Amino Acids: The Pot of Gold for Growing or Maintaining Muscle

By Shellie L. Rosen, PhD., DOM, L.Ac.

Muscle loss occurs from reduced physical activity and a lack of optimal protein loading. For example, you break down muscle for fuel if you work out without adequate protein. Such a scenario can lead to sarcopenia (muscle loss). Even robust digestive systems only absorb 50 percent of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, from food. Aging digestive systems likely absorb even less due to low stomach acid, depletion of enzymes, and gut dysfunction (dysbiosis). In addition, older muscles have a reduced sensitivity to amino acids. Therefore, active aging folks may want to double their protein consumption, specifically essential amino acids (EAAsto prevent sarcopenia.

Amino acids are building blocks commonly known for their role in muscle protein synthesis.

The only macronutrients humans require for survival are EAAs, of which there are nine. They are leucine (BCAA), isoleucine (BCAA), valine (BCAA), phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, lysine, methionine, and histidine. Each supports a different area of biological function from roughly two critical protein groups, essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).

Athletes used to take BCAAs alone since they instantly bypass the liver and are oxidized in muscles for immediate energy. However, in his 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Robert Wolfe noted that taking BCAAs alone for muscle protein synthesis is “unwarranted.” Wolfe illustrated the need to take all nine EAAs together because muscle protein breakdown will occur to facilitate missing EAAs. Therefore, a net protein balance of all nine is critical for muscle growth. Additionally, EAA consumption must outweigh muscle protein breakdown; the more significant the activity, the higher the need for EAAs to prevent muscle loss.

Foods abundantly rich in amino acids include whey, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken, and fish. Obtaining high amounts of amino acids from beans, legumes, grains, soy, fruit, nuts, and vegetables requires a very high quantity of food consumption per ounce, creating potential weight gain issues in search of adequate protein.

Supplementing EAAs helps folks with absorption and meal planning challenges to ensure growth and healing. If supplementing, take EAAs 30 minutes before a workout for energy or an hour after for muscle growth (or do both). Some studies have shown that carbohydrates may help EAA uptake, so try adding EAAs to juice or a smoothie to help absorption.

EAAs reside in muscle tissue, so no matter how much protein you consumed yesterday, breaking down tissue is the only way to unlock it for today. When the diet cannot provide the protein to maintain the system demands of the body, supplement with high-quality essential amino acids using collagen, whey, or EAA powder. Ensure the supplement contains all nine EAAs, is third-party tested, and has no artificial sweeteners, coloring, or preservatives. Consider a larger serving of EAAs if you know you have poor gut absorption, are recovering from an illness, or have a heavy workout routine.

Amino acids do a lot more than simply maintain and grow muscle. They benefit energy production from digestion, metabolism (blood sugar management), nutrient and mineral absorption, and hormone regulation. To optimize your immune system or increase the function of neurotransmitters for mental focus and clarity, consider adding amino acids to your daily regimen. Perhaps they will be a pot of gold for your health. Abundant Blessings!


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