methionine – makes neurotransmitters, carnitine (a substance used for burning fat), detoxifies the body, and aids in a wide range of metabolic processes. Also becomes homocysteine, which is a toxic substance. Vitamin B is needed to destroy this toxin. Is essential.
Ornithine – when combined with arginine, increases impact on growth hormone.
Phenylalanine – Acts like a stimulant, controls hunger, helps produce neurotransmitters and fat burning hormones, and is a pain killer, though ironically too much may cause headache. Caffeine causes this amino to be spent up faster in the body. Is essential.
Proline – forms collagen (tissue found in tendons and ligaments), and may also help cardiovascular health.
Serine – a “wild card” amino – can become other aminos and perform their functions.
Taurine – neuro-inhibitor (reduces brain activity), produces bile, protects from irregular heart beats.
Threanine – helps make collagen, tooth enamel, elastic tissue, and can possibly treat depression. Is essential.
Tyrosine – increases ability to deal with stress (especially sleep loss), promotes neurotransmitters and fat burning hormones, and helps to produce a healthy tan.
Tryptophan – aids sleep, neurotransmitter production, fights depression, and increases growth hormone. Is essential.
If you’re shopping for amino acid supplements at your local GNC and you wanted to know what the L in front of the name stands for (L-arginine, L-orthinine, L-glutamine, etc), it stands for “levo” (which means “left”), and refers to the molecular structure of the amino (that its curved “to the left”).
The opposite of L would be D, as in D-arginine, or D-glutamine. D stands for dextro, and means “to the right”. As a general rule, your body cannot use D aminos, and can only use L – so unless otherwise stated, an amino is assumed to be L. Why bother putting L on the label then? Because it makes the supplement look cooler.
Aspartame is a common sweetener in diet soft drinks (all diet Coke’s have this), and is created by combining 2 amino acids – aspartame and phenylalanine. This bond can easily be converted into methanol, and in turn, formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen (cancer causing substance). This process begins to happen at warmer temperatures (around 31 degrees C), so some of the aspartame can convert to formaldehyde before its broken down in the stomach. A safer alternative is sucralose, sometimes listed by its brand name “Splenda”.
The good news is, if you only have 1 or 2 diet drinks a day, you’re probably not getting enough formaldehyde to hurt you. You would have to go out of your way to get too much of this.
So just take a look at how many aminos there are from 1 single protein, how many jobs they all do, and realize how important protein is!
Essential Amino Acids and Vegetarianism
For easy reference, the essential amino acids are:
Isoleucine, Leucine, Valine, Lysine, Phenylalanine, Methionine, Threanine, and Tryptophan. The 8 EAAs cannot be produced by the body, and are needed for survival. The other 12 are non-essential.
Its interesting to note that a diet consisting of only EAAs in place of protein has been shown not only sufficient for survival, but also for increasing athletic performance! This is because EAAs can convert into all other amino acids (Tryptophan can become tyrosine, for example). Taking non-EAAs can help spare the conversion of EAAs, increasing the effectiveness of their roles in the body.
If you consume 200 grams of protein (enough for plenty of muscle building), yet you consume only 2 grams worth of methionine, then it will be as if you only consumed 2 grams of protein that day. You need the essential amino acids, and plants frequently don’t supply all of them. What’s more, scientific research has shown that proteins coming from plant sources do not contribute to muscle growth nearly as well as meat proteins, even if the plant proteins sources are combined to make complete proteins!!
The best protein sources are whey, milk, soy, eggs, fish, chicken, and turkey (these are all sources of complete proteins). The worst protein sources are most vegetables, breads, lentils, and rice (these are all sources of incomplete proteins). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have these foods (they have all the vitamins and minerals you need!), it simply means you shouldn’t expect quality protein from them.
Strict vegetarians (vegans) can go for long periods with very few EAAs in their diet, and can experience side effects as a result. We try not to step on anyone’s toes when it comes to religion, so if your choices for being vegetarian are religiously motivated, then the conversation ends there. But scientifically speaking, the human body performs better and lives longer with a balanced diet (meats and vegetables).
Even though from a scientific perspective it’s best to consume meats as part of a balanced diet, we do advise that you avoid beef consumption. Beef production actually does cause problems to Earth’s ecological balance, and is the only point the vegetarians have that can’t be argued with.
Protein, Health, and Fat Loss
As we covered earlier, the body needs around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight for muscle growth, or 2.2 grams per kg. The actual amount of protein needed may be less, given lean body mass, fitness goals, and other factors, but this general recommendation is easy to remember. When guessing how much protein you need, aim for more rather than less. Protein requires more effort to digest and use. This effort raises the total number of calories burned each day (metabolism), which helps if your goal is fat loss.
Proteins must undergo gluconeogenisis before they can be stored as fat. This is a complex process, and the body is more likely to use protein in some other capacity. Even after protein is converted into glucose, it still has a chance to be burned as energy before it’s stored as fat. For these reasons, protein does not store very well in fat tissue. However, the process of converting protein into glucose is irreversible. This means it can never become protein again.
Because of this, and because the complex processes needed to handle protein require more energy, replacing carbs in your diet with protein is an effective means to increase your metabolism, or how many calories you burn at rest.
Further, protein encourages the release of the hormone glucagons from the pancreas. This hormone’s job is to release fat from fat stores, and decreases the body’s ability to store fat. Higher protein intakes also positively impact the production of IGF-1, a muscle building hormone. More muscles mean more calories burned, and will eventually mean greater fat loss. Finally, studies have shown that a diet high in protein tends to reduce risk for heart disease, improve blood cholesterol, and reduce appetite. This is all good news for those wishing to drop fat!
Raw protein stores are kept in the muscles, not in fat tissue. Starvation diets, in which there is very little incoming protein, means ALL the protein must come from the muscles. In a 3 day fast, around 70% of the weight you lose will be muscle mass. Starvation diets suck.
This is also another reason why you need to eat every 3 hours. If your body needs methoinine, one of the amino acids, to do it’s job somewhere, it will easily and happily take methoinine out of your muscles. How? By tearing down the muscles and reducing their size and strength. The body doesn’t care about how good you look, or how much fat you lose, it only cares about survival. You can easily prevent your body from wanting to reduce your muscles by always having protein in every meal, every 3 hours. Then your body has no need to ever take aminos from your amino acid stores (which are your muscles), because it’s getting a constant supply of aminos from the diet.
What’s more, eating every 3 hours makes the body less able to store fat. It may be tough at first, but once you’ve built the habit, it becomes quite easy. Bringing small Tupperware containers of lean chicken or egg whites with you to work isn’t hard, it just requires a little planning ahead.
Simple Facts about Protein
The body typically cannot process more than 400 grams of protein per day. The limiting factor is how much nitrogen the liver can liberate from the protein, converting it to ureic acid. Beyond 400 grams, the body cannot liberate the nitrogen, which means the protein cannot be processed. This is related to Rabbit Starvation Syndrome – in which hunters would try to get most of their daily calories from rabbit meat, which contains almost no fat or carbs. The result was getting a diet of mostly lean protein, and since 400 grams makes only 1600 calories, the hunters would eventually starve to death, no matter how much rabbit meat they consumed.
The idea that only 40 or so grams of protein can be digested in one meal is a myth. There are no set guidelines to how much protein an individual can adequately process per meal.
You need lots of B vitamins if you consume a lot of protein. It is extremely important to note that all of the proteins and amino acids the body can use must be processed, and this processing relies heavily on the B vitamin complex. Vitamin B6 is often the limiting factor in how much a protein or amino acids can be used by the body. Further, all the B vitamins (B1 – B12) work in tandem – they all rely on each other to function properly. A high protein diet requires proper vitamin intake before it can be considered effective. Taking a multivitamin can help.
You should never exercise after you wake up without breakfast. The theory goes that since no food has been ingested, the body will be forced to use its fat stores for the exercise. The problem is that upon waking, the body has just finished 8 hours of starvation, and is in an extremely catabolic (muscle burning / wasting) state. The body is filled with hormones that will try to tear down your hard earned muscle to supply it with needed amino acids! Exercising under these conditions would make the threat a reality: muscle will be lost; fat will be spared, effectively reversing your dieting efforts. Protein should be consumed immediately upon waking.
You do not need whey protein powders to build anything. They are only a luxury. Whey protein drinks are not necessarily “better” than simply eating normal protein food, like chicken. They’re are simply a luxury for when you cannot have access to regular food. Many people work a full 10-hour-a-day job, and bringing a case of lean chicken breast out at a business meeting may be frowned upon. You might also find yourself stuck in traffic and seriously not in the mood to drive around looking for a restaurant. For when you can’t get to your regular meals, a zip-lock bag of protein powder is very convenient. Simply mix into water and presto!
Protein will not strain your kidneys. This is a myth. Studies on high protein diets have actually shown improved kidney function. High protein diets, however, do require that you drink plenty of water.