August 19, 2018
There are thousands of different kinds of herbs and supplements that can be used as nootropics. Some are more obvious than others by offering direct actions on the brain to promote a state of focus and improved memory.
Some of the more misunderstood nootropics, however, are the amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of life, used to build proteins throughout the body. Life as we know it is heavily reliant on the interaction between literally trillions of different combinations of proteins.
Here we discuss the benefits of the common nootropic amino acids, what their limitations are, and how you can use the, to support healthy cognitive function.
The brain is in constant need for amino acids and other nutrients like B vitamins and minerals. It uses them as raw materials for building neurotransmitters, firing nerve impulses, and metabolising sugar into energy.
If any of these raw materials are low, the brain won’t function optimally.
Supplementing amino acids as nootropic compounds work by supplying the brain with these materials whenever it needs them, rather than stimulating a specific pathway the way other nootropics like Piracetam do.
It’s the same concept as working out. Whenever you exert your muscles, it increases the demand for amino acids like leucine, valine, or isoleucine. Anybody who works out knows that in order to prevent injuries, and improve both muscle mass and muscle tone, some form of protein (amino acids) needs to follow the workout. This is done to replenish those lost during the workout.
The same can be said for the human brain. Whenever we need to exert ourselves mentally, we need to replenish the amino acids that were used up. The only difference between supplementing for the muscles and the brain, is the types of amino acids we use.
L-Tyrosine is one of the 20 standard amino acids required for human life to exist. Tyrosine can be made from phenylalanine, which is why they are often grouped together in terms of their effects.
One of the most important neurotransmitters in the human brain is dopamine, which is made directly from tyrosine in the brain.
Dopamine is used to regulate many different processes in the human body, including movement, memory, sex hormone production, and homeostasis. People suffering from ADHD often have low dopamine levels in the brain. Parkinson’s Disease is another example of a condition involving low dopamine but is far more severe.
Even in healthy people, low dopamine levels can cause brain fog, fatigue, and low attention spans.
Tyrosine is also used to make norepinephrine, which is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It forms part of our fight or flight process that makes us feel alert while we’re experiencing stress.
When we’re under a lot of stress we place a higher demand on tyrosine to be able to keep manufacturing norepinephrine. It becomes easy to deplete this amino acid.
Stress can therefore also cause issues with dopamine levels as well.
Taurine is an acid containing an amino group, but is not technically an amino acid per se.
It’s included on this list despite this fact because it fits the same group as the true amino acids and is a popular nootropic compound.
Taurine is made from the amino acid Cysteine, and is used in the body as a neuroprotective compound. It’s considered a “conditionally essential nutrient”. It’s contained in high amounts in human breast milk to support the rapidly developing infant brain.
One of the main relaxation molecules in the brain is known as GABA. It acts like the break petal on the neurological system, helping us slow down around the corners and stop at all the stop signs.
Taurine works by activating the GABA receptors in the brain, helping to reduce hyperactivity (such as anxiety, stress, and insomnia). .
Tryptophan has many uses in the human body, especially pertaining to cognitive function.
It’s used to produce the important neurotransmitters serotonin, and melatonin.
Serotonin is used to regulate sleep, appetite, mood, digestion, memory, and libido. It’s converted to melatonin in the pineal gland, which is used to regulate the circadian rhythm.
Tryptophan is especially important in people experiencing periods of mental strain. Serotonin is used up in these individuals much faster, which places a higher demand for tryptophan on the body. If tryptophan levels are low, serotonin levels can start to drop as production slows.
The result includes a wide range of negative side effects on cognition including difficulty concentrating and anxiety.
Due to the shared precursor compounds, melatonin can also become depleted, causing insomnia and low energy.
Carnitine isn’t used to build neurotransmitters like many others on this list, but is instead used to shuttle fatty acids into the powerhouses of our cells, the mitochondria. It’s an essential component for ketogenesis (the burning of fat for energy).
This is very important for brain health because the metabolism of fat is a major driver for energy production in this organ. It’s especially useful for long durations of mental exertion.
Consider this, the brain uses roughly 20% of our energy on a daily basis, and can be much more on days that are especially draining. It’s a powerhouse with over 100 billion neurons, each firing at a rate of 120 meters per second.
Just like a supercar, you wouldn’t put cheap fuel in and expect high performance. Adding Acetyl-L-Carnitine is like fortifying the fuel you put in to your body to allow the high performance machinery in your brain achieve what it’s capable of.
L-Theanine isn’t considered one of the 20 standard amino acids, but is still technically an amino acid.
It’s made in the leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), as well as a few species of fungi. It’s shape is very similar to the amino acid glutamine.
Since its discovery in 1949, L-Theanine has become one of the most important nootropic amino acids on earth. The reason why L-Theanine is so popular, is because of strong anxiolytic benefits on the human brain. This is something that has been especially important in the 21st century as stress levels on average are off the charts.
The anti-anxiety effects of L-Theanine can be measured by the conversion of beta-waves to alpha-waves in the brain (measured on an EEG). These brain waves are used as a metric for identifying brain activity. Beta waves are associated with disorganised, anxious thoughts, while alpha waves are generally higher in people that are more relaxed and focused.
L-Theanine is also a mild dopamine reuptake inhibitor, which is the same mechanism of action to many pharmaceutical nootropics like Modafinil and Adderall. The effects of L-theanine are much more gentle than these harsh stimulants, however, and has far fewer (if any) side effects.
Using amino acids as nootropic compounds relies on a different philosophy than other nootropics. Instead of stimulating a particular pathway in the brain, they are used to support optimal brain function by supplying it with the materials it needs to do its job effectively.
These amino acids are safe to consume, and are often combined with other nootropics to optimise the effects of the entire formula.
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