Using Amino Acids in Functional Medicine

by Integrative Clinical Pharmacist Scott Berliner, RPh

In our current culture, our lifestyle accelerates the aging process. Utilizing the systems and processes-based approach of functional medicine can help to decelerate aging. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines aging as, “the gradual deterioration of a mature organism resulting from time-dependent, irreversible changes in structure that are intrinsic to the particular species, and that eventually leads to decreased ability to cope with the stresses of the environment, thereby increasing the probability of death” 1.

The functional integrative medicine approach to decelerating aging includes replacement of the deficiencies that come with aging, such as enzymes, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids. Amino acids are the crucial building blocks for all proteins in the body. There are many messages that signal the body to perform different tasks; exercise signals the muscles to create more muscle using the amino acids from dietary protein 2. If these deficiencies are addressed, the body will more likely be able to continue the actions it was able to complete in younger years. For example, low levels of l-arginine were linked to erectile dysfunction 4, so supplemental l-arginine can be used as a natural treatment for erectile dysfunction. (Warning: increasing arginine will also lead to reactivation of herpes simplex virus.)

Although aging is not a disease, many ailments associated with age including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis are also influenced by amino acid availability in the body. For example, utilizing acetyl-l-carnitine can help nerve function in patients with diabetic neuropathy.

The depletion of another amino acid, tryptophan, is a possible mechanism causing depression 5. Tryptophan is the molecule from which serotonin is created. I often use it to increase serotonin but without the side effects of weight gain, lost libido, or suicidal tendencies caused by medications. Addition of the amino acid derivative SAM-E can also be useful for depression and additionally helps the joints. One study found SAM-E to have a slower onset of action, but comparable effectiveness to celecoxib (Celebrex) in the management of knee osteoarthritis 7.

Another wonderful amino acid is l-theanine, a major component of green tea with relaxing properties similar to medications like alprazolam (Xanax) 6.

Although our bodies make l-glutamine, deficiencies can contribute to gastrointestinal issues such as colitis and diverticulitis. It acts as a natural antibiotic in the gut and a source of nutrients for the cells lining the intestinal tract. Glutamine can enhance immune function of the gut 9.

It is possible and appropriate for you to have your amino acid profile checked, especially if you have low overall protein levels in your bloodwork, your diet is largely carbohydrate, or if you are a vegetarian. As we age, dietary changes can lead to protein deficiencies. These can be identified through testing done by Dr. Henri Roca at Greenwich Integrative Medicine.

The proper use and balance of amino acids can assist the body in decelerating the changes associated with progressive diseases of aging. For many issues that are beyond dietary control, we may want to look at this important family of nutrients before moving on to more potent pharmaceutical alternatives.

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7) NajmWI, Reinsch S, Hoehler F, Tobis JS, Harvey PW. S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) versus celecoxib for the treatment of osteoarthritis symptoms: double-blind cross-over trial. [ISRCTN36233495]. BMC Musculoskelet Discord. 2004 Feb 26;5:6.

8) Kawabubo M, Ito Y, Odinura Y, Kobayashi M, Sakura K, Kasama S, Fukuda MN, Fukuda M, Katsuyama T, Nakayama J. Natural antibiotic function of a human gastric mucin against Helicobacter pylori infection. Science. 2004 Aug 13;305(5686):1003-6.

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10) Lamson DW, Brignall MS. The use of nebulized glutathione in the treatment of emphysema: a case report. Altern Med Rev. 2000 Oct;5(5):429-31.