Amino acids are essential parts of the human body. After all, they help make up the proteins responsible for nearly 75% of our bodies, minus water. They are therefore involved in just about every biological function, including those relating to the brain.
When it comes to the brain, amino acids are primarily responsible for both acting as neurotransmitters and maintaining the levels of neurotransmitters, making them crucial for proper brain function. This is why nutritional therapy with amino acid supplements can be a key ingredient in improving mental health as well as the overall physical health of the brain.
Amino acid supplements are also a great choice for those reluctant to take pharmaceuticals or other chemicals to improve brain function. Amino acids are naturally occurring substances, whether they are found in the foods we eat or created within our bodies. Since they have not been created in a laboratory, you don’t have to feel particularly nervous about adding them to your diet.
Are you interested in improving your brain function naturally but don’t know where to start? If so, then keep reading for more information about the best amino acids for brain health.
What Role Do Amino Acids Play in Our Brains?
Amino acids help create connective tissue, neurons, and neurotransmitters, all of which are necessary parts of brain chemistry and communication. Each neuron is able to communicate with others using neurotransmitters, which travel between cells relaying their messages to each other.
Once a neurotransmitter has sent its message, it is supposed to get deactivated by other enzymes in the brain. The neurotransmitter gets either destroyed or reabsorbed by the body, which is commonly referred to as reuptake. If anything interferes with this process, it can cause an imbalance of neurotransmitters, often leading to mental health or other cognitive issues.
Amino acids help create some of the most important neurotransmitters in our bodies and are therefore directly related to brain health. Your brain needs the right amino acids and the right level to function properly, which is why nutritional therapy with amino acids can be an effective tool to improve brain health.
The Best Amino Acids for Brain Health
Phenylalanine and Tyrosine
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, which means that you can only get it through your diet, as it cannot be created inside the body. It is a precursor to another important amino acid for the brain, tyrosine.
Since it can be synthesized from phenylalanine, tyrosine is not considered an essential amino acid but conditionally essential, meaning that it is only essential during periods of stress or illness. Regardless, due to their relationship, phenylalanine and tyrosine contribute to important brain neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Each of these can affect the brain in different ways.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in many functions throughout the body, but when it comes to the brain, it is most commonly associated with the following:
- Executive function
- Pleasure and reward-seeking
- Mood and emotions
The right dopamine levels can make you feel alert, motivated, focused, and happy, making it ideal for when you need to learn, plan, or generally be productive.
On the other hand, low dopamine levels can have the opposite effects, making you feel unmotivated, unfocused, and unenthused. These are some of the symptoms of depression, which have indeed been associated with low dopamine levels.
Phenylalanine and tyrosine also help make epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are considered to be both hormones and neurotransmitters.
Epinephrine is probably best known for its ability as a stress hormone to provide the fight-or-flight response in the body, meaning that it is designed to give you extra energy when you are feeling stressed or afraid. Norepinephrine can produce a similar physical response in the body but is also associated with focus and concentration.
Though epinephrine and norepinephrine are probably best known for their physical effects on the body, low levels of both of these neurotransmitters can result in the following:
- Sleep issues
Due to its association with sustained attention, norepinephrine is also specifically linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
If you have low levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and/or norepinephrine, introducing a supplement containing tyrosine or phenylalanine into your diet could increase your motivation, focus, and ability to sleep, in addition to lessening symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Tryptophan is another essential amino acid, so it is important that you are getting it from your diet or supplements. This amino acid produces niacin, which plays an important role in making the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Though it has many functions in the body, when it comes to the brain, serotonin is generally considered a mood stabilizer. It is thought to contribute to a general sense of well-being and even a longer lifespan. More specifically, it is thought to help regulate:
- Sleep/wake cycles
If your serotonin levels are within the normal range, you should feel happier, more focused, calmer, less anxious, and generally more emotionally balanced. Conversely, low serotonin levels will typically have the opposite effect, making you feel symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even insomnia.
Since tryptophan is an essential amino acid, introducing it into your diet via a supplement can be an effective way to naturally increase your serotonin levels. Like tyrosine and phenylalanine, a supplement containing tryptophan can help lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety while also allowing you to get a better night’s sleep.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine
The Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are essential amino acids you need to obtain from your diet or supplements. These three are considered together in a group because their molecular structures include a chain that branches off to the side, unlike the other amino acids. They are most often associated with exercise recovery and increasing lean body mass, but they have also been shown to affect the brain.
BCAAs have been thought to influence the following:
BCAAs are linked to these effects in very specific ways. For example, in terms of cognitive performance, BCAA supplements may help preserve perceptual-motor skills after exercise, making it a great choice for athletes, bodybuilders, and exercise enthusiasts who want to protect their cognitive capabilities after a workout.
The effects of BCAAs on brain damage have been found in relation to those with liver damage. Some people with liver damage suffer from hepatic encephalopathy, which results from toxic substances building up in the brain due to reduced liver function.
In these patients, supplementing with BCAA improved brain damage without affecting their survival rate or overall quality of life. BCAAs have also been linked to generally helping those with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), though the positive association has only been found in those with limited to severe TBI. More research is needed to see if BCAAs can also benefit those with milder cases of brain injury.
While those with brain damage may want to talk with their doctor before taking any BCAA supplements, athletes and workout enthusiasts may want to consider taking a supplement containing BCAA if they are looking to preserve cognitive function after exercise.
Glutamine and Glutamate
Glutamine is a nonessential amino acid, meaning it is something that the body can naturally produce itself. In the brain, glutamine is the precursor to the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. Glutamate is thought to be so important for brain development that there are even high levels of it present in human breast milk.
In the brain, glutamate is abundant, as it is present in nearly 80% of brain cells, and is thought to help regulate the following:
If the glutamine-glutamate cycle gets disrupted in the brain, it can lead to a whole host of brain-related issues, such as:
- Bipolar disorder
- Alcohol addiction
- Reye’s syndrome
- Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Some of the above are linked to too much glutamate in the brain, and some are the result of too little glutamate, so as you can see, optimal glutamate levels are absolutely essential for brain health. Generally, low levels of glutamate may result in fatigue and low brain activity, while high levels can kill neurons and cause memory loss.
If you are concerned that your glutamate levels are too low, then a glutamate and/or glutamine supplement may be appropriate to add to your diet. It may improve your memory, ability to learn, and mood.
Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)
Glutamine is the precursor to another important amino acid, Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). This is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that stops particular brain signals and decreases nervous system activation overall. This can produce a relaxing effect in the brain.
Due to its brain-calming abilities, GABA levels have therefore been associated with the following:
- Physical and mental fatigue
Low levels of GABA have been linked with a number of different medical conditions, such as anxiety, mood disorders like depression, panic disorder, and ADHD. Some of the symptoms of these conditions could certainly be brought on or exacerbated by stress, so you can perhaps see how GABA’s ability to induce relaxation in the brain may be helpful in these instances.
Though it can be synthesized in the body, if you suspect you may already have low levels of GABA, then you may consider adding a supplement into your diet. A supplement containing GABA may generally allow you to feel calmer, making it easier to get through stressful situations and even fall asleep.
L-theanine is an amino acid that the body doesn’t produce, nor is it considered essential. However, it is found to naturally occur in black tea, green tea, and some mushrooms. Despite the fact that our bodies do not actually require L-theanine, it has been shown to affect the glutamine-related amino acids previously discussed, GABA and glutamate. This is at least partly because L-theanine is structurally similar to both of these amino acids.
L-theanine has been shown to help with the following:
- Stress relief
Again, since we don’t require it, low levels of L-theanine don’t appear to have any especially negative effects on our brains or bodies. However, introducing a supplement including L-theanine may help induce feelings of relaxation, improve sleep quality, and increase focus, especially when paired with caffeine.
Final Thoughts on the Best Amino Acids for Brain Health
Though they are perhaps most often associated with muscle due to the fact that they are made up of protein, amino acids are absolutely essential for brain health. They play a crucial role in creating and regulating neurotransmitters, which directly contribute to mental health. They also have a part to play in the physical health of the brain as well, helping to repair physical damage in certain types of patients.
If you think that you could benefit from amino acid supplements, it is always good to first talk to your doctor. Some of these supplements may not be good for people suffering from certain medical conditions or taking certain medications, so it is best to consult with a professional before incorporating anything new into your diet. That being said, if you are perfectly healthy, then there is a good chance that you can take many if not all of these amino acids in supplement form quite safely.
Overall, amino acids can be a natural and effective way to increase or maintain your brain’s mental and physical health. If you have been reluctant to try pharmaceuticals or other chemicals to treat some of your brain-related issues, then perhaps you will finally be able to find some relief with amino acid supplements.