Amino Acids: The Building Blocks of Life

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Amino acids are biologically important organic compounds that are needed for energy, to digest food and to maintain optimal health. When joined in a chain, these substances form proteins, which make up 20% of the human body. They are involved in building and repairing tissue, muscle recovery, serving as the building blocks for skin, blood, bones and more (1). While amino acids may have various benefits for the body, a deficiency in any can lead to various health issues.

Why Do We Need Amino Acids?
Out of the 20 amino acids needed to form a chain, 11 are considered “non-essential” because they are synthesized within our bodies and therefore are not essential to consume through dietary sources. The remaining nine are considered “essential” since they are not produced internally but are needed daily from external sources such as food sources and dietary supplements. Because our bodies do not store excess amino acids for future use, if just one of any essential amino acids is missing from one’s diet, the body’s first response is to break down other sources, such as muscle tissue, in order to gain the needed amino acid. Besides muscle waste, a deficiency in essential amino acids can lead to fatigue, changes to the texture of one’s skin, and a decrease in one’s immune response (1).

Muscle Support 
The building, recovery and repair of muscles are the best known roles of amino acids. Of the essentials, leucine, isoleucine and valine account for 33% of protein structures used for muscle tissue. These structures are called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and after vigorous exercising, in which our bodies break down protein, they are oxidized in our muscles.

In a 2008 study, sports nutrition scientists focused on the effects of BCAAs on the muscle protein matrix and the immune system. They found taking BCAAs before and after exercising “had a beneficial effect for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis” (2).

In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, researchers examined the effects of BCAA supplementation on muscle damage caused by exercise in trained volunteers. The study showed BCAAs administered before and after “damaging resistance exercise reduced indices of muscle damage and accelerates recovery in resistance-trained males” (3).

Supplementation of BCAAs has also been found to help slow muscle loss in people who are confined to their beds and for liver and kidney support.

Benefits Beyond Muscle Support 
Amino acids are not just useful for muscle support; they also benefit heart health, aiding in the absorption of calcium and even lowering blood pressure.

Leucine, which is considered the strongest of the three BCAAs is found in beef, raw salmon, eggs and wheat products. It is not only responsible for muscle recovery, but also involved with the growth and repair of tissue in skin and bone. In a study published in Nutrition Reviews, researchers also found supplemental leucine promoted healthy blood sugar levels (4).

One essential amino acid that is especially important is lysine. Lysine not only absorbs calcium for muscle and bone growth, but also produces antibodies, is used to make collagen and maintains the body’s nitrogen balance. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, vegans and athletes who do not consume enough beans, which are high in lysine, can experience a loss of appetite, reproductive disorders, nausea, bloodshot eyes and even develop anemia (5).

Like leucine, isoleucine can support healthy blood-sugar levels and aid in muscle recovery. However, studies have shown isoleucine—which can be found in liver, chickpeas, lentils and cashew—may play a role in the production of hemoglobin, an oxygen carrying pigment inside red blood cells. A deficiency in isoleucine can lead to fatigue, dizziness and even headaches (6).

Arginine, a semi-essential amino acid, which is produced in the body at low levels, helps to maintain the health of many organs. It is most known for aiding those who suffer from vascular erectile dysfunction, and is needed for the pituitary gland to function properly. Arginine works together with other amino acids, such as ornithine and phenylalanine, to synthesize and distribute growth hormones. The amino acid can be found in milk, cheese, walnuts, pine nuts and also in small amounts in chicken (7).

New research suggests tryptophan may have an influence on our sleep cycle. Tryptophan is used to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that supports nerve and brain function. It also is key for ensuring restful sleep and stable moods. An additional function of tryptophan is the ability to synthesize niacin (vitamin B3), supporting heart health (8). WF

1. B. Alberts, et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. (Garland Science, New York, NY, 2002). Available at
books/NBK26911, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.
2. M. Negro, et al., “Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation Does Not Enhance Athletic Performance but Affects Muscle Recovery and the Immune System,” J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness. 48 (3), 347–351 (2008).
3. G. Howatson, et al., “Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage Is Reduced In Resistance-Trained Males By Branched Chain Amino Acids: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled Study,” J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. (2012).
4. J. Yang, et al., “Leucine Metabolism in Regulation of Insulin Secretion from Pancreatic Beta Cells,” Nutr. Rev. 68 (5), 270–279 (2010).
5. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Lysine,”
health/medical/altmed/supplement/lysine, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.
6. “Leucine,”, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.
7. WebMD, “Arginine,”, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.
8. “Tryptophan,”, accessed Aug. 18, 2016.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine October 2016