For the human body, protein is huge. As the second largest component of our bodies after water, protein can only be made in the presence of amino acids. Known as the building blocks of the body, amino acids play a critical role in the metabolic processes that handle growth, storage, transportation, and function, directly affecting our vital organs, muscles, digestive tract, blood, and brain. What are amino acids, exactly?
Are amino acids really acids?
Nope! They’re actually organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, each responsible for chemical reactions in the body.
Why do we need amino acids?
Our bodies need protein to make muscle and connective tissue, and amino acids are responsible for muscle growth. Because the essential amino acids must come from food, it’s important to have a well- rounded diet that features protein. This can include meat, as well as beans and rice, pasta, and cheese to provide what is needed.
How many amino acids are there?
While there are roughly 500 naturally occurring amino acids, there are 21, broken down into three categories, that we need for healthy functioning.
Essential amino acids—These amino acids must come from our diet and include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine
Nonessential amino acids—These amino acids are made by our bodies and include arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, serine, proline, and tyrosine
Conditional amino acids—Our bodies usually do not need these nonessential amino acids unless we experience illness or stress. These include proline, serine, ornithine, cysteine, tyrosine, glycine, glutamine, and arginine
What do nonessential and conditional amino acids do?
Just because they are “nonessential” or “conditional” doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need these amino acids. Nonessential amino acids help support the growth and repair of tissue, support immune function and red blood cell formation, and the synthesis of hormones. If you get enough protein with essential amino acids, your body can make the nonessential amino acids required for good function.
Conditional amino acids are those nonessential amino acids that are usually not needed unless there is illness, stress, or a lack of dietary protein and carbohydrate intake. An example of this is your body
fighting an illness that makes it hard for it to produce arginine, even though it is nonessential. In this case, arginine must be supplemented via diet to meet your body’s needs during the illness.
Are branched chain amino acids different than amino acids?
Three of the essential amino acids—isoleucine, leucine, and valine—are “branched chain” due to their chemical structure. Known as BCAAs, these amino acids can be beneficial if there is inadequate intake of dietary protein. Plus, athletes often take BCAAs before and during a workout to assist with building muscle mass. This can also be achieved by consuming the full range of amino acids rather than consuming only BCAAs.
How can I make sure I get enough amino acids?
Because the body breaks down protein into the essential amino acids it needs, it’s important to get enough of this vital macronutrient. Most people consume enough protein, however the National Academy of Medicine guidelines inform that adults should consume a minimum of 0.8 g of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day. This equates to 7 g of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight.
In All About Aminos Part II, we will dive into amino acids that can be used for specific health situations, including cognition, mood, and weight management.