When you’ve tried as many pre workouts as we have, there are a few ingredients you get used to seeing over and over again. After good old fashioned caffeine, tyrosine is easily one of the most common, to the point where it’s unusual to see a pre workout without it.
If you take a look at the marketing or give it a quick Google search, the answer to “why am I eating this” reliably returns one word: focus. It helps you focus. So what is tyrosine really, what’s a good dosage, and what evidence do we have that it’s any use?
What Is Tyrosine?
Also called l-tyrosine, it’s an amino acid that’s plentiful in dairy, meat, nuts, beans, and a lot of other high protein foods.
It’s understood that it helps you to produce adrenaline (a.k.a. noradrenaline or norepinephrine) and dopamine, two hormones (called “catecholamines”) that might help to reduce stress when you’re being exposed to particularly acute stressors.
“With tyrosine, essentially what we’re trying to do is make sure we’ve got plenty of building blocks around when it comes to catecholamines, which are very important neurotransmitters in the brain during times of stress,” says Dr. Eric Trexler, a sports nutrition researcher at Stronger By Science. “It’s not that tyrosine increases your levels of them, rather it’s important to have plenty of tyrosine around because when you encounter an acute stressor that is stressful enough to cause a depletion of those catecholamines, it will essentially support the processes of making more.”
While the research isn’t super rock solid yet, there’s theoretical rationale that suggests if you’re doing something stressful — very difficult workouts count, here — your mental clarity, focus, and perception of fatigue might be improved in the presence of tyrosine. If you’re more focused, you’re less fatigued and you might have better endurance.
“We know the production of dopamine and adrenaline go up acutely during fatiguing exercise and we know at a point of fatigue, the milieu of the transmitters in the brains seems to be disturbed,” says Trexler. “I think you could make the argument that tyrosine supplementation can make the more rigorous or laborious aspects of that workout a little bit more tolerable from a subjective perspective.”
[Find what’s best for you in our guide to the 12 best pre workout supplements!]
What Does the Research on Tyrosine Say?
When we’re talking acute stressors, most of the research is on really acute stressors. The type that soldiers experience under duress.
“This isn’t the kind of stress of ‘business is going poorly and the mortgage is due,’ we’re talking about the stress of dropping something heavy on the foot or getting really amped up psychologically,” adds Trexler.
Being awake for 24 hours, that’s a big stressor. Participants in a famous 1995 study stayed awake all night doing nine iterations of performance tasks and mood scales for thirteen hours straight. Six hours through their ordeal, half of them took tyrosine and those participants showed increased vigilance and a “significant amelioration” in the usual decline they’d display doing the psychomotor task.(1)
Another stressor? Cold. A study of eight males published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior had them perform a memory-based computer task (one that’s actually pretty similar to the game “Memory”) and found that when they were doing it at 4 degrees Celsius (39 Fahrenheit), they reliably performed better when taking tyrosine.(2) A double blind, placebo controlled study in the Brain Research Bulletin found tyrosine helped to stabilize mood and maintain performance when participants were exposed to cold and low oxygen levels.(3) (We don’t envy these study participants.)
Then there’s heat. A 2011 paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology is often cited: it had athletes cycle for an hour to exhaustion in 30 degrees celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and 60% humidity.(4) That’s an hour of cycling until exhaustion, and the guys who took tyrosine increased their endurance capacity.
That study was pretty small, but here’s where you start to see how tyrosine might be useful for workouts. They’re stressful, they get you hot and bothered, they jack up your catecholamines, and tyrosine might help to slow the depletion of these important hormones.
[Learn more: The 5 Best Pre Workout Ingredients for Focus.]
What’s the Right Dosage of Tyrosine?
All the research above had people taking 100 to 150 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight. That’s a little over 10 grams for a 200-pound athlete. But most pre workouts give you 300 to 600 milligrams. What gives?
“When they design these studies, they need to make sure they give a very robust dose so they don’t do this whole study and wonder, ‘What if we did a few hundred milligrams extra? Is it possible we wasted our time on this?’” says Trexler. “So you go on the higher end of what we believe to be a safe dose. You see this in caffeine studies where people take 9 milligrams per kilogram, which is a ton. I think 10 to 15 grams of tyrosine might be overkill when it comes to exercise applications.”
The bummer is that we haven’t really established a minimum effective dose of tyrosine just yet. Independent research organization Examine.com notes that anecdotally, 500 to 2000 milligrams taken before exercise might be useful, which Trexler agrees with.
“Tyrosine is one of maybe five supplements I take regularly, and I use it with caffeine because a lot of the cognitive effects that caffeine produces relate to stimulating catecholamines,” says Trexler. “This is kind of anecdotal, but one of the things you see with repeated caffeine consumption is we habituate to some of its effects, in many cases including the catecholamine response. So if we’re drinking caffeine day after day, it might not be a bad idea to give my brain a bit of a boost and make sure there are some building blocks there so I can get some catecholamines out of this caffeine dose.”
This is anecdotal, but Trexler does have a PhD in sports nutrition and emphasizes that pairing caffeine with tyrosine, as most pre workouts do, could have a synergistic effect.
[Another pre workout ingredient to help with focus after taking caffeine: theanine.]
Despite is ubiquity in the supplement world, there’s not a lot of great information about dosage. But we do have pretty reliable evidence that tyrosine might help to prevent us from running too low on adrenaline and dopamine, which help us focus during tough workouts.
“We don’t know much about it with regard to exercise, but there’s good reason to see cognitive benefits that might make exercise more enjoyable and more tolerable,” concludes Trexler. “That it couples well with caffeine makes it a pretty interesting option.”
Featured image via El Nariz/Shutterstock
1. Neri DF, et al. The effects of tyrosine on cognitive performance during extended wakefulness. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1995 Apr;66(4):313-9.
2. Shurtleff D, et al. Tyrosine reverses a cold-induced working memory deficit in humans. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1994 Apr;47(4):935-41.
3. Banderet LE, et al. Treatment with tyrosine, a neurotransmitter precursor, reduces environmental stress in humans. Brain Res Bull. 1989 Apr;22(4):759-62.
4. Tumilty L, et al. Oral tyrosine supplementation improves exercise capacity in the heat. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Dec;111(12):2941-50.