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Essential Amino Acids?

What are Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)?

Everyone knows the importance of protein. But why is protein so important for basic bodily functions and muscle building? Without getting too sciency, the reason protein is so vital is that protein is filled with amino acids. Amino acids can be considered the “building blocks” of protein. If protein were to be thought of as a house, amino acids can be thought of as the bricks that were used to build it.

There are 20 amino acids that are necessary for a multitude of vital bodily functions. Because amino acids are the building blocks of protein, a rightfully talked about macronutrient in the fitness world, the conversation around amino acids has also gained momentum for their role in muscle growth and recovery. A good way to think of the many functions of amino acids is like the letters in the alphabet. Summarized perfectly by R.D. Joel Totoro, “Our bodies use these 20 amino acids to reassemble proteins in thousands of combinations, much like we use the 26 letters of the alphabet to form an endless number of words.”

11 of these 20 amino acids are non-essential, meaning our body can make them on its own. 9 of these 20 amino acids are considered essential amino acids, meaning our body can not make them on its own. These 9 essential amino acids are: leucine, isoleucine, valine, histidine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and lysine. Because our body cannot make them, this means that we must ingest these 9 amino acids through food and/or supplementation.

What is the difference between EAAs and BCAAs?

BCAAs and EAAs are both popular supplements, but what is the difference and which one gives you more bang for your buck? 3 of the 9 EAAS, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are also BCAAs, named “branched chain” for their chemical structure. In terms of supplementation, including one that has all 9 EAAs instead of just the 3 BCAAs is going to be more beneficial for muscle growth and recovery.

A 2016 study by Moberg examined the effects of consuming water, the 9 EAAs, the 3 BCAAs, or leucine alone on muscle repair following exercise. The researchers found that EAA supplementation stimulated muscle growth the most, BCAAs came in second, leucine in third, with plain water leading to the least muscle repair and growth. Researchers concluded that “BCAAs are essential to start the recovery process, but they do not offer the full complement of building blocks needed to promote new muscle growth and repair – all EAAs need to be present for optimal results” (Moberg et. al 2016).

What foods are the greatest sources of EAAs?

Before considering supplementing with EAAs, it is important to try and maximize the diet to include enough protein and thus, EAAs. The most important factor is that enough protein sources are being consumed. High quality protein sources (ones that have all 9 EAAs) include most animal products such as eggs, poultry, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, seafood, meat as well as some plant based products such as soy, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and quinoa. Plant based proteins require eating a combination and variety of sources since one may have some of the EAAs you need, while another source may fulfill the rest. For example, eating beans and rice or a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread would be a “complete” protein, meaning these foods contain all 9 EAAs.

What are the benefits of supplementing with EAAs?

Before supplementing, it is important to check in with your diet to ensure you are consuming enough high quality proteins and adequate calories to begin with. If you are consuming an EAA supplement but are constantly in a caloric deficit, the supplement will not be able to stimulate muscle growth and repair since basic needs are not being met through the diet. Below are a few examples of those who could benefit from including an EAA supplement on top of a nourishing diet.

  • Those who struggle to meat protein needs (vegetarians and vegans)

  • Those looking to build muscle and enhance recovery

  • Studies have shown that intake of 6g of EAAs (roughly 1 scoop of EAA powder) leads to a 3.5x increase in muscle protein synthesis. Ingestion of 35 grams of carbohydrates (an apple or banana has ~25 grams of carbs) alongside these EAAs can also be beneficial, but is not necessary for increased muscle growth (considering daily macronutrients are otherwise met).

  • Those who have trouble drinking enough water every day

  • EAAs typically come in a powder form that you add to your water. Consuming this will help you to meet your daily hydration needs.

Three of our favorite brands for amino acids are Thorne, Kion Aminos, and Morphogen Nutrition.

Here at Prime, we recognize that your recovery and athletic performance consists of more than just what you do at your scheduled PT session. If you’re coming to PT, but you’re not consuming a nourishing diet to support it, your rehab and recovery time cannot be maximized. Thus, we strive to provide you with knowledge on the importance of topics such as nutrition, sleep, resistance training, and many other things outside of just physical therapy. Are you dealing with a nagging injury? Looking to optimize your overall athletic performance? Our therapists will evaluate and consider all aspects of your health, not just the way you move or the injury you present with. Reach out to to set up an initial consultation .

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