We know that the foods we eat play an important role in our overall health. Protein is often discussed as an important macronutrient that our bodies need, and rightly so. What we may not consider is that there are many different parts to a protein, and not all parts are equal. Amino acids are one of the vital parts, as they are actually the building blocks of protein. But what does that mean for us and our health?
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are organic compounds used by living organisms that combine to form proteins. The main components in amino acids are hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Besides building protein, amino acids are essential to the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters and hormones carry signals from one part of the body to another and play an important part in the body’s ability to function at an optimal level. When proteins are broken down during digestion, amino acids are left. Our bodies use these amino acids to help the body with many physical and psychological functions. Our mood, eating patterns, ability to learn, and sleep cycles are all influenced by the amino acid levels within our bodies. Our bodies can actually make some of these amino acids, but we must get the rest (and the majority) from our food or supplements. There are 20 different types of amino acids that combine to form proteins in our bodies. Each of these amino acids falls into one of three categories: essential, nonessential, or conditional amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and they must be ingested through foods or supplements. We get these amino acids primarily from high protein foods, such as chicken, milk, nuts, fish, and eggs, and their main job is to help your body with various processes, like regulating your immune system and building muscle.
The nonessential amino acids are arginine, glutamine, tyrosine, cysteine, glycine, proline, serine, ornithine, alanine, asparagine, and aspartate. These are the amino acids the body can make, but the body is more effective at making them when it has plenty of essential amino acids from a healthy diet. Nonessential amino acids support the growth and repair of tissues, immune function, red blood cells, and hormone synthesis.
The body can make these amino acids as well. Conditional amino acids are not usually needed; however, in certain circumstances during times of stress and illness, they may be depleted, so ingesting them through diet may be beneficial. These are arginine, glycine, proline, glutamine, cysteine, ornithine, serine, and tyrosine.
Benefits of Amino Acids
Amino acids are crucial for muscle strength and development. They assist your body in the repair of body tissue, help with the digestion of food, are a source of energy, and help protect your body from diseases. You will see improved muscular strength and development, as well as improved athletic performance, when you add foods or supplements that are rich in amino acids. Studies have shown that supplementation may be beneficial for several health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, infertility, and many more. Amino acids have many important functions in both nutrition and health.
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Wu, Guoyao. “Amino acids: metabolism, functions, and nutrition.” Amino acids, 2009 May; 37(1): 1-17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19301095/