The Low-Down on Conditionally Essential Amino Acids

Conditionally essential amino acids can be made by your body under normal conditions, but cannot be produced in sufficient quantities in times of severe stress, illness, or injury. They may enter essential territory and your body might require a boost of these aminos from diet or supplementation.

Conditionally essential amino acids are amino acids that can be made by your body under normal conditions, but in times of severe stress, illness, or injury, they may enter essential territory and your body might require a boost of these aminos from diet or supplementation.

Conditionally essential amino acids include:

  1. Arginine
  2. Cysteine
  3. Glutamine
  4. Glycine
  5. Proline
  6. Serine
  7. Tyrosine

Conditionally essential amino acids

Conditionally Essential Amino Acids Benefits

Arginine: Certain catabolic conditions may necessitate dietary support of arginine. Preterm infants, for example, cannot make arginine internally. Because arginine can help increase nitric oxide production and blood flow and reduce blood pressure, arginine supplements are sometimes recommended for those with hypertension and diabetes as a way to keep arginine levels stable. Arginine plays a key role in heart health and can be useful in treating angina and circulatory diseases, as well as erectile dysfunction in men. Arginine also helps remove ammonia from the body and enhance immune function.

Cysteine: In the presence of adequate methionine, cysteine levels should remain stable in the body, but in infants, the elderly, and people dealing with metabolic or malabsorption syndromes, cysteine supplementation may be needed. Cysteine is important for protein synthesis, detoxification, collagen formation, and other diverse functions. It is abundant in beta-keratin, the main protein in nails, skin, and hair. Cysteine produces the antioxidants taurine and glutathione, which neutralize free radicals and diminish oxidative stress. Glutathione is particularly important in detoxification processes in the liver and is thought to help mitigate hangover symptoms and liver damage from alcohol consumption.

Glutamine: During injury and illness, your body may not be producing enough glutamine to help synthesize proteins and lipids and carry ammonia out of the body. Athletes swear by glutamine supplements, believing they can help speed recovery after intense workouts and keep the immune system strong. Glutamine is normally the most abundant free amino acid in the muscle, and depletion of muscle glutamine is an indicator of “overtraining syndrome.” Muscle glutamine depletion is also the hallmark of muscle wasting in critical illness. Unfortunately, consuming more glutamine may not readily reverse glutamine depletion in the muscle, since the depletion arises from a metabolic response that tends to keep glutamine out of the muscle even when supplied in your diet.

Glycine: This amino acid acts as a neurotransmitter that helps calm the central nervous system and participates in the processing of motor and sensory information that permits movement, vision, and hearing. Glycine is a glucogenic amino acid, meaning it is a precursor for the production of glucose by the liver. We need to have a constant level of glucose in the blood, as this is the energy source of the brain and even a transient dip can result in a drop in brain function. Glycine is the second most common amino acid in human proteins. In addition to its role as a major component of most proteins, glycine helps break down ingested fats by regulating the secretion of bile acids from the gall bladder into the small intestine.

Proline: Normally synthesized from the essential amino acid glutamate, proline produces proteins like cartilage and collagen. In fact, almost one-third of the amino acids in collagen are proline. In healthy bodies, proline production increases during times of soft-tissue trauma, injury, and wound healing, such as muscle or tendon recovery, severe burns, and after surgery. Proline may also help prevent arteriosclerosis and regulate blood pressure.

Serine: Glycine or threonine convert into serine, which helps produce immunoglobulins and antibodies for a strong immune system, and also aids in the absorption of creatine. Creatine is a substance made from amino acids that helps build and maintain all the muscles in the body, including the heart. Serine is needed for the metabolism of fats and fatty acids and is also an important structural component of trypsin and chymotrypsin, two major digestive enzymes needed to break down protein from foods that we eat. Cell membranes rely on serine since it forms the phospholipids needed to encase cells throughout the body. Serine is essential to both physical and mental functioning, but it is especially important for proper functioning of the brain and central nervous system. Serine is often promoted as a treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Tyrosine: Since tyrosine is made from the essential amino acid phenylalanine, if dietary phenylalanine requirements are not met, tyrosine availability is limited and may be required from food sources. Tyrosine plays a role in protein synthesis and is involved in the production of thyroid hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine that help manage stress and depression. Tyrosine is used as a safe therapy for a variety of clinical conditions including hypertension, depression, and chronic pain.

 

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EAA Supplements and Aerobic Exercise

Are there any advantages to consuming EAA supplements or BCAA supplements before aerobic exercise? EAAs are beneficial before aerobic exercise, but providing the optimal concentration of all the EAAs for muscle protein synthesis is key. The effect is limited during exercise because some EAAs are oxidized for energy.

Jogging. Swimming. Cycling. Dancing. What do all these activities have in common? They’re aerobic, which means the heart is pumping oxygen-rich blood to your working muscles. Your heart is beating faster, blood is flowing from your muscles to your lungs, and you’re producing endorphins, those feel-good hormones that naturally put you in a better mood.

But are there any advantages to consuming essential amino acid (EAA) supplements or BCAA supplements before aerobic exercise? Let’s find out!

BCAA Supplements Explained

Leucine is one of three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and it’s the most abundant essential amino acid in muscle. It promotes muscle recovery after vigorous workouts, boosts stamina and endurance, and activates the process of protein synthesis. But, unlike other essential amino acids, leucine (and its BCAA comrades isoleucine and valine) undergo oxidative degradation during aerobic exercise.

Since leucine can be used for energy during cardiovascular exercise, it may seem reasonable to supply extra leucine or BCAAs as a supplement to prevent the oxidation of BCAAs that come from muscle breakdown. Here’s where things get muddled.

When you introduce more leucine or BCAAs into the bloodstream, a greater percentage is oxidized. That’s because the body is designed to keep a balanced composition of amino acids available in the blood, so mechanisms kick in to reduce the leucine you’ve ingested.

The efficiency of the supplement is therefore considerably reduced when given before or during aerobic exercise when the metabolic pathways of BCAA oxidation are already revved up. Consequently, the supplemental leucine or BCAAs will not be available to promote muscle protein turnover.

Nonetheless, ingesting leucine or BCAAs before or during exercise will offset to some  extent the accelerated oxidation of these amino acids, as long as all the EAAs are provided. Perhaps more importantly, increasing BCAAs and phenylalanine during exercise encourages the synthesis of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine relative to the depressant neurotransmitter serotonin. This can improve mental focus and delay the perception of fatigue.

The verdict? EAAs are beneficial before aerobic exercise, but providing the optimal concentration of all the EAAs for muscle protein synthesis is key. Keep in mind, the effect will be limited during exercise because some of the EAAs consumed will be oxidized for energy.

What About After Exercise?

Now, taking an EAA supplement (one that contains all the EAAs, not just a BCAA supplement) can provide great benefit if taken the first hour after aerobic exercise.

EAAs are the key precursors for increased protein turnover. An increase in muscle protein turnover is the metabolic basis for improved muscle fiber functioning. In addition, EAAs increase the production and functioning of the mitochondria, which is the site in the cell where energy is produced. These responses can only be achieved with a formulation containing all of the EAAs, since all EAAs are present in newly synthesized protein.

While BCAAs alone are not effective, the optimal EAA formulation for post-aerobic-exercise supplementation should have a higher proportion of BCAAs in the total mixture than is represented in the composition of muscle protein in order to restore the BCAAS that were metabolized during exercise.

 

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Everything You Need to Know About Amino Acid Nutrition

To understand optimal amino acid nutrition, we must first understand the relationship between proteins and amino acids. Proteins are constructed from chains of amino acids. If just one amino acid is missing or defective or misplaced, the protein either cannot be made, or cannot function as intended.

To understand optimal amino acid nutrition, we must first understand the relationship between proteins and amino acids.

Proteins are constructed from chains of amino acids. The specific arrangement of aminos determines the type of protein and its function. If just one amino acid is missing or defective or misplaced, the protein either cannot be made, or cannot function as intended.

Fun fact: Next to water, protein makes up the largest proportion of the human body!

Some proteins your body makes, and others your body needs from food sources. Essential amino acids are the components of dietary protein (like chicken, seafood, and poultry) that make protein building possible. For this reason, essential amino acids are the only macronutrient required for survival. So, you don’t want to skimp on protein in your diet!

How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. If you are breastfeeding, then the RDA is 20 grams more to facilitate milk production, and, if you are older, then the RDA is 1 to 1.5 grams of protein.

Use this handy online calculator from the USDA to calculate your minimal protein requirements.

What’s the Best Protein to Eat?

Dietary protein, particularly in the form of organic and grass-fed meat, is the best protein to eat. Industrially-raised meat is loaded with antibiotics and hormones linked to health risks. And processed meat is packed with sugar. Stick with high-quality sources of fish, shellfish, lean meats such as chicken and turkey, beans, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and dairy (raw milk is preferable).

amino acid nutrition

Amino Acid Supplements

Can you meet your MINIMUM amino acid requirements by eating a well-balanced diet? Yes, you can.

If that’s the case, are amino acid supplements necessary in amino acid nutrition? ABSOLUTELY!

That’s because an amino supplement can provide benefits that even the highest quality dietary proteins cannot. Clinical trials have shown that essential amino acid supplements can enhance muscle strength and mass, control plasma lipid levels, reduce liver fat, and speed recovery from serious injury or surgery.

Rather than subsisting on protein powders, many of which are loaded with carbs and added sugars, I recommend supplementing with an amino acid complex that’s low calorie and specifically formulated to address your amino acid requirements. On a gram-for-gram basis, essential amino acids are at least 3 times as effective as whey protein when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Essential amino acids from a supplement are absorbed quicker and more completely, and thus reach higher peak concentrations, than when intact protein is consumed.

Amino acid supplements can be formulated to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis according to specific circumstances, and without unnecessary caloric intake. You can get the beneficial effects in a 4-gram dose…that’s just 16 calories!

Compare this to the calorie consequence of dietary protein—100 calories (5 times more calories than an amino supplement!). Plus, 50% or more of the calories from dietary protein come from carbs and fat and nonessential amino acids that don’t really contribute to protein synthesis.

An appropriately formulated amino acid supplement also helps maintain the optimal balance of available amino acids in the blood. Blood amino acids are critical for producing neurotransmitters, boosting immune function, and improving plasma lipid profiles.

The Best Amino Acid Supplements

Many amino acid supplements on the market are missing the crucial element: all essential amino acids need to be present in their optimal amounts. If an amino acid supplement only contains a few aminos, such as popular BCAA supplements touted for muscle building, then they will have little effect on protein synthesis. In order to synthesize complete protein, all the essential amino acids need to be accounted for.

I’m a big fan of Amyno amino acids. Amyno’s premium amino acid blends are uniquely designed to increase muscle mass and/or strength by stimulating muscle protein synthesis and increasing muscle energy. When foraging for the best amino acid supplement for your needs, check labels carefully to make sure you are benefiting from pure amino acids. Your body will thank you.

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The Essentials of Nonessential Amino Acids

The human body can make nonessential amino acids, so they aren’t essential to our diets, but they are essential to our health. The 11 nonessential amino acids can be resynthesized to build new proteins as needed by the body. They also help produce glucose for use as energy and fatty acids for storing excess calories.

Amino acids are organic compounds that are the building blocks of our body proteins and help regulate many critical roles in the body, from nitrogen balance to the urea cycle. Amino acids can be grouped into three primary categories: essential amino acids (you need to ingest them via food or supplements to satisfy your body’s needs), nonessential amino acids (made in-house by the body), and conditional amino acids (increased intake required during times of stress).

The human body can make nonessential amino acids, so they aren’t essential to our diets, but they are essential to our health. Like essential amino acids, nonessential amino acids can be resynthesized to build new proteins in your body as your cells dictate. They help produce glucose for use as energy and fatty acids for storing excess calories.

There are 11 standard nonessential amino acids:

  1. Alanine
  2. Arginine
  3. Asparagine
  4. Aspartic Acid
  5. Cysteine
  6. Glutamic Acid
  7. Glutamine
  8. Glycine
  9. Proline
  10. Serine
  11. Tyrosine

The 9 essential amino acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the functions and benefits of the nonessential amino acids.

How Your Body Makes Nonessential Amino Acids

Nonessential amino acids are produced via various metabolic processes. For instance, the chemical process of burning ingested carbohydrates for fuel produces molecules that are used to create nonessential amino acids.

Nonessential amino acids can also be made from other amino acids. For example, the essential amino acid phenylalanine is a precursor of the nonessential amino acid, tyrosine.

Due to the unique ability of the body to generate nonessential acids, you don’t have to worry about getting enough in your diet. Simply consume adequate protein and carbohydrates and you’ll have an ample supply of nonessential amino acids for red blood cell formation, hormone production, tissue growth and repair, and dependable immune function.

However, of the 11 nonessential amino acids, 7 can become conditional essential acids during times of stress and illness, when your body is unable to produce a sufficient supply. When battling an illness or under increased stress, you’ll want to increase consumption of one or more of the following amino acids according to your health care provider’s guidance:

  1. Arginine
  2. Cysteine
  3. Glutamine
  4. Glycine
  5. Proline
  6. Serine
  7. Tyrosine

The Essentials of Nonessential Amino Acids

Nonessential Amino Acid Benefits

Let’s get to know our nonessential amino acids and their functions a bit better, shall we?

Alanine

This nonessential amino is the smallest amino acid in humans and is readily synthesized in the body. When muscle protein breaks down, as it’s apt to do during intense exercise, it releases toxic substances. Alanine helps clear these toxins so that the liver is able to metabolize and eliminate them.

Alanine also helps keep blood glucose levels under control and may help regulate cholesterol levels. An important source of energy for muscles and for the central nervous system, alanine is second only to glutamine in the amount circulating in the blood.

In addition, alanine helps to produce lymphocytes, which are cells in lymph fluid and the bloodstream that are involved in immune function.

Arginine

Best known for its role as a precursor for nitric oxide, arginine can help lower blood pressure and boost erectile dysfunction in men. In addition to relaxing blood vessels, arginine can help accelerate wound healing, detoxify the kidneys, maintain hormone balance, and keep the immune system strong.

Asparagine

One of the most important amino acids for neuron (brain cell) development, asparagine maintains balance in the central nervous system.

Asparagine is a component of many proteins, including glycoproteins. Glycoproteins are specialized structures that not only provide structural support to cells, but also help build connective tissues and expedite digestion by generating secretions and mucous in the gastrointestinal tract.

Aspartic Acid

This excitatory neurotransmitter plays an important role in the synthesis of other amino acids (including 4 essentials: methionine, threonine, isoleucine, and lysine) and in metabolic reactions involved in energy production (the citric acid cycle) and the production of urea. Aspartic acid (the ionic form is known as aspartate) is a part of the chemical structure of the active part of many enzymes. Enzymes are specialized proteins that play a role in enabling chemical reactions to occur in the body.

Cysteine

This sulfur-containing nonessential amino is abundant in beta-keratin, the main protein in nails, skin, and hair, and helps stimulate collagen production. Collagen protein is a major component of the skin and connective tissue and helps to maintain elasticity and texture.

Cysteine is also required in the production of taurine, a sulfur-containing antioxidant that influences cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function.

One of the most important roles of cysteine is that it is a component of the antioxidant glutathione, which is used throughout the body to neutralize free radicals and diminish oxidative stress. Glutathione is particularly important in detoxification processes in the liver.

Glutamic Acid

Otherwise known as glutamate, glutamic acid is the most common excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It serves as an energy source for brain cells and plays a critical role in brain metabolism. In the brain, glutamate can regulate ammonia levels by taking up nitrogen in its conversion to glutamine, another amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter. Glutamate serves the same function in the periphery, taking up ammonia and then carrying it via the blood back to the liver for ultimate conversion to urea, which is then excreted.

Glutamic acid is also important in the synthesis of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has the opposite effect of glutamic acid and helps to decrease activity within the central nervous system.

Glutamine

Like cysteine, glutamine is a precursor for the antioxidant glutathione, which fights off free radical damage that causes premature aging and disease. Glutamine is the most plentiful amino acid in the blood, and helps promote proper digestion, brain function, and immune health. It is the principal carrier of nitrogen in the body and is an important energy source for many cells. Like arginine, dietary glutamine may become a conditional essential amino acid during certain stressful states.

Glycine

A principal component of collagen production (it makes up one-third of collagen), glycine helps promote wound healing. It also supplies glucose for the body to use as energy, and plays vital roles in proper cell growth and function, as well as digestive health. Glycine helps break down ingested fats by regulating the secretion of bile acids from the gallbladder into the small intestine.

Glycine also acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps process motor and sensory information that permits movement, vision, and hearing.

Proline

Almost one-third of the amino acids in collagen are proline, making this nonessential amino acid incredibly essential to tissue repair and skin regeneration. Your body revs up its production of proline whenever there is damage to soft-tissue, an injury, or subsequent wound healing.

Proline also helps prevent arteriosclerosis and regulate blood pressure by encouraging the walls of the arteries to release fat buildup into the blood, thereby reducing the risk of blockage. By decreasing the pressure built up by these blockages, proline helps lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease.

Serine

A precursor for the amino acid tryptophan, which, in turn, produces the mood hormone serotonin, serine is imperative to both physical and mental functioning, particularly cognitive processing and central nervous system equilibrium. If your body cannot produce enough serotonin, you may be prone to anxiety, depression, confusion, and insomnia.

Serine is also crucial to muscle formation, immune health, and fat metabolism.

Tyrosine

Made from the essential amino acid phenylalanine, tyrosine depends upon dietary phenylalanine requirements being met.

Tyrosine is a key player in protein synthesis, as well as the production of thyroid hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters play a vital role in the nervous system and in the management of stress and depression.

Tyrosine is used as a safe therapy for a variety of clinical conditions including hypertension, depression, and chronic pain.

Give Your Body a Helping Hand

While your dietary focus should center on eating foods rich in the essential amino acids, you don’t want to disregard foods concentrated with nonessential amino acids either. Thankfully the source of one category of amino acids is the source of all three—a variety of animal and plant-based proteins!

The Role of Muscle in Health and Disease

The role of muscle in health includes regulating blood amino acid and glucose levels, supporting bone health, and increasing survival. Muscle also plays a central role in amino acid and protein metabolism in the body. In fact, muscle can be considered a reservoir of amino acids!

I speak from personal experience when I say that most people think of muscle only in regards to physical activity, regardless of age or health. I remember telling my 95-year-old mother several years ago about an article I was writing titled “The Underappreciated Role of Muscle in Health and Disease” in which I reviewed the central role that skeletal muscle plays in the regulation of metabolism in the body, the support of bone health, greater survival in the case of heart failure and cancer, and even psychological benefit. I explained my work with essential amino acids and how they can help in her daily life by strengthening muscle and improving its functions. She listened very politely, but ultimately said, “What do I need muscle for? I’m just playing bridge all day. I don’t need to be strong for that.”

My experience with many, many more people since then is that most only think of physical performance when thinking about the importance of muscle. How about we take some time to recognize muscle for more than just brute strength?

The Many Roles of Muscle

Muscle plays a central role in amino acid and protein metabolism in the body. Crucial tissues and organs (e.g., heart, brain, skin) need a constant supply of amino acids to produce enough new protein to maintain organ and tissue functionality. However, there are normally many hours throughout the day when we are not eating protein/amino acids. During those times between meals, muscle serves as the reservoir of amino acids for the rest of the body to maintain normal concentrations of blood amino acids.

Here’s how it works: the breakdown of muscle protein between meals releases amino acids into the blood that can be taken up by other tissues and organs. Muscle protein is then built back up when dietary protein and/or amino acids are consumed and absorbed into the body in a process called muscle protein synthesis. This balance between protein synthesis and protein degradation is called muscle protein turnover, and whole-body protein metabolism is a measure of this in aggregate throughout the entire body.

The role of muscle as a principal reservoir to maintain normal blood amino acid levels in the absence of dietary intake is necessary for survival. Muscle tissue plays a variety of other metabolic functions in addition to maintaining normal amino acid levels, including regulating blood glucose concentration, supporting bone health, increasing lifespan, and improving outcomes from chronic diseases.

The Role of Muscle in Health and Disease

Muscle Helps Regulate Blood Sugar Levels

Type 2 diabetes occurs when muscle function is not optimal.

Under normal conditions, muscle plays a key role in regulating the blood concentration of glucose, as well as that of amino acids. Glucose is commonly called blood sugar. When all is functioning properly, the brain relies entirely on glucose from the blood for energy. A drop in blood glucose concentration can cause loss of consciousness and even death. In contrast, an increase in glucose concentration in the blood is responsible for many of the adverse effects of diabetes.

To understand how healthy muscle can help keep us diabetes free, we must first examine how glucose is processed in the body. All dietary carbohydrates are ultimately converted to glucose in order to be metabolized in the body. After you eat carbohydrates, your blood glucose level increases. The magnitude of this increase is moderated by the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin sets in motion the uptake of glucose by various tissues, most prominently muscle. Once in the muscle cell, glucose may either be converted to a chemical form of energy or stored as glycogen for later use during exercise when energy requirements are elevated in order to fuel the contraction of muscle.

Now, that’s all assuming your body is responding to insulin properly. If your body’s cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, then your pancreas pumps out more insulin to try to compensate. Eventually the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to satisfy the body’s needs, and blood sugar increases. This condition is termed insulin resistance, and it can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease if not managed. When you have diabetes, insulin no longer stimulates the clearance of glucose from the blood.

Muscle metabolism not only helps blunt the magnitude of increases in blood glucose after meals, but also helps prevent decreases in blood glucose levels between meals that could impair brain function. You see, some of the amino acids released from muscle in the post-absorptive state (between meals) become precursors for the production of glucose in the absence of dietary carbohydrate. Thus, healthy muscle helps regulate the concentration of glucose in the blood. This is imperative for the prevention of diabetes, as well as health problems caused by hypoglycemia (low blood glucose levels).

Muscle Supports Bone Health

Then there is muscle’s influence on bone to consider. Any muscle contraction, such as squeezing your muscles on a bicep curl, exerts mechanical force on bone, which is essential for bone strength and mass. It is difficult to distinguish the potential role of muscle on bone from other factors, since the amount of dietary protein, insulin growth factor, and testosterone that affect bone also directly affect muscle. We do know that weight-bearing exercises serve to increase not only muscle strength but also bone strength, and even obesity or a high body weight strengthens bone by providing a direct mechanical force via increased fat mass. Prevention of bone loss due to aging (osteoporosis) is highly dependent on the maintenance of adequate muscle mass and function.

Muscle Increases Your Likelihood of Survival

Muscle mass is also associated with improved health outcomes and increased lifespan in a number of serious conditions.

Cancer is the most well-documented clinical state in which survival is directly linked to the maintenance of muscle mass. Cancer is associated with a rapid loss of muscle mass and strength at a rate faster than would normally occur because of decreased protein intake, called cancer cachexia. This is a classic example of the catabolic state. Survival from a variety of cancers is directly related to how well muscle mass is maintained. How muscle exerts this effect will be looked at in future studies, but one aspect seems to be muscle’s ability to withstand the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The all-cause morbidity and mortality due to adverse cardiovascular events (heart attacks, stroke) are also worse in individuals with depleted muscle mass. Interestingly, the loss of muscle strength is even more strongly related to mortality than the amount of muscle mass. Survival from other serious diseases, such as chronic obstructive lung disease and heart failure, is also better in individuals with greater muscle mass.

Maintaining Your Muscle

According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2011–2012, 5% of American adults 60 years or older had weak muscle strength, 13% had intermediate muscle strength, and 82% had normal muscle strength. The percentage of Americans with weak and intermediate muscle strength rose with age, while the percentage of those with normal muscle strength decreased with age. The only way to stop this trend is to implement optimal lifestyle behaviors to help maintain muscle as you age.

Making sure you eat right, and that includes upping your protein intake, and sticking with a consistent exercise program can vastly improve muscle health as you age. Exercise helps keep your muscles strong and even restores muscle function and muscle mass. And optimal nutrition—a diet abundant in vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy (if you’re tolerant)—provides the foundation for maximal muscle health. An essential amino acid supplement can help shore up any protein deficiencies and make sure your muscles are getting the building blocks they need to keep you shielded from muscle loss and disease.

The 9 Essential Amino Acids and Why We Need Them

Your body can make many amino acids on its own, but there are 9 essential amino acids you need to eat! Your body uses these amino acids to build the proteins that make up your tissues and organs and regulate the vast majority of physiological functions. Let’s cover them one by one.

Your body uses amino acids to build the proteins that make up your tissues and organs and regulate the vast majority of physiological functions. Many of these amino acids the body produces on its own, but there are 9 essential amino acids that the body cannot make. Your body depends on YOU to feed it these critical nutrients via diet and supplementation.

How Many Essential Amino Acids Are There?

The 9 essential amino acids are:

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

Don’t be confused if you’ve heard there were just 8 essential amino acids. Experts used to think infants were the only humans that couldn’t make histidine in the body. Modern research shows that adults also rely upon dietary sources of this amino acid, making it 9th on the list. Some sources cite 10 essential amino acids, listing arginine as the final player. I like to classify arginine as a conditionally essential amino acid, which means it’s necessary to get this amino acid from your diet under certain conditions, such as times of illness. Premature infants likewise need arginine because they cannot yet make their own. Let’s briefly summarize what each of the 9 essential amino acids do in your body.

What Do Essential Amino Acids Do?

  1. Histidine: Children require dietary sources of histidine, while adults can produce some histidine but not enough to meet requirements. Histidine is involved in the synthesis of hemoglobin, tissue repair, and the strengthening of the immune system. In the central nervous system, it helps maintain myelin sheaths that protect nerve cells. Histidine is also metabolized to the neurotransmitter histamine, which influences immunity, gastric function, and sexual function. You don’t want to take an anti-histamine before a romantic interlude!
  2. Isoleucine: The second of three branched-chain amino acids, isoleucine is a vital component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen. We need isoleucine for proper blood clotting, muscle repair, and blood sugar regulation, so we can recover faster from strenuous exercise.
  3. Leucine: One of three branched-chain amino acids, leucine is the most abundant essential amino acid in muscle. It promotes muscle recovery after vigorous workouts and enhances stamina and endurance. Leucine also acts as a signal to activate various cellular functions, including initiating the process of protein synthesis.
  4. Lysine: Like all the other essential amino acids, lysine is needed to make new body proteins, but it is also a critical agent in the intestinal absorption of calcium. Lysine is a standout nutrient for the immune system because it helps produce antibodies and has important antiviral properties. As a nutritional supplement, lysine seems to be active against herpes simplex viruses (HSV). While lysine is abundant in many animal proteins (red meats, fish, and dairy products), it is typically the limiting amino acid in plant proteins. Vegetarians and especially vegans must be diligent in choosing proteins or opt for supplements to ensure adequate lysine intake.
  5. Methionine: This sulfur-containing amino acid is a safe dietary approach to ensure adequate sulfur intake. Methionine occupies a unique position among the essential amino acids, because without it, the synthesis of protein never gets started. Methionine also promotes the formation of collagen and cartilage tissue, and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic properties. Methionine is essential for the absorption and bio-availability of selenium and zinc, aids in detoxification and excretion of chemicals such as lead and mercury, and helps the liver metabolize fats.
  6. Phenylalanine: Important in the structure and function of many proteins and enzymes, phenylalanine is also a precursor of another amino acid, tyrosine. Tyrosine is converted into a number of brain chemicals that affect mood, focus, and other facets of cognitive function, so different forms of phenylalanine have been proposed to treat mood disorders, stress, anxiety, and pain.
  7. Threonine: This blood-sugar-regulating amino acid helps keep connective tissues and muscles throughout the body strong and elastic. Threonine also builds robust bones and tooth enamel, and may speed wound healing or recovery from injury. Threonine plays an important role in fat metabolism and prevents fat accumulation in the liver.
  8. Tryptophan: Tryptophan is necessary for normal growth in infants and for maintaining a balance between protein synthesis and breakdown in adults. Tryptophan is widely recognized as a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin; hence, its use as an antidepressant and sleep aid.
  9. Valine: The third branched-chain amino acid, valine assists in tissue repair, muscle metabolism, and blood sugar control. It also helps regulate nitrogen balance and determine the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

 

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What Do Amino Acids Do? Their Role in the Human Body

The main role of amino acids in the human body is as components of body proteins, but amino acids serve many additional functions. Certain amino acids serve as neurotransmitters. Others play a direct part in the regulation of blood flow and blood pressure. Amino acids also support immune function and detoxification!

We’ve all heard of amino acids, and most of us have probably even heard the term “essential amino acids” before. But how many of us have ever stopped to ask ourselves, what do amino acids do?

The term “amino acids” refers to a class of simple organic compounds whose members contain at least one amino group (–NH2) and one carboxyl group (–COOH). The word “amino” is a direct reference to the nitrogen (N) atom contained in the molecule. As such, the presence of nitrogen can be considered the defining characteristic of amino acids.

You may recall learning about the building blocks of protein in your high school biology class. But that’s actually a very accurate description of the role amino acids play in the body. Without them, protein would not be created and we would not be here discussing this topic at all.

But how exactly is this feat of protein synthesis accomplished?

Protein Synthesis (and Breakdown)

Your body uses amino acids in a number of different ways, but amino acids are most closely associated with the process of protein synthesis, whereby our cells generate new proteins.

There are actually more than 300 common amino acids, but only 20 of these are incorporated into body proteins. And of these 20 different amino acids, 9 are considered essential because they are not synthesized in the body and must be obtained through dietary sources.

Proteins are actually made up of long chains of amino acids. And even though 20 amino acids may not seem like very many, the body can actually put these 20 amino acids together in seemingly endless combinations, creating literally thousands of different proteins.

In fact, amino acids are so important that essential amino acids (EAAs) are the only dietary macronutrients (nutrients required in large amounts) that must be consumed for survival.

Let that bit of information just sink in for a moment.

Believe it or not, after infancy, we can survive without any carbohydrates at all for the rest of our lives, and we can last 6 months or more without any fats. But our bodies don’t have the ability to store proteins. And since our cells need proteins to function, without amino acids, we wouldn’t survive for long.

Because the body needs proteins to function, these same proteins will eventually be broken down as they’re used by the cells. Amino acids thus play a further role in maintaining the balance between this breakdown and synthesis of new proteins.

Here’s how this process works.

In the process of protein breakdown, amino acids are released. These amino acids can then become precursors for the synthesis of new proteins. However, some of the amino acids released as byproducts of protein breakdown will be irreversibly oxidized (chemically combined with oxygen), making them unavailable for reincorporation into new proteins.

Nonessential amino acids (NEAAs) help produce new proteins so that the rates of protein breakdown and synthesis remain balanced. These particular amino acids are produced by the body, so we don’t need to obtain them through dietary sources.

Most dietary proteins are also composed of at least 50% to 60% NEAAs, so in most circumstances, we consume more than enough NEAAs through the food we eat.

By contrast, EAAs can only be obtained from the diet. So, if our diets are lacking in plenty of healthy whole foods, unless we’re supplementing with a high-quality amino acid program for nutritive support, we probably won’t be getting enough EAAs.

And this will result in a progressive loss of protein because the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown will be lost, with the rate of breakdown outpacing the rate of synthesis.

To avoid this imbalance and ensure our bodies have access to a steady supply of EAAs, we need to be sure we’re including plenty of protein sources in our diets. Some great sources of EAAs include:

Meat Quinoa Lentils
Poultry Pumpkin seeds Beans
Eggs Whole grains Nuts
Dairy products Tofu Seeds

Amino Acids and Muscles

If we’re not giving our bodies the fuel they crave, one of the first areas we may notice the imbalance is in our muscles.

In other words, without the amino acids the body needs for muscle tissue growth, maintenance, and repair, muscle mass will be lost and exercise performance—and even basic functioning—will suffer.

Let’s break this down and see why amino acids are so important for muscle health.

Muscle Growth and Repair

As we stated earlier, if the balance between protein synthesis and breakdown is tilted in favor of protein breakdown, the amount of protein in the body will decrease.

For muscles, less protein being synthesized means less muscle growth and more muscle breakdown.

Muscles are also the main reservoir of amino acids in the body. If the daily intake of amino acids can’t keep up with the demands of protein synthesis, your muscles will actually release some of their amino acids for use by other parts of the body.

Over time, this emphasis on protein turnover instead of protein synthesis can have implications for everything from exercise performance to maintenance of activities of daily living.

To correct this imbalance and, indeed, shift the focus heavily toward muscle protein synthesis, the world of bodybuilders and endurance athletes has long been interested in the benefits of branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs.

The BCAAs—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are touted by fitness junkies for their ability to preserve muscle stores of glycogen (the primary fuel used by muscles during exercise), minimize protein breakdown during exercise, and reduce post-workout muscle soreness and muscle recovery.

On the face of it, that does sound great.

However, as we’ve learned, muscle protein synthesis involves all 20 amino acids working together—linking together—in specific ways to build the protein our bodies need.

If any single EAA is in short supply, protein synthesis will stop as soon as we’ve exhausted its supply. The amino acid in shortest supply during protein synthesis is therefore known as the limiting amino acid.

Making a complete protein requires sufficient quantities of each of the 20 amino acids. Therefore, there is no single best amino acid or group of amino acids for both muscle growth and muscle repair, as the body needs all of them to produce protein.

However, balanced formulations of essential amino acid supplements that emphasize specific amino acids to target specific areas can be helpful.

Amino Acids for Complete Health and Wellness

With all this focus on protein synthesis, we may have given you the impression that that’s all amino acids do. But that would be far from the truth.

In fact, amino acids are involved in an array of processes that go far beyond their role as building blocks of proteins.

For example, certain amino acids serve as neurotransmitters or precursors for the production of other neurotransmitters, and thus help balance our moods and minds.

Amino acids also play a direct role in the regulation of blood flow and blood pressure and the production of nitric oxide—a potent vasodilator affecting everything from cardiovascular to brain health.

In addition, amino acids support immune function, serve as antioxidants, and promote detoxification of harmful substances in the liver.

As you can see, there are many benefits of amino acids, from building muscle to regulating blood flow to detoxifying the body. So, if somebody ever asks you, what do amino acids do? don’t be shy. You now have an answer for them.

What Are Amino Acids?

We’re answering the question, what are amino acids? Protein is needed for pretty much every biological process in our bodies. We absolutely cannot live without it. Because amino acids make up protein, they’ve earned the prestigious title “the building blocks of life.”

Amino acids are simple organic compounds that contain a carboxyl (-COOH) and an amino (-NH2) group and link together to form protein. Protein is needed for pretty much every biological process in our bodies. We absolutely cannot live without it. Because amino acids make up protein, they’ve earned the prestigious title “the building blocks of life.”

Amino Acids Benefits

Amino acids are involved in virtually every aspect of life—from building muscle and life-supporting tissues…to making the chemicals necessary for our brain and vital organs to properly function. Amino acids are also the primary ingredients of most of the biochemical components in our blood and cells. Beyond serving as the building blocks for all-important proteins, amino acids are in and of themselves important signalling factors and intermediaries in many metabolic pathways. Let’s take a look at how amino acids work in conjunction with proteins in our bodies.

Functions of Protein

Protein is the material that gives structure and strength to the muscles, tendons, tissues, and organs in our bodies. Protein activates most of the chemical reactions that occur in our cells. Protein helps carry crucial substances into and out of cells. Some proteins act as antibodies that help protect us against disease and viruses. Others are hormones that influence mood, energy levels, and libido. Proteins act as control switches for gene expression, determining which genes get turned on and off. And protein is needed to help heal wounds, repair tissue, and remove waste products produced during metabolism.

Amino acids are the foundation of it all. One molecule of protein can be made up of 100 to 1,000 amino acids linked together in what’s called a peptide linkage. The specific sequence of amino acids determines the type of protein produced.

What Happens to the Protein You Eat?

Your body cannot absorb protein in its ingested form. Instead, it sends enzymes in your stomach and small intestine to break down the protein you’ve eaten into individual amino acids. These amino acids are able to pass through the intestinal walls and travel through the bloodstream to the liver, where they are processed and transported back to the blood, lymph, and cells. Here, the individual amino acids can be reordered and built into proteins your body can use as needed.

Protein is also made as a result of chemical reactions that occur in your body. When cells metabolize they produce by-products. These by-products can be broken down into amino acids that can then be used to synthesize protein.

Types of Amino Acids

There are three groups of amino acids:

  1. Essential Amino Acids
  2. Conditionally Essential Amino Acids
  3. Nonessential Amino Acids

Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and they are the only macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbohydrates, and fat) that are absolutely required in our diet. We must obtain essential amino acids from food sources or supplements since we do not have the ability to make them.

Conditionally essential amino acids are amino acids that are not normally required in the diet, but that cannot be produced in sufficient quantities in some circumstances. For example, arginine, tyrosine, and glutamine can be conditionally essential in certain physiological circumstances, such as serious illness.

Nonessential amino acids can be made by the body. Most dietary proteins are composed of at least 50-60% nonessential amino acids, so in most circumstances, we consume more than adequate amounts of the nonessential aminos.

Regardless of whether an amino acid is an essential or a nonessential, each amino acid is important as a precursor for protein synthesis, meaning the amino acid helps stimulate the production of new proteins.

Keep exploring our articles, because I have much more amino acid knowledge to share!

 

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