There comes a point where health and nutrition becomes a minefield of acronyms and scientific terminology that can be difficult to understand. It may even put us off certain supplements or processes. Understanding amino acids can certainly be one of those areas - it might feel like there’s too much to figure out without some assistance in breaking it down.
Amino acids are often known as the building blocks of protein, and it’s my job today to tell you what that means and why it’s important for your health. Each amino acid performs a number of functions in the body, ranging from energy production to supporting your liver or improving your sleep.
In this guide, we will be looking at what amino acids are, what they do, and how to get them. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a full on biology class, but having an understanding of these tiny heroes is really important for our health.
- What are amino acids?
- How many amino acids are there?
- Which amino acids are essential?
- What do amino acids do in the body?
- How and when should I take amino acids?
- How do I get amino acids?
- Can you have too many amino acids?
What are amino acids?
Simply put, amino acids are the organic compounds that make up proteins which account for roughly 20% of the human body in various forms.
There are around 100,000 different types of protein, all of which are made up from a combination of amino acids strung together in a chain. These are called polymers. Proteins are broken down during digestion, leaving behind amino acids. These are more easily processed by the body, and quickly absorbed into the gut.
It’s at this point that they whizz off to where they’re needed and begin helping the body with growth, repair, recovery, and the creation of other important substances. Amongst other things!
How many amino acids are there?
Over 500 amino acids have been identified in the natural world, as every living thing needs them to thrive and survive. Twenty of these are used in making up the proteins found in the human body, so those are the ones that we’ll be focusing on.
These are divided into three categories; essential, non-essential and conditional, which is what we’ll be looking at in the next section.
Which amino acids are essential?
First, let me begin this section by stating that all amino acids are essential in so far as we need them to keep our body healthy. However, the definition of ‘essential’ from a nutritional point of view is a substance that the body uses for various functions which it is unable to produce on its own. Therefore, we have to obtain these specific amino acids from other sources, most commonly food or supplements.
Non-essential amino acids are produced in the body and are usually not supplemented. There are 11 non-essential amino acids in the body; alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
Essential amino acids are not produced in the body and need to be obtained through diet and supplementation. These are; histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Three of these essential amino acids are further identified by their chemical structure. They have a chain branching off to one side of their molecular structure and so they are (imaginatively) called Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCAAs. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs have been shown to be particularly effective for muscle growth, repair and alleviating muscle fatigue after exercise. Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs are mainly metabolized in skeletal muscle. This means that they deal directly with the areas that are under most stress during exercise. They are also shown to be particularly effective in preventing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). However, it is very important to make sure that you are getting enough of all the essential amino acids, not just BCAAs.
There is a third grouping of amino acids. These ‘Conditional’ amino acids usually fall into the non-essential category but, via certain illnesses or stressors, can become essential. These are; arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, proline and serine.
What do amino acids do in the body?
All amino acids play a functional role in the body, with one of the most well known roles being muscle growth and repair. However, amino acids are at the core of many vital body functions. Below are some examples of how the non-essential amino acids play crucial roles in the body. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives us some idea of just how hard amino acids work.
- Source of energy in the body - Amino acids such as aspartate and asparagine (yes, it gets its name from asparagus) are closely linked to the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, which helps the body to harvest energy from fuel.
- Form hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters- Glycine, for example, is one of the most plentiful amino acids in the body. It works as a transmitter in our central nervous system, and aids in aspects of our sensory perception.
- Making up collagen, keratin and hemoglobin - The amino acid proline is found primarily in the make up of collagen, a compound that makes up skin tissue and prevents premature ageing. It is one of the most important amino acids for increasing the natural moisturising factor of our skin, keeping it from drying out. Glycine makes up one third of the chemical makeup of collagen, which is really important as our skin ages.
- Protects your skin from harmful UV - Cysteine is an amino acid which helps to regulate how much melanin we produce of different types. This can help our skin protect against sun exposure.
- Increasing blood flow - Arginine plays a really important role. It helps to keep veins open, which increases blood flow around the body.
- Bolstering the immune system - Arginine again! Arginine helps increase our immunity to disease, and removes excess ammonia from the body.
- Boosting liver function - Glutamine and Alanine are both responsible for helping the body metabolize alcohol faster and enhancing liver function. Alanine is also useful in the production of glucose, whilst glutamine plays another role in keeping our digestive tracts healthy and energised.
Essential amino acids also play important roles in the body, which is why it is so important that we get them from our diet. Let’s take a look at some of their functions:
- Histidine - This amino acid is used in the body’s production of histamine. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that deals with immune response. It also plays key parts in healthy digestion, sexual function and regulating the sleep-wake cycle. If that wasn’t enough, it is critical for maintaining a structure known as the myelin sheath, which surrounds and protects our nerve cells.
- Threonine - Not only does threonine help to keep your immune system healthy and functional, it also gives your metabolism a boost, which can help with weight loss. ON top of that it is part of the structural makeup of proteins that keep your skin, connective tissue, and joints healthy.
- Lysine - Lysine is a bit of a hero. It works in conjunction with a number of the non-essential amino acids to produce collagen and elastin for our skin, but it also aids the body in energy production, protein synthesis and immune function. It also supports and increases the body’s ability to absorb calcium. If that wasn’t enough, lysine is used in the creation of hormones and enzymes.
- Phenylalanine - Much like lysine, phenylalanine plays a significant role in the structure and function of enzymes in the body. It also helps in the production of non-essential amino acids and neurotransmitters which help with brain function.
- Tryptophan - This might well be my favourite amino acid, if such a thing is possible. Tryptophan helps to regulate your nitrogen balance in the body, and aids in the production of serotonin. Serotonin is one of the hormones responsible for regulating mood, sleep cycle, and appetite - so you can feel happy, well rested and full all at the same time.
- Methionine - Methionine plays many crucial roles in the body, including regulating metabolism and aiding in detoxification. It is also vital for tissue growth. This amino acid also increases the body’s ability to absorb several micronutrients, including zinc and selenium, which are vital for a healthy immune system, keen senses and thyroid function, amongst other things.
- Valine - One of three branched chain amino acids, valine plays a vital role in muscle growth and repair.
- Leucine - Another BCAA, leucine is responsible for muscle protein synthesis. It is also very efficient at preventing the breakdown of muscle protein and maintaining lean muscle mass. That’s not all! Leucine helps to regulate our blood sugar levels, plays a crucial role in healing wounds and produces growth hormones.
- Isoleucine - The last of the BCAAs, isoleucine is heavily concentrated in skeletal muscle tissue and muscle metabolism. It also supports our immune functions and response, hemoglobin production for healthy blood, and energy regulation - very important during a workout!
How and when should I take amino acids?
All essential amino acids can be found in a whole food plant-based diet, so as long as you are getting a balance of amino acids throughout the day, you don’t need to worry about ensuring you’re ingesting every single one at each meal.
BCAAs are important for energy, so taking them pre- and post-workout can be useful for an extra boost, although there is no clear evidence on whether before or after exercise is any better for absorption. For an intra-workout supplement Vivo Life’s SUSTAIN is a Vegan EAA & Electrolyte complex which is designed to refresh and hydrate you during a workout. This not only helps to replace any of the electrolytes lost through sweat, and give you a clean boost of amino acid energy, it also helps prevent fatigue during a workout.
How do I get amino acids?
Essential amino acids (EAAs) have to come from your diet. This can be achieved via the foods we eat, often balanced with taking a supplement. Foods which contain all nine EAAs are known as ‘complete proteins’. Mushrooms, for example, are an excellent source of amino acids, containing 17 of the 20, with all the essential ones represented. Legumes and beans are excellent sources of high quality protein again containing all nine essential amino acids, and are particularly rich in lysine which is vital for muscle growth and repair and the body’s ability to absorb calcium effectively. Quinoa, too, is an excellent source of amino acids and fibre, containing greater levels of amino acids than many other grains, including all nine EAAs.
Other foods rich in amino acids include: quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina. All plants contain amino acids, so as long as your whole food plant-based diet meets your daily energy requirements, you will likely have all the amino acids you need.
Vivo Life has recently reformulated SUSTAIN, our intra-workout formula, to include all essential amino acids, not just the branched chain amino acids. Containing 7.7g of EAAs per serving (including 4g of BCAAs) ensures that you can train harder for longer. It also contains a balanced electrolyte complex, to replace electrolytes lost through sweat. Plus, it’s seriously refreshing! Meanwhile, our PERFORM vegan protein powder contains 6g of BCAAs per serving, as well as 25g of plant-based protein.
Can you have too many amino acids?
As with the majority of foodstuffs and the nutrients they contain, it is possible to take in too many amino acids. Your body, clever as it is, has a few ways of letting you know that your amino acid intake might be too high. These include abdominal pain, a drop in blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and even the onset of gout.
Your recommended daily intake of amino acids is dependent not only on your age, but also your weight. It can be very complicated to try and calculate the amounts of amino acids that you require on a daily basis, but if you’re interested you can use this handy calculator! Remember, it’s likely that if you’re getting enough protein in your diet, your amino acid levels will be fine, but you can always supplement during your workouts to improve performance.
If you are taking an amino acid supplement, make sure that you follow the directions as indicated. As always; if you have any concerns about your health, speak to a medical professional.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Amino acids
- 5 Foods High in Amino Acids
- Getting 9 Essential Amino Acids on a Plant-Based Foods Diet
- Protein and Amino Acids - Recommended Dietary Allowances - NCBI Bookshelf
- A practical guide for dietitians
- The Twenty Amino Acids
- 20 Amino Acids that Make Up Proteins
- Essential Amino Acids: Definition, Benefits and Food Sources
- 4 Impressive Health Benefits of Lysine
- What are Amino Acids?
- Nutritional consequences of excess amino acid intake
- Amino Acids - Types & Effects
- Protein / Amino acid review
- Amino acid (essential) dietary calc
- When Should You Take BCAAs?
- Essential amino acids: master regulators of nutrition and environmental footprint? | Scientific Reports
- 5 Proven Benefits of BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)