Well, if you’re taking them for a deficiency in your diet, then yeah. But if you’re taking them for your brain, then no. Really, no. Despite what claims are made by sites that tell you the benefit of “natural amino acid supplements” or “organic amino acid supplements,” you need to keep in mind that these sites are also selling amino acid supplements. They are not selling them to you for dietary deficiencies, they are selling them as “natural supplements for depression.”
Amino acid supplements do not work the way their purveyors say they do. Oh, yeah, they’ll cite scientific studies, sometimes even link to those studies, but they’re counting on a few things. . .First, you probably won’t check the actual studies to see what they say. Second, you probably don’t have access to the full text of the study, and the abstract is more like a press release than an accurate summation of results. Third, even if you can get more information about the study, you probably won’t understand the methodology – and that’s crucial to understanding whether the results have any relevance whatsoever to what the supplement pusher is telling you.
Let me explain. . .
1. In vitro studies don’t count.
Chemicals can be made to do things in the lab that they can’t do in living tissue. Yes, an amino acid can be a precursor to a neurotransmitter when subjected to controlled interventions in the lab. But you, my friends, are simmering stewpots of chemical interference. When a seller of natural amino acid supplements tells you that this amino acid is a precursor to dopamine or that amino acid is a precursor to serotonin because all these scientific studies say so, check the studies.
If you see the words “in vitro,” that means “in glass.” So in order to find out if the results from this study apply to you, go to the mirror. If you have a round base and sides that are cylindrical (or roughly conical with a cylindrical top) and you are clear except for volumetric markings, congratulations! You are a piece of lab glass, and in order to turn this amino acid into a neurotransmitter, just ask your lab assistant to perform the appropriate procedure.
If, however, you discover that you are not a piece of lab glass, then you’re out of luck, because there are several other things a living body will do to that amino acid supplement besides turn it into happy brain chemicals. Primarily. . .
2. Amino acids are food.
That is the very first thing that your body is going to want to do with that amino acid supplement. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in your body. Whether you get them from food or from amino acid supplements, those amino acids go into your stomach and get processed through your digestive system and get turned into proteins to provide energy and build new cells. This is the primary stewpot of chemical interference – your digestive system is designed to process whatever goes into it as food, use it for those two purposes, and excrete the rest. Maybe a tiny, tiny bit of it might have an impact, if it gets carried by a protein and crosses the blood-brain barrier (see esp. 11.3)
That’s another deception hidden in the citations in these articles about amino acid supplements for depression. . .
3. Crossing the blood-brain barrier is KEY.
I’ve seen numerous examples of citations used to show that these supplements work in humans that deliberately obfuscate the methods. Yes, there are a lot of studies on amino acids and their effect on the brain in humans. Most of them that I’ve seen have involved their use for combating the effects of drug overdoses or overcoming addictions.
And they work – but not by taking supplements, and not for very long. This is because the amino acids have been reformulated to have small molecules to cross the blood-brain barrier and/or are injected directly into the bloodstream to bypass the digestive system.
Anyone selling amino acid supplements for depression who cites these studies as evidence that a standard formulation taken orally is going to have the same effect is outright lying.
And finally. . .
4. More neurotransmitters is not usually the answer.
The synapses that process neurotransmitters come in pairs. One sends out neurotransmitters, the other receives them. If the receiving end stops taking in what’s produced, then no amount of additional neurotransmitters is going to make a difference. The receiving end is shut down. The additional molecules are taken back up into the brain and reabsorbed, and do nothing. This is why antidepressants are Reuptake Inhibitors. They don’t make more of whatever neurochemical they’re designed to affect, they open up the receiving synapse to accept more of it, so you can actually make use of what your brain is already producing.
The sellers of supplements for depression won’t tell you that. They give you a simple explanation that if you’re lacking in dopamine or serotonin or norepinephrine or whatever, that all you need to do is make more. That’s not how it works.
Essentially, the point I want to make is that you need to think critically. When people who are trying to sell you something say “the science says. . .” call them on it. Look at what the science says, not what they say the science says. Because if the person who is telling you that a supplement does something miraculous is also selling you that supplement, their honesty should always be called into question.