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Amino Acids

The protein in food and in your body is a combination of chemical units called

amino acids. A diet lacking even one amino acid can have a negative effect on your health. Supplements may be needed to help your body work more efficiently and to treat disease.

  Common Uses   Forms   Warnings   What It Is   What It Does   Shopping Hints   How to Take It   Possible Side Effects
Common Uses
  • Treat heart disease.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Boost immune function.
  • Improve some nerve disorders.

Forms

  • Capsule
  • Tablet
  • Liquid
  • Powder

Warnings
  • Pregnant women or anyone with liver or kidney disease should consult a doctor about using amino acid supplements.
  • Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

What It Is

Every cell in the body needs and uses amino acids. Your body breaks down the protein from foods into its individual amino acids, which are then recombined to create the specific types of proteins the body requires. (Each cell, in fact, is programmed to produce exactly the right combination for its needs.) There are two types of amino acids: nonessential and essential. The body can manufacture nonessential amino acids, but must obtain essential amino acids from the foods you eat. Nonessential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, taurine, and tyrosine. Essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

What It Does

Amino acids are needed to maintain and repair muscles, tendons, skin, ligaments, organs, glands, nails, and hair. They also aid in the production of hormones (such as insulin), neurotransmitters (message-carrying chemicals within the brain), various body fluids, and enzymes that trigger bodily functions. When even one amino acid is lacking, serious health problems will eventually occur.

Though the major cause of an amino acid deficiency is a poor diet (particularly one low in protein), amino acids may also be affected by infection, trauma, stress, medications, age, and chemical imbalances within the body. Nutritionally oriented doctors often give blood tests to determine whether a patient has a deficiency. Amino acid supplements can compensate for deficiencies and can also be taken therapeutically (even when patients aren't deficient) for a variety of health problems.

Major benefits: Different amino acids (and their by-products) are very effective in the treatment of heart disease. Highly concentrated in the cells of the heart muscle, carnitine -- a substance similar to an amino acid that the body produces from lysine -- strengthens the heart, helps those with congestive heart failure, and can improve the chances of surviving a heart attack. Because it is also involved in fat metabolism, carnitine may help lower high levels of trigylcerides (blood fats related to cholesterol). The nonessential amino acid arginine reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure; it eases the symptoms and pains of angina as well. Taurine treats congestive heart failure and lowers high blood pressure by balancing the blood's sodium-to-potassium ratio and by regulating excessive activity of the central nervous system.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a by-product of the amino acid cysteine that's better absorbed than cysteine, stimulates the body's production of antioxidants and may be an antioxidant itself. As such, it aids in repairing cell damage and boosting the immune system. NAC also thins the mucus of chronic bronchitis and has been used to protect the liver in overdoses of acetaminophen (Tylenol). It may also be of value for disorders involving damage to brain or nerve cells, such as multiple sclerosis.

Additional benefits: Concentrated in the cells of the digestive tract, glutamine can help heal ulcers and soothe irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis. By enhancing the production of certain brain chemicals, taurine may be a boon to people with epilepsy. It's also a key element in bile and may prevent gallstones. People with diabetes can also benefit from taurine because it facilitates the body's use of insulin.

Carnitine improved the symptoms of intermittent claudication (leg pain caused by the blockage of large arteries in legs) in 73% of people taking a specialized form of it, according to a study from Italy. Often people with this condition can't walk very far. L-carnitine in doses up to 2,000 mg a day increased the distance the participants could walk without pain. Carnitine also feeds the muscles by making it possible for them to burn fat for energy. Lysine is one of the most effective treatments for cold sores and is also useful for shingles and canker sores. (Arginine, on the other hand, can trigger cold sore or genital herpes outbreaks.)

However, researchers at Stanford University found that arginine supplements may reduce the tendency for blood platelets to stick to each other and to artery walls, preventing clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Arginine particularly benefits people with high cholesterol because they have stickier platelets than those with normal cholesterol.

Shopping Hints

On supplement labels, amino acids are often prefaced by an L (L-carnitine, for example) or by a D. Buy the L forms: They most closely resemble the amino acids in the body. (One exception: D-L phenylalanine may be used for chronic pain.)

How to Take It

Dosage: For the recommended dosage of individual amino acids, see the appropriate ailment entry. When using any individual amino acid for longer than one month, take it with a mixed amino acid complex -- a supplement that contains a variety of amino acids -- to be sure you are receiving adequate, balanced amounts of all the amino acids.

Guidelines for use: Amino acid supplements are more effective when they don't have to compete with the amino acids in high-protein foods. Take the supplements at least an hour and a half before or after meals (first thing in the morning or at bedtime may be best).

Individual amino acid supplements should not be used for longer than three months, unless you are under the supervision of a doctor familiar with their use. Take mixed amino acid supplements on an empty stomach and also at a different time of day than you take the individual supplement.

Possible Side Effects

Amino acid supplements have no side effects as long as they are taken in the recommended amounts. High doses of certain amino acids, however, may be toxic and produce nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.


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