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What Are Amino Acids

Introduction to Amino Acids

You must’ve heard about fats, carbs, proteins, vitamins, but did you ever stumble across something called “Amino acids?” They are basically the building blocks of proteins.

When you consume protein-rich foods, they are broken down by the body to form amino acids. The body then combines different types of amino acids in several ways to carry out body functions.

Our body needs 20 different amino acids to maintain health – 11 made by our body and 9 essential ones that a regular diet can provide.

But why do we need amino acids? Well, our body used them to form tissues, hormones and enzymes, as well as our muscles using some of them to burn for energy. Running low on these amino acids can lead to a variety of problems including digestive issues, moodiness, fertility issues, and decreased immunity—to name a few. This is because each of the 20 amino acids plays a significant role in our body’s normal functioning.

Before we look at the role of amino acids, let us understand what amino acids are, and which amino acids should you really care about.

What Are Amino Acids?

Amino acids are organic compounds that play an important role in the synthesis of hormones, polypeptides, and proteins. They regulate the metabolic pathways that are essential for growth, reproduction, immunity, and are divided into:

  1. Essential Amino Acids
  2. Non-Essential Amino Acids
  3. Conditionally Essential Amino Acids

Think of amino acids like Legos. Lego blocks come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors - as do amino acids (except for color).

Legos can be configured to build many different structures - think of all the spaceships, buildings, and vehicles you built as a child. Likewise, amino acids can be configured to build many different structures - from the highly specialized tissues that make up your muscles to the hormone Insulin which is used to regulate blood sugar levels.

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What's the Structure of Amino Acid?

An amino acid consists of:

  1. The Amino group (-NH2)
  2. Carboxylic acid group (-COOH)
  3. The side chain of an (R) group

It's the side chain or the "R" group that makes each amino acid different.

Chemical Structure of an Amino Acid

What Is the Role of Amino Acids In the Body?

Amino Acids, often known as the building blocks of proteins, are required for:

  • Growth and development of the body
  • Recovering and repairing the body tissues
  • Food break down
  • Healthy metabolism
  • Synthesizing key hormones like serotonin, dopamine, phenethylamine, norepinephrine, etc.
  • Maintaining immunity
  • Promoting muscle growth
  • Regulating fat deposition

Given the many benefits they offer – our daily diet needs to have a balanced amount of essential and non-essential amino acids.

Essential Amino Acids

What are Essential Amino Acids?

“Essential” refers to anything that our body needs but cannot produce, like essential nutrients, which include vitamins, dietary minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids.

Similarly, 20 amino acids are required by our body, but only 9 of these are essential, which means that we need to consume them through foods.

Animal proteins like meat, eggs, and poultry are the most complete sources of amino acids; vegan sources include nuts, grains, and legumes. 

Benefits of Essential Amino Acids

The 9 essential amino acids perform numerous functions in our body, let’s get a better understanding of each:

  • Histidine: Crucial for maintaining the myelin sheath; it is an insulating layer of fatty tissues. It protects our nerve cells and forms an integral part of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It also assists in the production of histamine, which helps amplify the response of our immune system along with improving digestion, sexual functions, and sleep cycles.
  • Leucine: One of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that help regulate our blood sugar levels, and promotes the healing of wounds. It also plays a crucial role in muscle repair and protein synthesis.
  • Methionine: Plays a vital role in tissue growth and absorption of minerals (zinc and selenium). Methionine also helps with metabolism and detoxification.
  • Threonine: A component of proteins such as collagen and elastin found in our skin as well as connective tissues contain threonine (a part of their principal structural). Similarly, it is required by the body for improving fat metabolism and immune functions.
  • Tryptophan: Precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin, that helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood.
  • Valine: A BCAA primarily involved in energy production, as well as muscle growth and repair.
  • Isoleucine: A BCAA concentrated in muscles, isoleucine plays a key role in muscle metabolism. It even assists in the production of hemoglobin, helps regulate energy production, and supports immune health.
  • Phenylalanine: A precursor of phenethylamine, tyrosine, and dopamine - helps in the synthesis of enzymes and other amino acids.
  • Lysine: Critical for the synthesis of protein, production of enzymes as well as hormones, and helps in the absorption of calcium. It is also essential for the production of collagen and elastin.

Non-Essential Amino Acids

What are the Non-Essential Amino Acids?

Our body can synthesize non-essential amino acids. Out of the 11 non-essential amino acids, 8 are conditionally essential, which means that our body cannot produce these enough under illness, stress, etc.

What's the Importance of the Different Non-Essential Amino Acids?

  • Arginine: Helps form nitric oxide, a potent vasodilator that promotes circulation, and supports both the healing of wounds and our immune system.
  • Alanine: Synthesized in the body using other amino acids like leucine, valine, and isoleucine. Often considered as a performance enhancer, it helps with the production, absorption, and maintenance of the desired glucose levels.
  • Asparagine: Helps transport nitrogen in the body and assists in the development of neurons.
  • Aspartate: Assists in the absorption of iron, copper, magnesium, and zinc in the body.
  • Cysteine: An antioxidant amino acid, when used in the form of N-acetyl-L-cystine (NAC) it is beneficial for support the expulsion of excess mucous from the respiratory tract.
  • Glutamate: Plays a key role in cognitive development, memory, learning, and brain metabolism. It also helps our body synthesize proteins.
  • Glutamine: Commonly known as L-glutamine, this amino acid is a great recovery agent. It aids in muscle recovery and supports the healing of wounds.
  • Glycine: Promotes the production of an antioxidant called Glutathione that protects our body against cell damage.
  • Proline: An essential constituent of collagen, that is important for healthy skin and for all tissues in the body.
  • Serine: Improves fat metabolism in the body and helps in muscle formation. Serine acts as a precursor in the production of tryptophan, which in turn helps produce serotonin.
  • Tyrosine: Helps with the replenishment of dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline, to help support mental alertness and reduce the effects of stress.

Essential, Non-Essential & Conditional Amino Acids Infographic

Are You Planning On Starting or Expanding Your Supplement Business?

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September 12th, 2019

About the Author:

 
Gene Bruno

Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, RH(AHG) - Mr. Bruno possesses 40 years of dietary supplement industry experience. With a Master's degree in nutrition and a second Master's degree in herbal medicine, he has a proven track record of formulating innovative, evidence-based dietary supplements. Mr. Bruno currently serves as both the Senior Director of Product Innovation at Twinlab Corporation and Professor of Nutraceutical Science at Huntington University of Health Sciences.