With all of the dietary supplements and health and wellness trends around today, you’ve probably heard of amino acids. Regardless of whether or not you’ve heard of them, you may be wondering what they are. To put it as simply as possible, amino acids are the building blocks of protein in our bodies. They are essential to our overall health and serve many purposes. They help our body to absorb nutrients. They also help to repair damage done to our muscles and tissue, and they are involved in building protein and synthesizing hormones. For this reason, many types of amino acids are considered ‘essential.’ In total, there are 20 amino acids that our body uses for growth and production. Out of these 20, nine are considered the ‘essential’ ones. While you can obtain these amino acids via a protein source, the best sources for amino acids come from animal protein such as meat and eggs. The reason for this is because when you eat protein, it is then broken down in your body into amino acids. Besides essential amino acids, there are also nonessential amino acids (which are nonessential to the overall function of your body) and conditional amino acids (which are only essential under certain conditions.) There are also branched-chain amino acids, which have a different protein structure. This simply means it has a side chain branching off to one of its molecular structures (otherwise known as chains of amino acids).
Essential Amino Acids
Different amino acids serve different purposes. As previously mentioned, there are nine essential amino acids that our body needs to thrive. These amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. A key thing to remember is that essential amino acids cannot be produced by the human body, as opposed to nonessential amino acids, which can. This means the essential ones must be obtained through your diet and amino acid supplements1. Below are the nine essential amino acids and their functions within our bodies:
1. Histidine (his)- This is used to create histamine, which is involved with our immune response, digestion, and sleep cycles.
2. Lysine (lys)- This is used with collagen and elastin production, as well as protein and hormone synthesis.
3. Isoleucine (ile)- It's mostly concentrated with muscle tissue and muscle protein, as well as immune function.
4. Leucine (leu)- It's used for protein synthesis and blood sugar regulation.
5. Methionine (met)- The main functions include detoxification and metabolism boosting.
6. Tryptophan (trp)- This is needed to maintain nitrogen balance.
7. Threonine (thr)- It's important for the skin and connective tissue, largely being involved with collagen and elastin.
8. Valine (val)- Helps to stimulate muscle growth.
9. Phenylalanine (phe)- Involved in the production of other amino acids.
A few of the nonessential amino acids (which are still important for certain functions) include proline (pro), asparagine (asn), tyrosine (tyr), cysteine (cys), glutamine (gln), glycine (gly), and arginine (arg). These common amino acids can be found both in food and in supplement form.2
Benefits of Amino Acids and Where to Find Them
There are many possible benefits of supplementing amino acids and getting them from your food. Possible benefits include improvement of mood and sleep, preventing muscle loss, and maintaining overall production and function of essential things such as histamines, collagen, immune system, and energy levels. However, more studies need to be conducted in order to say the effects of supplementing amino acids are concrete. The best way to ensure you get all of the essential amino acids your body needs is through eating complete protein sources. Foods that are considered a complete protein source are meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Thankfully, for those who are vegan or vegetarian, there are also plant-based options for complete protein sources. These include quinoa, soy, and buckwheat. If you aren't able to eat these foods for whatever reason, don't worry. You can also eat multiple different foods that are not complete proteins, but that contain one or more of the essential amino acids. It's important to stress the fact that eating a clean, balanced diet is the key to ensuring you get all of the essential amino acids, as well as maintaining an overall healthy body. If you are getting enough protein, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, you'll be just fine.