May 28, 2012

167 Zesty or Tranquil? [28 May 2012]

Two weeks ago I mentioned that one of the functions of amino acids is to act as precursors to neuropeptides (NPs) and neurotransmitters (NTs). Neuropeptides are short chains of amino acids found in neurons (nerve cells) that control many body functions including pain. One called Substance P transmits pain from the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system; other NPs called endorphins block this transmission. Opiate drugs like morphine are similar to and work like endorphins.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells. They control our mood and certain physiological effects such as appetite, sleep, heart rate and temperature. NTs are divided into two classes depending on their effect on our mood – excitatory and inhibitory.

The main excitatory NTs are epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Released during high stress they prepare our bodies for “fight or flight”. The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are precursors to dopamine, another excitatory NT. In the right balance excitatory NTs elevate our mood, improve our memory and ability to focus, and increase energy and sex drive; they could be called the “Zesty Neurotransmitters”.

The main inhibitory NTs are GABA and serotonin. The amino acid taurine is a precursor to GABA, and L-theanine, an amino acid abundant in green tea, promotes the production of GABA. The amino acid tryptophan is converted in our bodies to 5HTP which in turn is a precursor to serotonin. The inhibitory NTs reduce tension and anxiety, calm and relax our mood, improve sleep, and enable us to handle stress; they could be called the “Tranquil Neurotransmitters”.

Optimum emotional health requires a balance of the “zesty” and “tranquil” NTs. Which do you need more of in your life? Caution: people with serious mood disorders (bipolar, severe depression) should not experiment with supplemental neurotransmitters without medical supervision.

For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.

May 21, 2012

166 Branched Chain Amino Acids [21 May 2012]

Last week we looked at amino acids as the building blocks (think Lego) of protein, and learned that nine are considered “essential”. Three of these form a special class – the branched chain amino acids (BCAA): leucine, isoleucine and valine. Their name comes from the shape of the molecule having a branched rather than linear form.

The BCAAs are the only amino acids that can be metabolized directly in muscle tissue; all the others require processing by the liver. This gives the BCAAs special nutritional properties in two rather different areas. For athletes, BCAA supplementation:
• increases muscle growth
• improves endurance
• speeds recovery from muscle damage due to intense training.

For the ill or elderly, BCAA supplementation can be used to:
• prevent muscle loss in elderly or ill (cancer, ALS) people with loss of appetite, without stressing the liver or kidneys
• maintain and rebuild muscle in people recovering from anorexia nervosa
• enhance healing of injuries including burns
• prevent muscle loss from prolonged fasting (e.g. the Master Cleanse).

Branched chain amino acids are available as a supplement in powder or capsule form. Research shows that L-Leucine is the most important of the three for protein synthesis and muscle building. reports no toxicity with BCAA supplementation.


For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.

May 10, 2012

165 Amino Acids [14 May 2012]

Amino acids are called the building blocks of protein. Our bodies use twenty different amino acids (AAs) in making protein. Nine are called “essential” meaning we must obtain them in our diet. The other eleven can be synthesized from others so are called “non-essential”. Some of these non-essential AAs, are considered “conditionally essential” because our ability to synthesize them is limited, so a dietary source may be required for them as well. Four of these - cysteine, taurine, tyrosine, and arginine - are essential in infants and children, whose synthesis pathways are still undeveloped.

These 20 amino acids are specific for each function, so if we are deficient in even one our health can suffer. In addition to the proteins that make up tissues like skin, hair, nerves, the brain, organs, muscles and even bones, amino acids are also an essential component of enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters.

Our dietary source of amino acids is protein, which is broken down in the acidic environment of the stomach into individual amino acids. If our stomach acid is insufficient, protein digestion may be incomplete resulting in amino acid deficiencies. Different proteins contain different amino acids and in different amounts; to ensure sufficient intake of all AAs, you should eat a variety of animal and plant protein foods. Amino acid supplements, in powder or capsule form, are available as complete formulas to ensure a balance of all the AAs, or as single amino acids for specific deficiencies or health problems.

Most amino acids come in two forms, called isomers, where one is a mirror image of the other. The L form is the natural one which works best for almost all functions; the D form is artificially synthesized and does not work as well. In choosing amino acid supplements, look for the L form, e.g. L-Lysine.

Watch for more columns on amino acids in the coming weeks. Next week – Branched Chain Amino Acids, beneficial for building and maintaining muscle in athletes and the elderly.

For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.

May 7, 2012

164 Autism & Vitamin D [7 May 2012]

I wrote about the vitamin D autism connection a year ago in column #116. Last month Dr. Eva Kocovska and colleagues from the University of Glasgow published a paper “Vitamin D and autism: Clinical review” in Res Dev Disabil. They reviewed 35 papers on the relationship between vitamin D and autism and called for “urgent research” on the subject. Here are some of their findings:
·        autistic children and/or their mothers have low levels (<30 ng/ml) of vitamin D. One study found Somali mothers with autistic children had average levels of only 6.7 ng/ml.
·        most autistic children do not meet vitamin D intake requirements
·        Several of the studies found a connection between low vitamin D levels and seizures in autistic children.
·        States with the highest rates of exclusive breastfeeding also had the highest rates of autism. Unless the breastfeeding mother is taking 5,000 IU of vitamin D daily and has a level > 40 ng/ml, her breast milk will contain negligible vitamin D.

The paper also discussed the many roles that vitamin D plays in brain development and function. Here are just a few:
·        cell differentiation
·        synaptic development
·        neurotransmitter synthesis
·        neurotransmission, both excitatory and inhibitory
·        control of the expression of genes involved in brain structure and metabolism.

None of this proves a causal relationship, and there have been few if any clinical studies of vitamin D treatment for autism. I agree with Kocovska that more research on this relationship is urgently needed.

For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.