Amino Acids: Building Blocks For Your Overall Health
People often refer to amino acids as the “building blocks of protein.” But how does that affect your health? What does that even mean? In this article, we’re breaking down how amino acids influence your overall health and whether you need to make sure that you’re consuming enough of them.
Amino Acids & Protein
Amino acids are organic compounds that come together to form proteins. When you eat a food that contains protein, your body breaks that protein down into amino acids. The body can then use the various amino acids in different ways.
You probably know that every human needs to consume protein. Protein helps your body create muscles, tissues, enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals. It also aids in repair and recovery. Protein is a macronutrient, which means that your body needs plenty of it.
Some protein sources are of better quality than others. Most experts consider high-quality protein to be those sources that contain more amino acids. Amino acids serve many functions. They’re not just limited to helping you get big muscles or improve physical stamina.
What Are the Essential & Nonessential Amino Acids?
Amino acids are categorized as essential or nonessential. The body can’t produce essential amino acids. Therefore, you need to get them from your diet. Because the body makes nonessential amino acids, it may not be as important for you to consume them in your food. Still, your body needs all of the amino acids to function as well as it can.
Essential Amino Acids
The nine essential amino acids are as follows:
Lysine supports the immune system, helps with normal growth, boosts muscle turnover, promotes collagen development, helps the body absorb calcium, zinc, and iron, helps produce hormones, antibodies, and enzymes, lowers high blood pressure, and reduces the frequency of cold sore outbreaks.
It may also relieve anxiety, promote healthy skin growth, prevent loss of lean muscle, help with athletic recovery, and aid in muscle development in bodybuilders.
People with a lysine deficiency may experience fatigue, nausea, irritability, attention difficulties, delayed growth, and hair loss.
Some foods that are high in lysine are red meat, poultry, pork, parmesan cheese, cod, sardines, eggs, soybeans, spirulina, fenugreek seeds, and brewer’s yeast.
Although histidine is not essential in adults, it is necessary for infants. The body uses histidine to manufacture certain metabolites and hormones that influence kidney function. This amino acid also supports the immune system, aids in tissue repair, protects nerve cells and improves their transmission, and affects stomach secretions.
Histidine helps the body break down trace elements, such as copper and iron, so that it can properly use and regulate them. People with high levels of toxic heavy metals in their bodies may have depleted histidine stores.
The body uses histidine to manufacture histamine, which is a response to allergens. Histidine is responsible for anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly allergic reaction.
Pneumonia, chronic kidney failure, and some psychiatric disorders are linked to histidine deficiency.
Some foods that contain histidine are pork chops, lean beef, chicken breast, tuna, canned navy beans, firm tofu, seeds, eggs, and whole-wheat pasta.
When you consume threonine, the body metabolizes it into glycine. Glycine influences the brain and helps control muscle spasticity.
Experts have looked into using threonine as a supplement to treat muscle and nerve disorders, such as muscular dystrophy. However, results are largely inconclusive.
Threonine is also vital for the formation of collagen and tooth enamel. It helps with liver function when it’s combined with some other amino acids.
You can find threonine in milk, eggs, and gelatin.
Methionine produces sulfur-containing molecules that are crucial for proper cell functioning. Sulfur-containing molecules in the body can only be made from sulfur-containing amino acids.
As the proteins in your body break down, methionine plays a role in activating protein synthesis. It helps repair muscles after they’ve been damaged from exercise.
Methionine also helps produce cysteine, another amino acid that contains sulfur. These two amino acids aid in metabolism, produce DNA, and have antioxidant effects.
While methionine is important for the body, you may not need to consume a lot of it. Studies show that reducing methionine consumption in animals prolongs their life span.
Some of the foods that are highest in methionine are eggs, some meats, and fish. People with vegan or vegetarian diets generally have lower methionine levels than meat-eaters do.
Valine is one of three branched-chain amino acids that are essential for human survival. It influences stress levels, energy, and muscle metabolism. This amino acid helps muscles regenerate and grow.
People who are deficient in valine may have cognitive defects.
Soy, cheese, meats, and some vegetables are high in valine.
Isoleucine is critical for boosting endurance and supporting muscle recovery. The muscle tissue breaks down this amino acid for energy. It is also a fuel source for the muscles during times of metabolic stress. Therefore, it’s an important amino acid for athletes.
Some of the foods that contain the most isoleucine are tuna, soy, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and peas.
Along with valine and isoleucine, leucine makes up about 33 percent of muscle protein. It triggers the muscle to create protein.
Because your leucine levels go down after you exercise, researchers have looked into supplementing with this amino acid to improve stamina and performance. There is some evidence that taking branched-chain amino acids can help you work out harder and longer. The supplement may also enhance muscle building and promote fat burn.
Phenylalanine is a precursor for adrenalin-like neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. This amino acid is plentiful in the brain and plasma. Because of these factors, phenylalanine has some pain-relieving properties.
The amino acid has been studied for its potential to treat depression, pain, and skin problems. People with PKU, a genetic disorder marked by high serum plasma phenylalanine levels, must be vigilant about consuming foods with phenylalanine. However, healthy individuals may find that phenylalanine has a subtle calming effect.
Meat, wheat germ, squash seeds, and cottage cheese are rich in phenylalanine.
You’re probably familiar with tryptophan as a chemical that makes you tired after eating too much Turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s also an amino acid that helps make niacin, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
High serotonin levels promote high-quality sleep. Serotonin also helps you manage pain and improve your mood.
While eating foods with tryptophan is considered safe, the supplement may cause problems for some people. It can elevate your serotonin levels too much, which is especially likely if you’re taking certain medications.
Foods that are high in tryptophan include chocolate, soy products, peanuts, cheese, eggs, sesame seeds, and of course, turkey.
Nonessential Amino Acids
Nonessential amino acids were long considered dispensable for the human diet because you could synthesize them yourself. However, because amino acids are so important for general growth and function, researchers are finding that including nonessential amino acids in your diet optimizes your health potential.
Your body might not produce enough of certain nonessential amino acids to support peak function. That’s one reason that it’s so important to eat a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Your body produces the following nonessential amino acids.
Alanine assists in breaking down vitamin B6 and tryptophan. It provides energy to the central nervous system and the muscles. It may help the body use glucose and prevent low blood sugar levels. Foods that are high in alanine include fish, seaweed, gelatin, and pastrami.
Arginine aids in wound healing, waste removal through kidneys, immune function, and hormone function. It also helps the arteries stay relaxed and dilated. As it metabolizes in the body, arginine transforms into nitric oxide, which helps boost blood flow and circulation.
Taking arginine as a supplement may interfere with certain medications, such as hypertension medications and Viagra. However, you can eat meat, seaweed, and legumes to get more of this amino acid in your system.
Asparagine helps your body get rid of excess ammonia. It’s also a diuretic and helps control cell functions in brain and nerve tissue.
However, scientists have found that limiting the consumption of asparagine may reduce cancer spread. Therefore, you’ll probably find more information about foods that are low in asparagine than foods that are high in the amino acid.
Most fruits and vegetables, except asparagus, are low in asparagine. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and legumes are high in the amino acid.
Aspartic acid is required to make other amino acids. It also serves as a neurotransmitter. There are some claims that taking D-aspartic acid as a supplement can enhance testosterone levels. While it may do so in people who are sedentary or have low testosterone levels, it hasn’t been proven to make a difference in healthy men who lift weights.
Soy protein isolate, poultry, lunch meats, sausage, and eggs are high in aspartic acid.
Cysteine is crucial for protein synthesis and many metabolic functions. It helps with collagen production and can improve hair and nail health.
It’s found in most foods that are also high in protein, including yogurt, meat, eggs, sunflower seeds, cheese, and legumes.
Your body turns glutamic acid into glutamate, which helps brain cells communicate with nerve cells. It may help improve learning and memory. Glutamic acid might also help people with low stomach acid.
Meats, fish, and dairy products are high in glutamic acid.
Glutamine is essential for the immune and digestive systems. Although it’s the most abundant amino acid in the blood, glutamine can decrease in people who have experienced certain surgeries or injuries. If your body needs more glutamine than it’s getting, you might want to eat a high-protein diet or take a glutamine supplement.
Corn, tofu, milk, white rice, and meat are high in glutamine.
Your body uses glycine to manufacture glutathione, an antioxidant that safeguards your cells from oxidative damage. It also helps your body make creatine, which gives your muscles energy to perform rapid bursts of movement.
You may need to consume more glycine as you get older because levels tend to decrease with age. Gelatin is rich in glycine.
Proline is necessary for intracellular signaling. It is also an important element of collagen and helps your joints and tendons function properly.
Asparagus, cabbage, and mushrooms are plant-based foods that are high in proline.
Serine is indispensable for certain cellular processes. It helps create the phospholipids that are required for making all of the body’s cells.
It’s also the precursor for some of the other amino acids. Your body can’t produce tryptophan without serine.
Serine supports healthy digestion. It aids in the creation of antibodies and other chemicals that are necessary for immunity.
Consuming foods high in folic acid and vitamin B can help create the right conditions for your body to produce serine. You can also get this amino acid from high-protein foods.
The body produces tyrosine from phenylalanine. Tyrosine helps you stay mentally alert. It may keep your mind sharp even when you’re under stress. Some people say that tyrosine is helpful for depression, ADHD, and enhancing exercise performance. Increasing the amount of tyrosine in the diet may boost dopamine levels in the brain, which can help with learning and enhance your mood.
Some high-tyrosine foods are meat, eggs, soybeans, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
What Do Amino Acids Do for the Body?
Amino acids have different functions in the body. We’ve summed up some of their benefits below. Amino acids are helpful for:
- Building muscle
- Transporting nutrients
- Preventing illness
- Breaking down foods in the digestive system
- Muscular growth
- Tissue repair
- Improving mood and sleep
- Enhancing exercise performance
- Promoting muscle recovery
- Preventing muscle loss
Different amino acids have different benefits for your body. That’s why it’s important to consume a well-rounded diet that includes plenty of foods that are high in amino acids.
You can find many amino acid supplements, but some experts warn against increasing levels of single amino acids. It’s best to eat a balanced diet and nourish yourself holistically.