You've heard of amino acids before, but do you know what they are? Do you know the difference between a nonessential and an essential amino acid? When you buy amino acids as a supplement, do you know what you're getting? Education is an important part of keeping yourself healthy, so let's talk about it.
Essential Vs. Nonessential
In the world of nutrition, you've probably heard the term "essential" used to describe certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other compounds. In common parlance, "essential" means "necessary" or "crucial", and that's still the case, but in biology, the term has a specific meaning.
"Essential" in biology means that your body needs it but cannot create it yourself. For example, your body needs Vitamin C for a lot of different reactions and synthesis, but cannot produce it, so you have to get that vitamin from the food you eat. Vitamin D, on the other hand, can be synthesized in the body when exposed to sunlight. You still need it, but you can produce it on your own, so you don't necessarily need to take a supplement or get it in your diet. You still can, but you don't need to.
Amino acids work the same way. There are 22 amino acids, and they are classified into three categories.
That's right; in addition to essential and nonessential, there are also "conditionally essential" amino acids. The conditionally essential amino acids are amino acids that the body can normally make, but in certain circumstances, you need more than what you can make on your own.
Essential amino acids are amino acids you need to get from an outside source, and there are a total of nine of them. These nine are:
Six of the amino acids are conditionally essential. Normally, you can make all of them, when you're healthy and whole as a person. Typically they're only essential if you're in severe catabolic stress, or if there's a medical reason (such as premature infants) disrupting normal biological processes. These are:
And finally, you have the nonessential amino acids. These amino acids are made in sufficient quantities within the body, and supplementing more of them may or may not have any effect. Typically, getting too much of a nonessential compound just means the excess is filtered out and removed via urine or feces, so it's not particularly important to supplement them. They are:
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
"But wait! You said there were 22 amino acids, and you've only listed 21!" Good catch! What's with the last one? Well, that last one is Pyrrolysine, and it's a special case; it's an amino acid that we've identified that is not used at all in the human body. It is, however, still used in other creatures, mostly bacteria.
There are (surprisingly) hundreds of amino acids identified chemically, but the 21 listed above are the only ones used in humans. And, of those, today we're only concerned with the nine of them that are considered essential. You can, of course, feel free to read deeper into the biology of amino acids, genetics, and human development if you're interested in a deeper understanding.
You can get more amino acids in two ways: through the food that you eat and through supplements. One popular supplement is BCAAs; Branch-Chain Amino Acids. BCAA supplements contain three essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. These three are known to be used in muscle synthesis, and thus they're a popular supplement for weightlifters and strength trainers.
Today, we're more concerned about food than supplements. If you want to get more essential amino acids in your diet, you can get them through the food you eat, without needing to focus on supplements or work an additional pill or powder into your diet. Here are the essential amino acids, and what foods you can eat to get more of them.
Phenylalanine is a precursor. Your body uses it in the creation of certain neurotransmitters, including tyrosine, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. It's also used in the creation of other, nonessential amino acids. Without it, you can experience depression, cognitive dysfunction, thyroid problems, and a disrupted fight or flight response. The amino acid is also used in memory and nerve function.
Animal sources of phenylalanine include beef, lamb, poultry, pork, cheese, yogurt, and eggs.
Vegetable sources of phenylalanine include moringa, tofu, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, wheat germ, quinoa, and wild rice.
Interestingly, the synthetic sweetener aspartame is high in phenylalanine. Now, that doesn't mean Diet Coke is a healthy food, but it's worth mentioning in case you use the sweetener in your daily life to avoid sugar.
Valine is one of the branch chained amino acids and is common in supplements for muscle growth. It's used in the body for tissue regeneration and energy production. It's also useful for the overall health of your liver and your gallbladder. It's great for energy without overstimulating your nerves, which leads to jitteriness and anxiety. If you have too little valine, you may experience insomnia or reduced mental acuity.
Animal sources of valine include red meat, dairy products, milk, and yogurt.
Vegetable sources of valine include moringa, peanuts, mushrooms, and soy products.
Threonine is used in a lot of different processes throughout the body. It's a component in tooth enamel, and thus plays a role in fighting cavities and tooth decay. It's a component in both elastin and collagen when it's converted into glycine by certain bodily processes. It's also heavily used in the central nervous system and may be effective at fighting depression. On top of all of that, it has been linked with the immune system and may play a role in fighting off diseases. It also plays a role in fat metabolism and might help you lose a bit of weight when combined with a workout program.
Animal sources of threonine include beef, lamb, pork, collagen, and cheese. Collagen can be obtained naturally or through supplements.
Vegetable sources of threonine include moringa, tofu, sunflower seeds, cashews, almonds, lentils, and pistachios, among other things.
Tryptophan has a reputation as being the chemical in turkey that makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, but it's not that powerful in these small quantities. The sleepiness is likely more due to being full than anything else. The amino acid itself is used in vitamin B3 synthesis. B3 is in turn used in the creation of melatonin and serotonin. As such, tryptophan is used in regulating moods and appetites, as well as regular sleep patterns and your circadian rhythm. It's likely also useful in nervous system function and nitrogen balance.
Animal sources of tryptophan include turkey, of course, as well as red meats, milk, cheese, eggs, fish, and yogurt.
Vegetable sources of tryptophan include moringa, chickpeas, spirulina, cocoa, bananas, seeds, and nuts.
Methionine is an amino acid that is a bit of a double-edged sword. It includes sulfur, and that sulfur is used as part of a detoxification process in the body, able to help remove heavy metals. It's used in tissue growth, as well as the absorption of zinc and selenium. It helps with your metabolism, including burning fat, and it can reduce fat in the liver. It's used in hair, skin, and nail health as well. A deficiency of methionine can lead to arthritis and lessened healing. On the other hand, too much methionine can lead to fat accumulating in the arteries.
Animal sources of methionine include fish, shrimp, beef, and lamb.
Vegetable sources of methionine include moringa, soybeans, tofu, brazil nuts, lentils, and spirulina.
Leucine is another BCAA, and as such, is often found in muscle building supplements because of its effect on tissue growth. It helps with wound healing, produces growth hormones in adolescents, and helps regulate blood sugar levels. It also helps you recover from stress.
Animal sources of leucine include beef, lamb, poultry, collagen, and cheese.
Vegetable sources of leucine include moringa, spirulina, brown rice, corn, peanuts, and quinoa.
Isoleucine is similar to, but not the same as, leucine. It's another BCAA, and as such, is commonly used in muscle and tissue growth. It's commonly found in muscle tissue and is used in hemoglobin production, blood clotting, and immune function. It's part of the process that produces energy as part of your metabolism as well. It can also stabilize and regulate blood sugar along with leucine.
Animal sources of isoleucine include beef, yogurt, and fish such as tuna and haddock.
Vegetable sources of isoleucine include moringa, oats, lentils, sunflower seeds, spirulina, and seaweed.
Lysine is a critical component of the process that absorbs calcium in your body. It helps with energy production and immune function, and it's used in the production of collagen and elastin. More importantly, though, it's used in the production of a wide range of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, making it a critical part of your immune system and overall health. Your body needs plenty of it to maintain healthy function.
Animal sources of lysine include primarily red meat, but also cheese, eggs, and certain fish such as sardines.
Vegetable sources of lysine include moringa, lima beans, avocados, beetroot, potatoes, and peppers.
Histidine, as you might guess from the name, is part of the production of histamine. Histamine is a neurotransmitter used for digestion, immune response, sexual function, and the circadian rhythm. It has been observed to help protect the body from radiation and can help remove heavy metals from the body. Perhaps most importantly, it helps protect the myelin sheath, which is the protective layer around nerves and neurons. Myelin degradation leads to diseases like multiple sclerosis and myelitis.
Animal sources of histidine include pork, beef, chicken, and tuna.
Vegetable sources of histidine include moringa, tofu, pomegranates, apples, garlic, carrots, celery, and spinach.
Common Food Sources
You may have noticed a few trends in the foods that provide you with amino acids. Among meat products, red meat gives you just about every essential amino acid. It makes sense; essential amino acids are used in animals to create protein, so it stands to reason you'd be able to get them from that protein.
Plant sources tend to vary wildly, but the essential amino acids are present in small amounts in a lot of different foods. Very few foods contain every essential amino acid in quantities sufficient to get your daily dose, however.
Moringa is one such plant. As a nutritious and renewable vegetable, moringa is a powerful plant in the areas where it's cultivated. We're big proponents of moringa, as you might have seen before because it's packed full of useful properties and benefits.
Keep in mind that regardless of what you eat to get your amino acids, you should keep a balanced diet as much as possible. Most amino acids don't do much if you get too much of them, but sometimes you can face issues with an overdose, such as with methionine. Additionally, some amino acids require other vitamins and minerals to do their jobs. It does you no good to eat the amino acids without also eating the minerals, right?
How much of each amino acid should you try to incorporate into your diet? The answer varies a bit. Generally, you want a specific amount per kilogram of body weight, so first, figure out how much you weigh and convert that number to kilograms. Here's the chart:
- Phenylalanine: 25mg per kilo of body weight.
- Valine: 26mg per kilo of body weight.
- Threonine: 15mg per kilo of body weight.
- Tryptophan: 4mg per kilo of body weight.
- Methionine: 14mg per kilo of body weight.
- Leucine: 39mg per kilo of body weight.
- Isoleucine: 20mg per kilo of body weight.
- Lysine: 30mg per kilo of body weight.
- Histidine: 10mg per kilo of body weight.
You can use this chart to calculate how much of each amino acid you should consume each day, and compare that to the amounts you're getting in your normal diet. Try to adjust your diet to stay healthy while getting enough, but not too much, of each.