Take a walk down memory lane to your high school chemistry class…remember anything about amino acids? These organic compounds make up all proteins, providing a backbone for hormones and enzymes and bulking up your muscles. Though there are roughly 500 amino acids found in nature, just 20 form the building blocks of protein in foods. Of those 20, nine are considered essential, meaning that you have to get them via diet. (Don’t worry, we won’t ask you to name them all.) When you snack on peanuts or down a burger at dinner, you refill your body’s supply of these critical compounds.
Just like some folks can benefit from including more calcium or omega-3s in their diets, certain groups of people can reap better health by ramping up amino acids. Read on to discover if you’re one of the many people who could use more aminos in your life.
Since amino acids are the foundation of protein, it’s not surprising that athletes are one group that could benefit from a boost from them. Specifically, it’s a group of amino acids known as BCAAs that athletes should prioritize.
“Athletes who perform high-intensity or endurance exercise may benefit from taking amino acids, especially branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine,” says dietitian Steph Magill, M.S., R.D., F.A.N.D., of Soccer Mom Nutrition. “BCAAs may help reduce muscle damage, soreness, and fatigue.”
Some research has shown that BCAAs could also reduce perceived exertion and time to exhaustion in endurance exercises like cycling. “This means that endurance athletes can improve their capacity to increase their training load and, over time, improve their performance,” Magill says. Muscle-building plus less fatigue? We call that a win-win.
Your move: If you’re an athlete—especially a bodybuilder or endurance junkie—consider incorporating BCAA supplements around your workouts.
2. Plant-Based Eaters
A plant-based diet can come with many benefits for health—but you may have to do a bit of mental calculus to ensure you’re getting enough protein (and therefore amino acids) when fully vegan or vegetarian. “Since some plant-based foods contain a lower amount of some essential amino acids, it’s recommended to eat a variety of grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds to ensure adequate intake of essential amino acids,” Magill says.
When life gets hectic and you’re not able to focus on your nutrition with this level of strategy, supplementing with amino acids could fill some gaps, especially if you’re a plant-based athlete. “Athletes on a vegan or vegetarian diet may consider supplementing with amino acids if they have low protein intake,” says Magill.
Your move: Again, branched-chain amino acids are probably the way to go here. Not only will they provide your body with some of the essential aminos it can’t make on its own, but they may offer performance benefits, too. Since amino acid intake can vary on vegan and vegetarian diets, you might find it helpful to consult with a dietitian who can help you determine your specific needs and thus the best amino supplement for you.
3. People Recovering From Injury
Protein is a real macro-of-all-trades, serving numerous purposes in the body. Besides pumping up muscle growth in healthy people, this nutrient has plenty to offer when your health is in jeopardy, too. In fact, it’s long been known as a wound-healing agent.
Specifically, certain amino acids in protein help hasten recovery from recent surgery or other physical damage. “The amino acids arginine and glutamine have been found to speed up and improve wound healing because of their role in collagen formation, cell proliferation (helping cells to multiply rapidly), and inflammation management,” says dietitian Kelsey Kunik, R.D.N., nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness.
Your move: If you’ve recently gone under the knife or taken a spill that’s left you wounded, talk to your doc about whether arginine and glutamine could play a role in your recovery—and how to boost your intake.
4. Older Adults
“How much protein do I need?” It’s a common question across the lifespan, especially as you age. Interestingly, research supports the notion that older adults need more protein, not less, than younger people. As we age, we’re more likely to experience muscle wasting and decreased strength, making extra protein a must. According to the National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging, older folks should strive for one to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. That’s significantly more than the 0.8 grams per kilogram recommended for the general population.
Read More: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
The paradox, though, is that growing older often means a shrinking appetite. That’s where amino acids could be a real godsend. “Amino acid supplements can add protein to meals and snacks without increasing fullness, which is incredibly helpful for older adults with low appetites or who otherwise have a difficult time eating enough protein,” Kunik points out. As for which amino to focus on in your twilight years? “While all essential amino acids are important, leucine is a primary player in regulating muscle metabolism and growth.”
Your move: To support healthy aging, up your overall intake of amino acids by putting more protein on your plate or considering a protein powder. You might also consider a leucine supplement in order to reap the benefits it has on muscle growth.
5. People With Gut Health Issues
A healthy, happy gut is a key component in overall well-being. For people who struggle with intestinal health issues, amino acids could offer a ray of hope. “Amino acids, especially glutamine, may be beneficial for people with gut health problems,” says Magill. In fact, research from 2021 found that glutamine can support a healthy microbiome, protect intestinal integrity, and modulate the body’s inflammatory responses. These benefits of glutamine could add up to a more balanced and smoother-functioning gut, and even more regular toilet time, Magill says.
Your move: If you experience gut health challenges, consider a glutamine supplement, since it’s the amino acid with the most evidence to back up its digestion-smoothing potential.
How To Supplement With Amino Acids
If you fall into one of the categories of folks whose health could get a pick-me-up from some extra amino acids, you might be wondering how exactly to take them. The short answer? It depends. “The best time to take amino acids may depend on the type and purpose of supplementation,” Magill notes.
If you’re focusing on athletic performance benefits, timing intake around training is beneficial. “Research is mixed about whether there’s a bigger impact from consuming amino acids before or during exercise.” That said, she notes that muscles are more receptive to protein synthesis after exercise, especially when paired with carbs.
Otherwise, for improved absorption, Kunik recommends taking amino acid supplements on an empty stomach.
As for dosage, again, you’ll notice that different products contain different amounts. Generally, though, many amino acid supplements offer a range of about three to six grams. Just how much of a particular amino (or group of aminos, like the BCAAs) can vary based on your age, dietary intake, and activity level. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to check in with a dietitian or other healthcare provider to create a plan that suits your needs before diving in.