When it comes to nutritional supplements, I’m a firm believer that the most important one you can—and should—take is a high-quality daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. A potent daily multinutrient is the foundation of wellness, regardless of age or health status. Beyond a multi, I also recommend adding amino acid supplements for extra support. Here’s why.
What Are Amino Acids?
To fully appreciate the many health benefits of amino acids and amino acid supplements, it helps to have a basic understanding of the role these nutrients play in health and well-being. In a nutshell, amino acids are the essence of life. Using the genetic blueprint, DNA orchestrates the synthesis of amino acids, which link together to form proteins.
Proteins are the essential structural components of the body, making up about half of the dry weight of our cells, and the building blocks of enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and other molecules that signal and regulate cellular activity. Every protein in the human body is made up of various sequences of just 20 genetically-encoded amino acids—other amino acids are modified from these 20.
Obviously, we require a steady supply of amino acids, particularly the eight that cannot be synthesized by the body. That’s why dietary protein is so important—if the cells don’t have access to all the requisite amino acids, protein assimilation falters.
Other Benefits of Amino Acids
In addition to their role in protein production, some amino acids are powerful natural therapies when taken in supplement form. As such, there are a few amino acid supplements, in particular, that I recommend adding to your nutritional supplement arsenal.
Amino Acid Supplements: GABA
Let’s start with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA acts as a neurotransmitter, relaying information from one nerve cell to another. It is an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter, meaning that in contrast to “excitatory” neurotransmitters, which facilitate the initiation of nerve impulses in neurons, it blocks them. In fact, GABA is your central nervous system’s most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter.
GABA is active throughout your brain, especially in the limbic system, which is sometimes referred to as your brain’s emotional center, because it is where pleasure, passion, love, hate, fear, and aggression originate. If there’s one area of your brain that needs to find a balance between excitement and inhibition, it’s the limbic system. Whether it’s the euphoria of new love and passion or the black cloud of fear and anxiety, intense emotions arise in the limbic system.
Here’s where GABA supplements come in. When the limbic system is hyper-excited and anxiety, fear, anger, panic, or other negative emotions get the upper hand, GABA restores balance by occupying the receptor sites that calm things down. It simply tones down the emotional alarm bells. If you’ve ever “taken the edge off” by having a cocktail or popping a tranquilizer, you’ve already experienced what I’m talking about. Both alcohol and benzodiazepines (tranquilizers such as Valium and Xanax) work their magic by attaching to these same receptor sites.
However, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and have a huge abuse potential—and we all know the downside of too much alcohol. GABA supplements, on the other hand, are non-addictive, well tolerated, and have none of the drug side effects such as drowsiness, poor concentration and coordination, or a slowdown in reaction time. Available in capsule or powder form, GABA can be used for chronic or situational anxiety (some people take it before flying or public speaking engagements), as well as insomnia (it makes falling asleep easier).
Amino Acid Supplements: Glutamine
Another therapeutic amino acid supplement is glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in your body. Glutamine is especially supportive of the gastrointestinal system and is an excellent therapy for intestinal ailments. This is because it serves as the primary fuel for the enterocytes, the rapidly dividing cells that line the intestinal tract.
The lining of your gut is a highly selective barrier that allows only properly digested nutrients to pass through into the bloodstream while keeping everything else out. Unfortunately, bacterial overgrowth, chronic stress, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and other medications may irritate and damage this lining, creating spaces between the cells that allow larger molecules such as bacteria, toxins, and incompletely digested nutrients to pass through.
Known as intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome, this can set up a whole slew of problems, as well as further damage to the intestines, infections, allergies, and autoimmune diseases as the immune system reacts to these foreign molecules in the blood. In fact, research has shown that glutamine supplements dramatically reduce infections and death rates in hospitalized patients. According to a meta-analysis conducted by Brazilian researchers, “Glutamine administration improves the prognosis of critically ill patients, presumably by maintaining the physiologic intestinal barrier and by reducing the frequency of infections.”
You don’t have to be critically ill to enjoy the benefits of glutamine. By restoring the integrity of the gut lining, glutamine supplements also help patients with irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and food allergies. Glutamine supplements also protect against damage caused by long-term use of NSAIDs.
Amino Acid Supplements: Arginine
The third amino acid I want to discuss is L-arginine. Arginine has multiple functions in the body, from muscle maintenance to immune system enhancement to wound healing. Its claim to fame, however, is its effect on the cardiovascular system: Arginine is the precursor to nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide, produced in the endothelial cells lining the arteries, is a signaling molecule that protects the arteries and fights cardiovascular disease on a surprisingly broad number of fronts. It relaxes the smooth muscle cells and causes the arteries to dilate, increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure. Plus, it reduces inflammation, a primary cause of atherosclerosis. And if that’s not enough, it protects against free radical damage, while also blocking the adhesion of white blood cells to the arterial walls—an early step in plaque formation. All these benefits from one little molecule!
The pharmaceutical companies have long recognized the importance of nitric oxide to vascular health and have come out with all manner of drugs that increase nitric oxide levels, including nitroglycerin for angina and Viagra for erectile dysfunction. But guess what does all this and more? Good old inexpensive, over-the-counter arginine supplements.
Due to arginine’s close relationship with nitric oxide, it’s not surprising that arginine supplements have been shown in clinical studies to reduce angina, improve erectile function, and improve symptoms of patients with heart failure. Other benefits of arginine supplements include lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow, enhancing immune function, and increasing levels of growth hormone.
Reap the Benefits of These Amino Acid Supplements
Now that you are aware of the many benefits of amino acids and amino acid supplements, here are my dosage recommendations for each one. Note: Because amino acids are best absorbed on an empty stomach, you should take them 30 minutes before or two hours after meals.
GABA supplements: To relieve anxiety, take 500–750 mg as needed, up to three times daily. For insomnia, take 750 mg an hour before bedtime.
Glutamine supplements: To support intestinal health or to help resolve the conditions mentioned above, take 2–3 grams, in divided doses, daily.
Arginine supplements: For cardiovascular support or help with the other conditions mentioned above, the suggested dose is 2–6 grams, in divided doses, daily. Do not take arginine supplements if you are taking nitroglycerin or another nitrate drug.
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever taken these or other amino acid supplements?