Amino acids are just itsy bitsy, tiny little elements that link together to make up protein. There are amino acids in you, in your lunch, in your dog, in your potted plant. They've always been there, minding their own business.
So, why in the name of all that is wholesome are amino acids, all of a sudden, at the center of a raging controversy?
Because there are some companies selling them in capsules and tablets for body-building, selling them at a boom rate and making a lot of money.
And because there are some folks in the scientific community who say it's all a bunch of useless hooey and those companies are no better than the old snake oil salesmen.
Which makes the advocates of amino acids countercharge that the medical community is keeping a valuable product from the public because it's a food, not a drug, and doctors and pharmaceutical companies can't make any money from it.
Which makes the doctors and the scientists spit out such distasteful little words as \o7 quack\f7 and \o7 scam \f7 and \o7 con.\f7
It gets nasty.
Each side claims to have solid fact in its corner and challenges the other side to prove its allegations. But every time one side presents a "fact" or a study or a position paper, the other side dismisses it as unfounded.
Actually, the problem lies in the lack of research and the lack of conclusive evidence on either side.
Dr. Forest Tennant, executive director of Community Health Projects in West Covina and the drug adviser to the National Football League, put it this way: "The controversy really is over whether they work or don't work (to improve athletic performance). And the fact is, nobody really knows. Not conclusively. The whole subject is new; too new to make hard and fast judgments."
Those making hard and fast judgments, however, are the athletes who have seen improvements in size, strength and stamina in their own bodies, and, on the other side, nutritionists who will not be swayed by testimonials and who say that it is unnatural and unhealthy to upset the natural balance of anything--including amino acids--in the diet and in the body.
No one denies that there are proven medical uses for amino acids, which come in countless forms and have countless effects on the chemical reactions taking place in the body.
Just last week, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali decided not to have experimental surgery for Parkinson's syndrome, but to continue, instead, with the traditional treatment--taking dopamine. The disease itself is characterized by a deficiency of dopamine in a part of the brain, which causes tremors and lack of muscle control.
Dopamine is formed by amino acids.
Forms of amino acids are also used to treat Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain. And amino acids are used in treating patients undergoing withdrawal from chemical dependency.
Because amino acids are the simplest form of protein, and protein is necessary to sustain life and growth, amino acids have long been used as dietary supplements for patients with metabolic or digestive deficiencies. In patients whose bodies do not, on their own, break down food protein into the amino acid form the body must have, the free-form amino acids can sustain life.
Formulas for infants with digestive deficiencies include, among other amino acids, arginine, a synthesis from the amino acid ornithine, to stimulate the pituitary gland to release growth hormone.
Arginine and ornithine are among the most popular amino acids being bought in the gyms by body builders and football players who want to stimulate the growth hormone.
The sales representatives for amino acid companies conclude that nothing could be more simple and natural. Arginine and ornithine aid growth. Take it, they say, without the calories that come along with it in food, and you'll add lean muscle mass without fat. Period.
Ellen Coleman of the Riverside Cardiac and Fitness Center, who is a registered nutritionist and an exercise physiologist, does not argue that arginine and ornithine contribute to growth. But instead of capsules, she suggests what she calls an "inexpensive, natural, timed-release form of protein--beans."
And she disagrees with the claim that because amino acids are found, naturally, in the body there is no danger in taking them as supplements. Writing for the Sports Medicine Digest, Coleman said:
"Substituting free-amino acid supplements for food may cause deficiencies of other nutrients found in protein-rich foods (such as iron, niacin, and thiamine). Excess amino acids from supplements or food which cannot be incorporated into new proteins are either burned for energy or converted to fat and, to a lesser degree, glucose.