Sunday, June 28, 2009

Amino Acids and fitness

What are amino acids, and why are they important?

You may have seen the term “Amino Acid” or BCAA (standing for Branched Chain Amino Acid) floating around on the label of your favorite protein supplement, or in the ever-popular Xtend drink mix, but do you know what an amino acid is, or why it is important to you?

At the most basic level, Amino Acids are (as nearly every high school biology teacher of all time has stated) the “building blocks of protein.” What this means is that a protein molecule is made up of a series of individual Amino Acid molecules bonded together into a chain. The human body, through various metabolic pathways, is able to build proteins from these individual pieces, and use said proteins for energy or to build and repair muscle tissue.

There exists a very large multitude of Amino Acids, ranging a wide gamut of uses from both a nutritional standpoint, as well as having certain industrial applications (such as the production of plastics). Some of the more familiar Amino Acids that we see commonly in food substances include:Phenylalanine – a naturally occurring amino found in mammalian breast milk, used most commonly in diet sodas or as the artificial sweetener Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet). It is also sold in pill form as a dietary supplement due to its reputed antidepressant effects.
Glutamic Acid – usually seen in its salt form Monosodium Glutamate – used as a flavor-enhancer in many processed foods. This amino acid should be avoided as much as possible, as a number of possible health risks are associated with high levels of MSG consumption, including increased Asthma symptoms, Obesity, and Neurotoxicity.

The most useful Aminos to fitness enthusiasts and athletes are the Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), and the BCAA group, which are used in protein synthesis. EAAs are Aminos required by the body for metabolic functions, but are not naturally produced by the body in sufficient quantity, and so must be acquired via food or supplements. There are 8 EAAs: Leucine, Isoluecine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan (yes, the substance in Turkey that makes us sleepy every November!), and Valine. Many protein supplements have high levels of these Aminos, but they are also found naturally in meat, eggs, and milk. Perhaps the most important of the EAAs are the BCAAs Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Roughly 1/3 of the skeletal muscle system in humans is made up of chains of these 3 Amino Acids. This fact alone is a powerful indicator that Amino Acids are extremely important in human nutrition, and especially in those who participate in weight training or athletics. Another important Amino Acid involved in muscle repair is Glutamine. This is a very popular ingredient in sports supplements, as it speeds along recovery. By ingesting Aminos via quality food sources or supplements, the body has a good supply of them to repair muscle tissue damaged during exercise, and can do so more efficiently – making you less sore after a tough workout, maximizing your workout’s effects.

One other function of Amino Acids, aside from protein synthesis, is as a source of energy. When the human body is lacking in energy to burn from dietary fats or carbohydrates, it can turn to Amino Acids as a fuel source. It generally does this under intense workloads, while the body is in a calorie-deprived state (Extreme dieting and training like that commonly undergone by Bodybuilders or Wrestlers who strive for low levels of body fat or to make weight classes, or when people exercise first thing in the morning without eating beforehand, thus having been in a long fasted state after sleep) The body will sometimes turn catabolic in this state, and start to burn its own muscle tissue as a fuel supply. To prevent this, an amino acid supplement such as Xtend can be ingested before and during exercise to supply Aminos to the body as a fuel source, helping to prevent muscle loss.
So, what does all of this mean to us? Aminos play such an important role in human nutrition that we should ensure that we consume a healthy supply of them via good nutrition, and, if necessary, dietary supplements such as Protein supplements, BCAA products like Xtend, or Amino Acid tablets like those found in nutrition shops. By getting an adequate Amino intake, we help to ensure better recovery from exercise, and a strong, healthy body.

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