If you’ve spent any time researching nutrition, diets, or wellness, then you’ve likely at least heard of amino acids before. These organic compounds are sometimes referred to as the building blocks of life, and it’s generally considered a good thing to incorporate them into your diet, but what exactly are amino acids?
Keep reading to learn more about amino acids and how they can help you stay healthy.
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are organic molecules made up of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and a variable side chain group that gives each amino acid its unique characteristics.
Most commonly, when you see reference to amino acids, it’s a shorthand for alpha amino acids. The alpha in alpha amino acid is a way of indicating which carbon atom the amino group connects to. These kinds of amino acids have the most metabolic significance in our body, as they are the amino acids that combine to form proteins. For this reason, they are also sometimes referred to as proteinogenic amino acids.
While these types of amino acids are generally considered the most important amino acids, non-proteinogenic amino acids like GABA, and analogs of proteinogenic amino acids like L-Theanine, can still have health benefits when taken supplementally or consumed in food.
In all known life, there are only 20 different proteinogenic amino acids in the standard genetic code. We can break these 20 amino acids into two separate groups: essential and nonessential.
What Are Essential Amino Acids?
Essential amino acids are amino acids that the human body doesn’t produce naturally. We know of a total of nine essential acids:
- Histidine: Histidine produces the compound histamine, which plays a huge role in immune response, as well as in sexual function and digestion.
- Lysine: Lysine helps the body absorb calcium and produce energy.
- Isoleucine: Isoleucine is concentrated primarily in muscle tissue, and plays a large role in muscle metabolism.
- Leucine: Leucine helps regulate blood sugar, produces growth hormones, and stimulates the body’s natural healing process.
- Methionine: Methionine helps our body absorb essential minerals.
- Tryptophan: Tryptophan is most well-known as the chemical in turkey that makes us sleepy, but it also helps maintain nitrogen balance and is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Threonine: Threonine is essential to the body’s production of connective tissues like collagen and elastin.
- Valine: Similar to lysine, valine plays a role in energy production. Additionally, it also stimulates muscle growth.
- Phenylalanine: Phenylalanine is a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
Because our bodies don’t naturally produce essential amino acids, diet and supplements are the only way to obtain them.
What Are Nonessential Amino Acids?
Nonessential amino acids are amino acids that, unlike essential amino acids, our bodies produce naturally. These include:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
What Are Amino Acids Good For?
We call amino acids the building blocks of life for good reason. These tiny organic compounds play a huge role in so many life-sustaining functions. Some benefits of increasing amino acid intake include:
- Increased Energy Production: Amino acids help fuel our bodies and give us the necessary energy to get through a long workday or grueling exercise session.
- Improved Mood: Eating a tryptophan-rich diet, or taking tryptophan supplements, may increase serotonin levels, helping combat mood disorders like depression.
- Better Exercise Performance:Studies suggest supplementing with amino acids can help athletes improve performance and reduce muscle soreness.
- Supporting Your Immune System: Without a proper amount of amino acids in our body, our immune systems become less effective at fighting off viruses and infections.
- Muscle Loss Prevention: Being bedridden can result in muscle loss, but studies suggest that amino acid supplementation can help preserve muscle protein synthesis during long periods of inactivity.
- Blood Glucose Levels: Early clinical trials suggest that some people with type II diabetes can lower their blood sugar without impacting insulin levels by taking amino acid supplements.
Amino Acid Supplement Benefits
Amino acids are most commonly found in meat-based proteins; however, switching to a heavy protein diet isn’t always feasible. With amino acid supplements, people can glean the benefits of amino acids without having to compromise dietary restrictions. Additionally, amino acid supplements can be used in conjunction with alterations in diet to maximize benefits.
Always consult your physician before starting a new supplement regimen.