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Amino Acids: What are They and Why Do We Need Them?

More commonly known as the “building blocks” of proteins, amino acids play a crucial role in the human body. They are a group of 20 organic compounds that also act as intermediates in metabolism and are something your body needs to grow and function properly.

What do amino acids do?

Amino acids are essential for the human body, as they help it break down food and repair body tissue. The body also uses them as sources of energy. In addition to that, amino acids produce enzymes in our bodies that facilitate the various chemical reactions while also transporting essential nutrients through our blood to different parts of the body.

Types of amino acids

Amino acids can be divided into three major categories, namely, Essential, Nonessential, and Conditional. Consuming a balanced diet will help one maintain adequate amounts of amino acids in the body.

1. Essential amino acids

An essential amino acid, or indispensable amino acid, is an organic compound made up of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Our body is incapable of synthesizing essential amino acids. Therefore, they have to be obtained by external sources like food and supplementation.

The nine amino acids the human body cannot synthesize are:

  • Lysine

  • Tryptophan

  • Methionine

  • Phenylalanine

  • Threonine

  • Histidine

  • Valine

  • Leucine

  • Isoleucine

2. Nonessential amino acid

Unlike essential amino acids, nonessential amino acids (or “dispensable amino acids”) are naturally produced by our bodies throughout the day.

Here are six amino acids that can be synthesized in sufficient quantities in the body:

  • Alanine

  • Asparagine

  • Aspartic acid

  • Glutamic acid

  • Serine

  • Selenocysteine

3. Conditional amino acids

Conditional amino acids are synthesized only under special pathophysiological conditions, especially when our body is dealing with stress or is fighting off an illness.

The six different conditional amino acids are:

  • Arginine

  • Cysteine

  • Glycine

  • Glutamine

  • Tyrosine

  • Proline

Health benefits of amino acids

Intake of amino acids through food or supplementation comes with a laundry list of health benefits. Some of the common benefits and uses include:

1. Amino acids can control stress.

Amino acids, such as L-theanine and L-tyrosine, help reduce stress and promote relaxation. You might have heard how a hot cup of tea relaxes an anxious person, inducing a sense of calm. Well, there is a scientific reason behind that. Tea has large quantities of L-theanine, which increases relaxation along with controlling the heart rate.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that L-theanine relieves anxiety in patients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

Moreover, when the brain’s norepinephrine runs low, it has negative impacts on cognition, memory, and focus. This depletion of norepinephrine happens when someone is stressed out. In this case, consuming L-tyrosine can help one improve focus and prevent the brain from getting burned out.

2. Amino acids boost immune system.

Our immune system safeguards us from many potentially deadly infections and diseases. A weaker immune system is prone to catching infections more frequently. Thus, it is important to take good care of the immune system.

Amino acids, like L-Glutamine and L-theanine, help maintain a healthy immune system, improving the body’s power to fight the surrounding bacteria and viruses.

L-theanine can enhance immunity by regulating the secretion of immune cytokines, as revealed in a 2016 study published in The Medical Science Monitor. It also reduces the inflammatory proteins which are associated with a troubled immune system. Besides, it helps strengthen the immune system of patients with rheumatoid arthritis while saving people from the common cold and flu.

On the other hand, L-glutamine also boosts the immune system as it is a fuel source for immune cells. The immune system, thus, is unable to function properly where there is a deficiency of L-Glutamine.

3. Amino acids improve muscle growth.

L-leucine is an essential amino acid that stimulates protein synthesis to build muscles. As it is an essential amino acid, it cannot be naturally produced by the body and is, thus, acquired from external dietary sources.

Protein synthesis is crucial if one is trying to build muscles or preventing muscle loss. The role of amino acids is that they directly boost this process of protein synthesis. A 2008 study shows that L-leucine can activate the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a protein that is responsible for protein synthesis. This activation is pivotal for the enlargement of the skeletal muscle.

L-Carnitine is another amino acid responsible for muscle growth. L-Carnitine is made up of two amino acids, lysine, and methionine. It is referred to as the “fat burner” as it is responsible for transporting fat to cells to be used for energy.

Athletes consume L-Carnitine to enhance muscle recovery and increase endurance. With L-Carnitine supplements, they witnessed a significant boost in their performance.

4. Amino acids improve intestinal health.

Glutamine is the most involved amino acid in a body’s metabolic processes than any other amino acid. When our body is running low on glucose, it turns to Glutamine for help, converting it into glucose.

Glutamine is also the source of fuel for cells lining the intestines. There is an increased demand for Glutamine in metabolically-stressed individuals, especially people suffering from diseases like sepsis and chronic bowel disease. Glutamine supplements help these people recover from such diseases.

Glutamine is necessary to maintain gut villi as it acts as a shield, preventing bacteria from entering the small intestine and bowel wall. It regulates cell proliferation and preserves the gut barrier functions.

Signs of amino acid deficiency

Now that you know the significance of amino acids in stimulating the body’s normal functioning, you would understand that its deficiency can give birth to many diseases.

Given below are the telltale signs that you might be amino acid-deficient and need to up your intake.

  • Constant fatigue

  • Inability to focus

  • Memory loss

  • Sluggish illness recovery

  • Depression

  • Oversleeping

  • Craving unhealthy foods

These “building blocks” have infinite benefits, and they enhance the routine functions of our body. To avoid the illnesses yielded by the absence of amino acids, we should consume the recommended dosage on a daily basis. Including amino acid-rich foods like eggs, quinoa, fish, turkey, and beans, along with supplementation, can save one from its deficiency.

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