Amino Acids: Essential for Our Bodies

From time immemorial, amino acids have existed as building blocks to the creation and survival of organic organisms. These essential chemicals create proteins, which, next to water, make up the bulk of a human’s body weight. The proteins made from amino acids are used in the growth, repair and maintenance of muscles, major organs, tendons, nails and hair (1). These acids have been closely linked to brain function, so along with the critical effects on tissue, these important proto-proteins can have a significant impact on one’s mood.

Why We Need Aminos
Twenty amino acids make up our useable proteins. Eleven “non-essential amino acids” are naturally synthesized in our bodies. Since the remaining nine “essential amino acids” are not produced internally and must be obtained from external sources, it is critical to acquire these remaining aminos through food sources and dietary supplements.

Amino acids are so important for us to function that failure to obtain even one of the nine essential acids would cause an acute degradation of the existing proteins within the body. This would result in the body stealing protein from other sources in our bodies such as muscle tissue. Unlike other necessary nutrients such as starches or fats, the human body cannot store amino acids for later use. Therefore, we must be sure to consume them everyday in our foods or dietary supplements. The functioning of amino acids are interrelated, so it is important that one maintain a steady and balanced supply of these nutrients to ensure proper body performance.

How Aminos Work
One of the most important features of amino acids is muscle building and repair. Muscles are comprised of two proteins: actin and myosin. The main components of these proteins are essential aminos and must be acquired through diet. This particular molecular structure is called branched chain amino acid (BCAA) and accounts for approximately 35% of the essential aminos contained in those specific proteins. After strenuous exercises, the body begins to break down proteins and consume BCAAs as a way to offset inadequate energy sources (2).

Most people are not conscious of the major impact amino acid deficiency can have on our health. Eric Braverman, M.D., of the Princeton Brain Bio Center notes, “We often do not realize our need for amino acids, because we are not aware of how busy the human body is. Every second the bone marrow makes 2.5 million red cells. Every four days the lining of the gastrointestinal tract is replaced. Most of the white cells are replaced every ten days. All this continuous repair work requires amino acids” (3).

Post-activity blood level of BCAAs can be decreased as much as 20%, as muscle tissue is consumed and damaged by vigorous exercise. One can reduce this muscle damage, soreness, and contribute to overall strength and stamina by taking supplements to replenish BCAAs before or during exercise.

Essential Aminos
The essential amino acids required in the human diet can be found in a variety of different food sources, including lean meats, liver, beans, wheat, rice, fish and eggs. And, your local natural products retailer offers these amino acids as standalone or combination supplements.

• Histidine: This acid promotes growth and the repair of body tissue.
• Leucine: Found in meat, milk and other high protein foods, this one is needed for protein synthesis and for a healthy immune system.
• Isoleucine: Isoleucine may help prevent muscle wasting and promote tissue repair. 
• Lysine: Often found in cheese, fish and legumes, lysine is fundamental in the production of carnitine, which is essential for the oxidization of fatty acids.
• Methionine: Its major role is to assist the metabolization of fats and proteins. The body also uses it to create cysteine, another amino acid.
• Phenylalanine: The body uses this amino acid to produce three important hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and thyroxine) as well as melanin, a brown skin pigment.
• Threonine: This important acid helps synthesize purines, which break down uric acid, a by-product of protein digestion. Threonine is also helpful in processing glycine, a non-essential amino.
• Tryptophan: The “turkey” amino is a foundation for niacin, an important B vitamin, and of seratonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, mood, pain and sleep. Tryptophan is prescribed as a sleep-aid in Canada, Germany and other European countries, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to officially determine the safety and efficacy of this amino acid before recommending supplementation.
• Valine: Found primarily in animal proteins, valine is key in the growth and maintenance of body tissues. Deficiencies of this amino have been linked to loss of muscular coordination and hypersensitivity to pain, cold and heat (3).
Whether in food or synthesized for daily supplements, amino acids have a profound effect on how we feel, how clearly we think and the physical constitution of our bodies. Even the non-essential amino acids produced within our bodies require the right combination of supporting nutrients for the most favorable protein maintenance, so supplementation and a healthy diet should always be sustained. WF

1. “Amino Acids Support Positive Mental Function,”, accessed December 8, 2008.
2. “Sports and Amino Acids,”, accessed December 8, 2008.
3. G. Farr, “Types of Amino Acids: Essential Amino Acids (EAAs); Semiessential Amino Acids,”, accessed December 8, 2008.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2009