You likely already know that your body needs three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Carbohydrates serve as fuel to give us energy; fat plays a role in many bodily functions and protects our organs; and protein serves as the building block of muscle. You probably also know that there are good carbs (whole grains) and bad carbs (added sugars, refined flour, etc.) as well as good fat and bad fat. But did you know that you also have to consider if you’re consuming the right kinds of protein, particularly if you don’t eat meat? This all boils down to the amino acids your body needs.

amino acids your body needs

Amino Acids: A Primer

While protein is the building block of muscle, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids in all; nine are essential while the rest are non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are those produced by the body. Conversely, essential amino acids are those that cannot be produced by the body and thus have to come from outside sources (i.e., food and supplements).

The nine essential amino acids are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. While all amino acids aid in muscle building and recovery, each of the essential ones performs specific functions:

1. Phenylalanine. According to the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), phenylalanine plays a key role in the biosynthesis of other amino acids. Simply put, it helps break down other amino acids so your body can use them.

2. Valine. Valine is one of the branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs—more on that later) that promotes muscle growth and tissue repair.

3. Threonine. The NCBI describes threonine as “an important residue of many proteins, such as tooth enamel, collagen, and elastin,” which makes it important to skin elasticity and connective tissues.

4. Tryptophan. This amino acid is needed to produce melatonin (which regulates sleep and wakefulness) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter and neurohormone).

5. Methionine. Methionine has a number of different functions, from aiding tissue growth to detoxification to supporting the health of skin, hair, and nails.

6. Leucine. The NCBI states that leucine plays a role in the regulation of blood sugar, the growth and repair of muscle and bone tissue, the production of growth hormones, and wound healing. It’s one of the three BCAAs.

7. Isoleucine. The last of the BCAAs, isoleucine is concentrated in muscle tissue and helps in wound healing, muscle repair, and the secretion of hormones.

8. Lysine. This amino acid seems to fight off the herpes simplex virus and aids in protein synthesis and hormone production.

9. Histidine. The last of the essential amino acids, histidine maintains the barriers that help protect nerve cells. It is also metabolized into histamine, which is important for immunity, digestion, and sexual functions.

The BCAAs made up of valine, leucine, and isoleucine are so called because their molecular structure branches out. Unlike most amino acids that are broken down in the liver, BCAAs are mostly synthesized in muscle. This may aid in energy production, energy efficiency, and muscle recovery. It’s no wonder that fitness buffs chug down whey protein, a rich source of these BCAAs.

While essential amino acids are very helpful for those who work out as they may help boost energy and repair muscle, they have also demonstrated health benefits outside of fitness. Studies suggest that essential amino acids can help improve mood and sleep, and promote weight loss.

Amino Acid Sources

The best way to take amino acids is by consuming complete proteins like meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. (Make sure you choose lean cuts and use healthy cooking methods to minimize the damage from saturated fats.) If you’re not a meat-eater, then soy is your best bet—a study published in the journal American Family Physician notes that it is a complete protein. Note that if you’re on a plant-based diets, most plant sources aren’t complete proteins, so you would have to mix and match them to meet your essential amino acid requirements.

Amino acid supplements may be beneficial to those on a plant-based diet as these supply the essential amino acids you may be missing. Supplements may also be taken in times when your protein needs are elevated, such as when you’re sick or injured, or if you exercise a lot. A supplement can be something as simple as a whey protein shake post-workout to aid in recovery. For other amino acid supplements, visit Healthy Options.




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