What Are Amino Acid Supplements? (AND WHY YOU NEED TO USE THEM)

Nowadays amino acid supplements like Amino-XS have become more popular than ever, for instance there are BCAA’s, EAA’s, plant-based, fermented, free-form, peptide bonded, tablets, capsules, powders, the list goes on!

I personally know that it can be confusing trying to choose the right amino acid supplement. After all, which one should you use, and what exactly are amino acids and how can they benefit you?

essential amino acids vs branched chain amino acids infographic by dna lean

Amino acids are the building blocks of life

Simply put, amino acids are the most fundamental building-blocks of life. Amino acids in various different sequences and ratios collectively form proteins of which make up all life as we know it, whether it is a single cell amoeba or a human being made of trillions of cells.

What is role of amino acids in your body?

The primary function of amino acids is to regulate protein synthesis by signaling certain metabolic pathways (1, 2). Protein synthesis is a complex process involving the transcription of new proteins with the help of messenger and transfer RNA. The end result is that protein structures are built from free amino acids.

Amino acids form the proteins that are in turn incorporated into your body. Protein structures form cells and cells then form your organs, skin, hair and bones etc.

This process of synthesising new protein structures is balanced out by the loss of proteins through cellular degredation.

The balance of newly constructed proteins vs protein degredation, is known as your nitrogen balance, which can be either negative, equilibrium, or postive states.

After an intense workout, the amino acids in the food that you eat help to repair and build new muscle proteins.

However amino acids literally have a ton of other functions and aside from being proteinogenic (protein creating), they also participate in a number of other important biological processes that are essential to our existence.

For example, there are countless other non-proteinogenic amino acids that partake in various other activities, such as; enzymatic function, neurotransmitter function, immune system function, and the biosynthesis of hormones (3, 4).

What is the difference between BCAA and EAA supplements?

I have often heard people talk controversially about BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids). Some claim BCAA’s are a complete waste of money, some swear by them – some prefer EAA’s.

Little do they know, BCAA’s are EAA’s.

Yes, that’s right – branched chain amino acids are in fact essential amino acids. The terms BCAA and EAA are largely misunderstood.

The acronym EAA stands for essential amino acid. This simply refers to an amino acid that your body cannot synthesise from a combination of other amino acids. Thus it is essential because it needs to be obtained through dietary means.

There are 9 essential amino acids, these are:

  • Leucine (BCAA)
  • Isoleucine (BCAA)
  • Valine (BCAA)
  • Histidine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan

BCAA’s are a “subcategory” of EAA. Leucine, Valine and Isoleucine are all essential branched chain amino acids. These three amino acids although essential, are primarily referred to as BCAA’s because of their “branched chain” molecular structure which is distinctly different from the other 6 essential amino acids.

Other amino acids (non-essential & conditionally essential)

BCAA’s and EAA’s aren’t the full story. Classification of amino acids goes further than just these two groups. The remaining proteinogenic amino acids are classed as either non-essential or conditionally essential.

Non-essential amino acids

These are:

  • Alanine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Asparagine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Serine

Non-essential amino acids are as you would expect the opposite of essential amino acids. Needless to say the non-essential amino’s can be synthesised from a combination other amino acids and do not specifically need to be obtained from food.

If your body is short on any non-essential amino’s, it can manufacture them. However, this may slow down protein synthesis.

It is therefore always best to eat a variety of protein sources with a variety of amino acid profiles to ensure protein synthesis is always fully and properly facilitated.

Conditionally essential amino acids (and why they are important)

These are:

  • Arginine
  • Cysteine
  • Glycine
  • Glutamine
  • Proline
  • Tyrosine

Conditionally essential amino acids are a relatively new classification and although these amino acids can be manufactured by the body, under certain pathophysiological conditions their manufacture can become limited. Thus they are termed conditionally essential.

What are the different forms of amino acid supplements?

Amino acids are available in either free form or the peptide bonded versions. Free form amino acids are unbound to any other amino acids and are in their singular free form rather than being incorporated into a peptide sequence. You can think of free form amino acids as individual lego bricks.

Peptide bonded amino acids are small chains of amino acids that are bound together; Pre-digested proteins if you like. You can think of amino acid peptide molecules as blocks of many lego bricks.

Both free form and peptide bonded amino acids supplements are available either in a ready to mix powder or a tablet/capsule version. There are two main differences between the powdered and tablet/capsule versions.

  1. Tablets and capsules need digesting before the amino acids are released and therefore take a little longer to disperse. If you need a quick fix, opt for the powdered versions.
  2. Tablets and capsules work out considerably less cost effective. The price per gram is usually significantly higher than their powdered counterpart.

BCAA vs. EAA supplements – which are better for building muscle?

dna lean amino-xs bcaa+eaa key points

Let me first talk about BCAA’s, in particular leucine. There is no end of published research data regarding the branched chain amino acid leucine. All of which sing the same song; leucine triggers the mTOR pathway. mTOR is an anabolic trigger for (MPS) muscle protein synthesis (5, 6).

In lay terms, the activation of mTOR signalling (mammalian target of rapamycin) leads to the construction of new muscle proteins and cell proliferation. Once mTOR is signalled it literally is like flipping an anabolic switch turning on protein synthesis.

Nevertheless muscle protein synthesis can only take place when all 9 of the essential amino acids are present. This is the basis of the claim that BCAA’s on their own are pointless.

What does this mean for you?

What’s the point in flipping an anabolic switch if there isn’t all the building blocks to build the structure?

Actually it’s not so hard and fast so don’t get ready to write off your BCAA’s just yet! Consider this – before you go to the gym you normally eat a pre workout meal which should include a complete protein source that contains all 9 essential amino acids.

LEARN MORE > Pre Workout Nutrition: 6 Of The Best Pre Workout Meals You Need To Know

Therefore it is highly unlikely that your body would not have a supply of the other essential amino acids to enable protein synthesis – even if you exclusively supplemented with leucine alone.

As long as you use a minimum of 1.8 grams of Leucine you can still expect to trigger mTOR activation (7).

That said, using leucine on its own is absolutely not the best scenario nor would I recommend this, rather I was illustrating a point.

Supplementing with BCAA’s is a win win scenario!

Branched chain amino acids are unique not only in structure but also because they are directly oxidised (used for energy) within your muscle cells (8). All other essential, non-essential and conditionally essential amino acids are oxidised in your liver.

The implications of this are profound:

  • BCAA’s function as an anabolic trigger stimulating the process of muscle protein synthesis (Protein synthesis requires all 9 essential amino acids)
  • BCAA’s are anti-catabolic (muscle sparing) when the 9 essential amino acids are not present or not available in a large enough quantity.

Furthermore BCAA’s account for the highest percentage of amino acid content in muscle proteins. Per pound your muscles contain more BCAA’s than any other amino acids.

Simply put, BCAA’s and leucine in particular, serve as the building blocks of muscle proteins, as well as a modulator of protein synthesis.

So why would you want to compromise your hard work at the gym by not supplementing with BCAA’s?

It is no coincidence that top athletes and bodybuilders alike, use a mixture of both essential and branch chained amino acids during training, and so should you.

Take advantage of them!

Essential amino acids facilitate protein synthesis (muscle building)

If you want to conquer muscle building, essential amino acids are an absolute MUST! Remember – the human body cannot synthesise any essential amino acids whatsoever. These powerful building blocks of muscle have to be obtained through the food that you eat.

If you fall short on just one essential amino acid, or even if they are all present but not in adequate amounts, the effect is catastrophic for muscle building; protein synthesis will be brought to a grinding halt.

Therefore EAA’s are the backbone of building muscle; without them muscle proteins cannot be assimilated. That said, it is also important to remember that when we say essential amino acids we are also including branched chain amino acids; BCAA’s are absolutely essential.

All of these amino acids are required to enable proper muscle protein anabolism. Combine all of them together in the right amounts and the results can be astounding.

Leucine along with isoleucine and valine kick-start protein synthesis. This muscle building process is then facilitated by an adequate complement of essential amino acids. Bam – your fast-track to bigger muscles!

What is the BCAA ratio and what dosage of BCAA’s is best?

You will notice that whenever you look at a BCAA supplement, the label always mentions a ratio. Sometimes it’s 2:1:1 ratio, sometimes it can be a 4:1:1 ratio. I have even seen a 10:1:1 ratio!

The BCAA ratio simply refers to the ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine, based on weight. For example a 4 gram serving of BCAA’s in a 2:1:1 ratio would yield 2 grams of leucine and a gram each of isoleucine and valine.

The ratio of leucine is always higher because it is primarily leucine that triggers the mTOR pathway. In order to achieve the minimum dose of 2.5 grams of leucine, using a 2:1:1 ratio, you would need to consume a serving size of 5 grams of BCAA’s.

This would yield 2.5 grams of leucine and 1.25 grams of both isoleucine and valine.

As for which ratio is best, that is debatable and I am not aware of any study that gives the definitive answer to this. That said, I personally shoot for a 4:1:1 ratio. Although I am basing this on anecdotal evidence, I feel that this ratio has always provided the best results for me and my clients.

Where do BCAA and EAA supplements come from?

One of the most shocking facts that has recently headlined the sports supplements industry, is where amino acid supplements are commonly derived from. Picture this – when you’re next at the gym taking a sip on a refreshing drink of BCAA’s, you could well be drinking a mix of hair soup.

Waste products such as hair, wool, nails, feathers etc, all contain a protein called keratin. These waste products are then processed using toxic chemicals that break apart the proteins and eventually extract the constituent amino acids which are then sold as amino acid supplements.

You’ve probably seen ads on TV for keratin based shampoo, the reason for including keratin in shampoos is because it supports healthy and strong hair.

This is why dna lean insist on using premium vegan friendly plant-based fermented amino acids in their Amino-XS supplement. Not only does this yield a cleaner and superior chemical free product, it also gives you piece of mind that you are not ingesting amino acids from some old chicken feathers.

When is the best time to take amino acids?

Amino acid supplements can literally be taken any time of day; nevertheless the best time to take amino acids (both BCAA’s and EAA’s) is pre workout and intra workout.

Taking amino acid supplements either pre or intra workout is 100% guaranteed to give you better results.

If you take advantage of this magic window of opportunity you will immediately notice a shift in your workouts; a mediocre workout will become epic.

Here’s why

Because amino acids and peptides are pre-digested, they quickly pass through the stomach and enter into the bloodstream where they are rapidly delivered straight in to your muscles cells through a process known as hyperemia (9).

Amino acid supplements can peak blood levels within 30 minutes, however as fast as blood levels can peak, they can also decline. This is why it is important to continuously sip on them during training to maintain a steady and constant supply.

The best part, using amino acid supplements during training will ensure that you recover faster and build more muscle quicker. This is partly due to the anti-catabolic effect of branched chain amino acids, but if you opt to supplement with a BCAA/EAA combo, like Amino-XS , you can also boost protein synthesis.

When should you choose EAA’s and BCAA’s over whey protein?

As I previously mentioned, exercise (especially resistance training) promotes the catabolism of muscle protein BCAA’s stores. Additionally, ingesting a high dose of amino acids while sedentary can lead to oxidation by your liver (a process where amino acids are broken down and used as energy, producing urea as a by-product).

Oxidation of amino acid supplements is wasteful (not to mention expensive) and means that EAA’s and BCAA’s miss out on their proteinogenic function.

Now let’s take a look at whey protein. Whey is super high in essential and branched chain amino acids, in fact whey protein has one of the most complete amino acid profiles of any protein whatsoever.

Nevertheless whey protein is a protein and needs digesting. It cannot be absorbed as quickly as, nor does it provide amino acids as readily as consuming actual amino acids.

You should choose the time when you consume either a protein supplement or amino acid supplement wisely. Needless to say you want to receive their full and optimum effect and not miss out on any of their benefits.

Recommendations: How to best take amino acid supplements

I highly recommend supplementing with amino acids either pre workout or intra workout. This way you are guaranteed to get the full muscle-building benefit from them.

Conversely, with whey protein I would recommend using post workout to aid recovery and to further facilitate protein synthesis that was initiated from the triggering of the mTOR pathway by leucine and the other BCAA’s.

Take home thoughts

Any other time of day simply eat solid whole food meals that contain a complete protein source that contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. Remember, food supplements are there to supplement a balanced and varied diet comprised of whole foods.

What is the difference between amino acids and proteins?

It is true that proteins are made from amino acids, yet the two are distinctively different.

The most basic sequences of amino acids are known as peptides which are short chains of amino acid monomers linked together using amide bonds (commonly referred to as peptide bonds).

The shortest peptide is a dipeptide which is only 2 amino acids in length. Peptides can significantly vary in length, for example dipeptides are superseded by tripeptides (a chain of 3 amino acids). Chains of amino acids as peptides sequentially go all the way up in size to become oligopeptides (10-20 amino acids) and polypeptides.

A polypeptide is a single linear chain of many amino acids, although usually consisting of 50 amino acids or less.

It is important to note that peptides are not proteins. In fact the word “peptide” has its roots in Greece, descending from the word; peptós, meaning “digested”.

To summarise amino acid and protein structure sequences:

Amino acids -> Peptides -> oligopeptides -> Polypeptides -> Proteins

Proteins also have different levels of structure and there are in fact 4 different types of protein structure ascending is complexity:

  • Primary structure
  • Secondary structure
  • Tertiary structure
  • Quaternary structure

Relative to amino acids, proteins are huge 3d structures that form the fundamental structure of all cells within your body (not just skeletal muscle). Tissues are made up individual cells, cells contain proteins and proteins are made from amino acids.

The human body can be likened to one huge jigsaw puzzle all pieced together as one functional working unit.       

Can i take amino acids instead of protein?

I would definitely not recommend this.

While there are several benefits to taking amino acid supplements, amino acids are not complete structures like proteins are. Amino acids should not be used in place of protein.

Even if you supplemented with all 9 essential amino acids, you could not properly replace a first class protein source.

This is because

  • Amino acids are readily oxidised
  • Amino acids are not complete structures
  • Amino acids are too rapidly metabolised to sustain themselves in the blood

Furthermore, human muscle proteins contain a full complement of 20 proteinogenic amino acids, not just 9 essential amino acids.

And finally…

A brief insight into the biochemistry of amino acids (bonus section)

Amino acids are carbon based molecules that contain both an amine (-NH2) and carboxyl acid (-COOH) functional group; hence their name title; amino acid.

Various different elements of the 118 known elements of the periodic table can be found in the side chains of amino acids. However the key constituents of all amino acids are carbon (C) hydrogen (H) nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O).

It is estimated that there are around 500 naturally occurring amino acids, although in the human genetic code there are only 20. Different sequences of these 20 proteinogenic (protein producing) amino acids make up all proteins coded by human DNA.

Further to these 20 amino acids, there are an additional two extremely rare amino acids. These are known as the 21st and 22nd amino acids respectively; Selenocysteine (Sec) and pyrrolysine (Pyl).

Although these two amino acids are proteinogenic, there is much debate as to whether these two amino acids are part the human genetic code.

Cool Fact: (For the Tech Savy!)

In chemistry amino acids are known as being hydrophobic. Simply put this means that amino acids repel water, the net effect being that they remain largely insoluble in water.

Have you ever mixed up a serving of BCAA’s in your shaker bottle only to notice that they clump up at the top? After you have finished your drink, the powder is left wasted stuck to your shaker.

Does that sound familiar?

You witnessed the hydrophobic effect in full force.

This hydrophobic effect happens because amino acid molecules have an overall non-polar electrical charge. The non-polar charge prohibits the integration of amino acids into the polar water (H2O) molecules.

Fortunately technological advancements in manufacturing processes have enabled amino acids supplements to evolve and are now far more water soluble.

This is why the fermented plant-based amino acids in Amino-XS dissolve surprisingly easily and ensure maximum absorption.

The Bottom Line

Amino acid supplements are fantastic and have a multitude of benefits. BCAA’s can be used on their own to great effect; they are anti-catabolic and help preserve muscle tissue. BCAA’s are also proven to kick-start muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and when used in conjunction with EAA’s, work synergistically to assimilate new muscle proteins.

Consuming amino acids pre and intra workout is most the beneficial time to use them.

Amino acids should not be used to in place of proteins. Both have their function and both are different – use them accordingly to get maximum benefit.

One last consideration, optimal gut health is crucial for amino acid absorption, actually for just about any other nutrient absorption for that matter. Your gut needs a balance of various different probiotic organisms to function correctly and to properly absorb food stuffs.

My final piece of advice – Look after your gut!

So now it’s your turn, what amino acid supplement do you use and how has it helped you?

Article by Paul Jenkins CEO and founder of DNA Lean®

Scientific Reference Data:

  1. Exogenous amino acids stimulate net muscle protein synthesis in the elderly.
  2. Regulation of protein synthesis by amino acids in muscle of neonates
  3. Amino acids: metabolism, functions, and nutrition.
  4. Amino acid neurotransmitter transporters: structure, function, and molecular diversity.
  5. Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans
  6. Leucine-Enriched Nutrients and the Regulation of mTOR Signalling and Human Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis
  7. Excess Leucine Intake Enhances Muscle Anabolic Signaling but Not Net Protein Anabolism in Young Men and Women
  8. Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise.
  9. Regulation of Increased Blood Flow (Hyperemia) to Muscles During Exercise: A Hierarchy of Competing Physiological Needs
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Paul Jenkins MSc applied chemistry, founder of DNA Lean®, is an ex junior national level sprinter, national level bodybuilder, sports coach and nutritionist. Paul has almost 20 years experience coaching athletes of various disciplines and is an expert in optimising body composition; he specialises in fat loss, hypertrophy and competition prep. Paul is also an advocate of food-based medicine and firmly believes that natural ingredients from plants and herbs can be used to help to improve athletic performance. Featured on

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