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Amino Acids: Building Blocks For Life

Essentially Speaking, Amino Acids Are
The Primary Building Blocks Of Biological Existence.

By Lisa Schofield

Amino acids are dubbed the building blocks of life. But beyond this, how many consumers truly understand the Necessity of obtaining a matrix of amino acids on a daily basis in order to maintain a host of biological functions? In fact, how many health food store personnel understand the importance of amino's, protein, and how to sell these products?

Granted, amino acids are rather dry in their appeal, compared to the exotic romanticism of herbs. However, their applications, and therefore, sales attraction, become exciting when it is realized how they provide vitality through various functions. With the reams of new customers streaming through the doors of health food stores for the first time because of glowing reports of ginkgo biloba, St. John's wort, and glucosamine sulfate, among others, retailers have grand opportunities to educate them on the roles of other important supplements such as amino acid and proteins. So, it becomes important to realize what they are, why they are necessary, and how protein intake plays a role in health maintenance. 

Market Views

The general awareness of the benefits of amino's appears to be rather dim. "I think maybe two percent of the population understands what amino acids are," said Dr. Gregory Young, Ph.D, founder, president and CEO of Vaxa International, San Diego, CA. "Even many physicians I speak with don't fully understand them."

Some sources opined that perhaps part of the reason why many consumers are not knowledgeable about amino acids is that they are not marketed as well as herbal products or specialty supplements. However, some marketers are pointing to the flexibility of certain amino acids. For example, pointed out Dr. Paula Gaynor, Ph.D. of Fair Lawn, NJ-based Lonza, her company supplies L-carnitine along with educational literature explaining the exciting flexibility of this amino acid. "L-carnitine is an amino-acid like substance that is essential for fat metabolism," she explained. "But L-carnitine has also been used for more than 15 years in sports nutrition (for prolonged endurance, quicker recovery and bodybuilding), weight management (fat burning and conversion to energy), as an essential nutrient for the heart, and in infant formula."

Dr. Billie Sahley, Ph.D., president of the Pain and Stress Center, San Antonio, TX, believes that people are more aware of the benefits of amino acids today. "This is evidenced by the sales of my book, Healing with Amino Acids, the first edition of which came out in 1996, and it has had three subsequent printings," she said. "It has sold very well in health food stores, which tells me that people are interested in learning about this class of substances."

Quietly, the amino acid segment of the dietary supplement market has gone through some fluctuations during the past few years, as some sources have observed. Dale Hastert, president of Optimum Nutrition, Aurora, IL, asserted, "Amino acids as a category are not as strong, although we still do good business with our amino acid
capsules and tablets, and our flagship product Amino 2222, which is probably our best-selling amino acid formula. But it appears that other forms, ways of getting protein, and delivery systems have taken over. For example, liquid amino products have become more popular In addition, Hastert said, there's been an upswing of consumer interest in protein powders in general. And, "amino acids have become more specialized.

For example, there are different forms of glutamine, such as OKG and GKG, which are now available. HMB, which has become a popular supplement during the past two years, is a metabolite of leucine. And, more protein powders are fortified with amino acids. Where the category used to be general in its coverage, it is now full spectrum and more specific, and somewhat more esoteric."

The trend has been upward, observed Don Blaine, general manager of Kyowa Hakko USA, a raw material supplier of amino acids based in New York, NY. "Although in the past couple of years, it hasn't been growing quite as robustly as the previous several years," he stated. He attributes this to the exploding popularity of herbal supplements, on which manufacturers have placed more marketing emphasis. "Our sales of amino acids, however, have been so steady and strong that we are in the midst of expanding the production facilities in Japan," he added.

According to Bill Lahl, director of commercial development for Marcor Development Corp., Hackensack, NJ, there is a wide abundance of supplements that contain amino acids. "This market swings around," he noted. "At one
time, it was heavy in crystalline and freeform amino's, then it went into the peptide-bonded amino's, now it is more whole proteins." 

Amino Acids: Foundation of Life

Basically, one cannot speak of proteins without tacitly introducing amino acids. According to Sahley in her book, Healing with Amino Acids, "All of the nearly 40,000 distinct proteins found in the human body are made from only 20 amino acids called the proteogenic amino acids." Dr. Robert C. Atkins, M.D., in his new book, Dr. Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution, writes, "Without different combinations of amino acids, hair would be indistinguishable from the heart, among other unseemly possibilities. Just as letters of the alphabet form every word in the dictionary, these chemicals congregate in an endless array of ways to form protein molecules that influence and define the body's every cell."

Young pointed out that most life -- animal and plant -- is made from amino acids. "Amino acids are involved in such a wide variety of actions in the body; they are the basis of genetic material, they are effective in chelating minerals, they help remove excess ammonia from the kidneys, they help rid the body of heavy metals. In addition, there are four amino acids in the configuration of DNA; the combinations of those four comprise the genetic code and this code then becomes rearranged as RNA, which processes other proteins using other amino acids." he explained. 

James F. Balch, M.D., and Phyllis A. Balch, C.N.C., note in their newest book, Prescription for Nutritional Healing A-to-Z Guide to Supplements, that there is a wide variety of proteins, each responsible for different functions; proteins are found in vital body fluids, tendons and ligaments, muscles, organs including the skin, hair and nails. In addition, certain proteins are responsible for bone growth and maintaining healthy internal pH. Some also are charged with regulating brain function, acting as neurotransmitters or their precursors. "Proteins are chains of amino acids linked together by what are called peptide bonds," they write. "Each individual type of proteins is composed of specific group of amino acids in a specific chemical arrangement. It is the particular amino acids present and the way in which they are linked together in sequence that gives the proteins that make up the various tissues their unique functions and characters. Each protein in the body is tailored for a specific need; proteins are not interchangeable." 

A discussion about amino acids would not be complete if the role of protein in the diet were not to be addressed. Dr. Atkins (whose famous diet is based on strict carbohydrate restriction) believes that much of people's obesity and weight problems stem from not enough protein intake and too much carbohydrates. This doesn't mean that someone who is healthy should shun all vegetables and eat a raw meat diet. Rather, like anything else, balance is key. 

Therefore, too, your vegetarian customers should ensure that their intakes of protein via supplementation or through soy foods and legumes are steady; it is widely and well known that chicken, eggs, fish and lean red meat are very high in protein content. Gaynor asserted that it would benefit retailers to promote amino acids, in particular, l-carnitine, to vegetarians because the body needs methionine and lysine to make l-carnitine. "Vegetarians are susceptible to carnitine deficits because they don't eat meat, which is the best source of l-carnitine," she said. It is important here to make a distinction about the relationship between protein ingestion and protein production in the body.

Nick Rana, technical manager at Now Foods, Glendale Heights, IL, explained that when we ingest protein from any dietary source, we use our body's acid (upper GI) and alkali (lower GI) to cleave the proteins into smaller constituents, which are amino acids. The body uses these substances for a variety of functions. It becomes clear that amino acids are absolutely vital. Rana noted that certain amino deficiencies can cause cognitive impairment, among other biological imbalances and problems. 

Amino Acid Classifications

Non Essential Conditionally Essential & Essential Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic Acid, Glumic Acid, Glycine, Proline, Serine, Arginine, Cysteine, Cystine, Glutamine, Glycine, Taurine, Tyrosine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Tryptophan*, Valine

From Healing With Amino Acids by Billie J. Sahley, Ph.D.

*Due to the long-standing FDA regulation, tryptophan is not available for sale as a dietary supplement. It is typically found in turkey and in milk, and can therefore be supplied in the diet.

Amino Acid Forms And Applications

Essential amino acids -- some say there are eight, others say there are nine, a few believe all amino's are essential -- are generally considered those that the body cannot manufacture and must obtain through the diet [see sidebar]. A semantically driven argument would be that because of their necessary functions to sustain life, all amino's are essential. For retailers of dietary supplements, perhaps this is a viable -- and sales worthy -- mindset. 

When reading supplement labels and literature, it is common to see amino acids presented with "l-" preceding them. There is also a "d-" form. Young explained: "There are two basic types of chemicals in nature; one is an l form; the other is a d form. This is seen when the amino is put in a solution and light is sent through it. The light will either refract to the left or to the right. The l form denotes a left-sided molecule, while d denotes a right-sided molecule. Most organic molecules are left sided."

Branched chain amino acids, or commonly known as BCAAs for short, are so named for their physical configuration. Each of this trio of amino's -- valine, leucine and isoleucine -- "is comprised of individual carbon atoms to which are attached hydrogen," explained Lahl. "These form a chain of atoms and this chain characterizes a specific amino acid. Besides adding to the chain, it can also have branches in length; for example, instead of having six carbons in a row, it could have four in a row with two branched off."

BCAAs are typically used by athletes who want to build muscle, since this is the trio's main area of action. Lahl added that there's also a lot of documentation that shows that BCAAs are helpful in speeding up post-operative recovery and wound healing. Marco Development, said Lahl, supplies a trio of aminos known as sulfur amino's -- mehtionin, cystine and systeine -- which are readily interconverted by the body. Cystine is a dimer of cysteine; the latter is the substance that "makes nails nails and hair hair," Lahl remarked. 

"Cystiene is located on each side of a chain of molecules, which forms cystine. Although these three amino's are essential, the body can interconvert them, meaning that if a person only takes one in the diet, the body can convert it into the other two."

Free form amino's are those that have not chained together to form peptides or proteins; they are singular entities. Peptides can have as few as three or up to 80 amino acids chained together, said Young, while proteins can be thousands of chain links long. He pointed out that free form amino acids are immediately absorbed through the epithelial cells of the duodenum, and as such do not have to be fully digested. Rana added that free forms are often used to nutritionally support a biological function, not so much to increase protein levels.  

Free form amino's are typically produced by a process of fermentation. Kyowa Hakko is one of the world leaders in this area. Blaine explained: "The Japan-based facility produces a variety of amino acids through a proprietary process of fermentation process. Different bacteria strains and variations on the fermentation process yield the various amino acids. These are then purified and made into individual crystalline amino acid powders. This is different than, for example, a protein powder made from soybeans where the manufacturer can list and analyze for the naturally occurring amino acid content." 

Checking Your Amino Stock 

Many products feature the inclusion of several amino acids in their formulations, so it is extremely difficult to put all the amino acid products into one comprehensive amino acid category. But that doesn't mean that a smaller, more cogent amino acid section should not exist. By drawing such attention to this class of nutrients complete with attendant third-party literature, you will also increase awareness among new customers and encourage purchases. 

Acording to Sahley, any customer who is undergoing a period of excessive stress is using up available amino acids -- particularly GABA, glutamine, taurine and tyrosine -- faster than the body can produce them from dietary intake. Pain and Stress Center combines these amino's, which create neurotransmitters, in one formula, Anxiety Control. "These amino's can become totally depleted in people suffering from depression, anxiety and grief," she said. "Customers who suffer form chronic fatigue, headaches and PMS can also benefit from GABA, taurine, glutamine and taurine," she said.

Glutamine is an important amino, as demonstrated by a study done by Roger Williams, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, who showed that people who are glutamine deficient exhibit strong cravings for alcohol. When their diets were supplemented with between 3,000 and 4,000 mg. of glutamine, their cravings for alcohol were reduced by 85 percent, Sahley pointed out. 

Young described l-glutathione as "the most important and powerful antioxidant on the market. Two research scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, recently showed that l-glutathione can inhibit the HIV 1 virus." There's no shortage of amino acid supplements from which retailers can select.

From Healing With Amino Acids by Billie J. Sahley, Ph.D.

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