Sunday, May 26, 2013

AMINO ACID SUPPLEMENT ARTICLE SERIES Part One: Basic Science of amino acids. By Vic Goyaram

Basic Science of amino acids

Researched and composed by Vic Veeraj Goyaram
Exclusive for Bodybuilding Mauritius
Fig. 1: Amino acid supplements are numerous and varied. 
This article attempts to give you a background on amino acids 
and help you find a way in this maze.
There isn't any bodybuilder who hasn't heard the term "amino acid" but whether everyone UNDERSTANDS amino acids is another question. People often confuse protein with amino acids. Furthermore, many supplement companies assume that everyone has a degree in Biology and thus indulge freely in loading supplement labels with technical and scientific jargon that may add further confusion. Free form amino acids, peptides, branched chain amino acids, essential amino acid, L- or D-form, individual amino acids are all terms we are bombarded with and it is important that we understand what they are. This article attempts to explain the basic science of amino acids in order to equip you to read and make sense of the terminologies used on amino acid supplement labels. 

Fact #1: What amino acids are
Amino acids are units that make up proteins. Just like a wall is made up of individual bricks joined together by cement, proteins are made up of amino acids joined together by special forces called “peptide bonds”. Therefore, amino acids are the constituents of all proteins in the body like protein hormones (e.g. insulin), enzymes, muscles, etc. 
Amino acid molecules join together by peptide bonds to form proteins
When you eat a protein meal, your body breaks down the protein with the help of enzymes called “proteases”. The proteins are converted into shorter chains called “peptides” and then into the single amino acid units. This process is called digestion. Amino acids cannot be digested further. Your intestines then absorbs these amino acids into blood circulation and the different body tissues will use them (assimilation) for making new proteins or in some cases, for energy.

Fact #2: Chemical Structure of amino acids
Unless you are a biology student there is no reason to learn the structure of amino acids in detail. It suffice to know that amino acids contain Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen that are joined together in a special way (Fig. 2). Each amino acid has a unique “R group”. For example L-Glutamine has a different R group from L-Leucine. Furthermore, the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are so called because they have R-groups that have a branched structure (Fig. 3).
Fig 2: Basic amino acid chemical structure
Fig. 3: amino acids differ from each other by their R-groups
Fact #3: Not all amino acids form proteins
There are 22 different amino acids that form proteins in living organisms. These are known as proteinogenic amino acids. When you drink a protein shake or eat a piece of chicken, for example, your body receives these proteinogenic amino acids after digestion of the protein and then incorporates them into protein molecules when the latter are synthesized. 

However, there are also some amino acids that do not form part of proteins but serve other important functions in the body. You have probably heard of amino acids like Carnitine, Taurine, Beta-alanine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These are the non-proteinogenic amino acids that serve important functions in the body. However, they are not incorporated into proteins. They are stand-alone amino acids. They may be available from certain foods and supplements. 

Fact #4: Essential v/s Non-essential amino acids
Your body can make some amino acids. These amino acids that can be made are called “non-essential amino acids”. However, some other amino acids cannot be made by the body and should be obtained from the diet. These are called “Essential amino acids” and there are 8 such amino acids in all. The branched chain amino acids (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) form part of these 8 amino acids. As a side note, the ability of whether certain protein foods can provide the essential amino acids in the right amounts determines whether it is a "complete" or "incomplete" protein.
Fig 4: Essential and non-essential amino acids
The table below gives the essential amino acid content of common forms of supplemental protein. You can see that soy protein fares very well compared to animal-based proteins. 

Fig. 5: Essential amino acid content of common supplemental protein sources. Values are grams/ 100g protein
There is sometimes a confusion when it comes to the essentiality of amino acids. If an amino acid is essential it means simply that it must comes from the diet. It does not mean that supplementation is essential. Just like we've seen in a discussion on our facebook group lately regarding BCAAs, the latter are essential amino acids but it does not mean that free-form BCAA supplementation is essential under all circumstances otherwise your progress will stall. This topic is further discussed in this article (click to read)

Fact # 5: We have L- and D- amino acids
When reading supplement labels you will see that all amino acids start with L. The L simply refers to special chemical characteristics of these amino acids. All the food amino acids are in the L-form.
Fig. 6: L and D-amino acids are mirror images of each other
Basically the L- and D-amino acids are mirror images of each other. The L and D forms of a particular amino acid will have the same molecular formula (same number of each of C, H, O and N atoms). We call them "isomers". If you are really curious, the term L and D originates from the different abilities of amino acids to rotate plane polarised light in different directions. L means Laevorotatory (Left rotation) while D means Dextrorotatory (right rotation).

Some D-amino acids also exist as free amino acids in human tissues but not part of proteins. They do serve important functions. For example D-Serine is a brain neurotransmitter. D-Aspartic acid is found in some tissues where they have quite recently been found to be involved in testosterone release. Needless to say, the supplements industry have already started to fill the shelves with D-Aspartic acid products although little conclusive data exists from trials on athletes. So our friends should expect to see some D-form amino acids on the shelves.
Fig. 7: D-Aspartic acid sold as a testosterone booster
Things to come

Thanks for reading this article. From the blog stats I see that this article is getting very popular. I am very glad about this. In future instalments of the "amino acid supplement series" we will evaluate the major amino acids supplements on the shelves. We will take a closer look at full spectrum amino acid supplements, specific amino acid cocktails (e.g. BCAAs) and specific free form aminos (e.g. L-Arginine, Beta-Alanine etc). 

We already have an article on L-Carnitine where we evaluated its proposed fat burning and ergogenic benefits. Check it out here: L-Carnitine

Whey v/s BCAA v/s Glutamine: How and when to combine?


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1 comment:

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