What are amino acids? Discover how a supplement may help your body work more efficiently.
Every cell in your body needs and uses amino acids. These are the ‘building blocks’ – organic chemical compounds composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and a variable side chain group – that make proteins. Each type of protein is composed of a specific group of amino acids arranged in a particular way, and each is tailored for a specific need. Amino acids are vital because proteins are essential to life. Protein provides the structure for every living thing, from the largest animal to the tiniest microbe.
The ABCs of aminos
There are two types of amino acids: nonessential and essential. Nonessential amino acids (NAAs) include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, citrulline, cysteine, gamma-aminobutyric acid, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, ornithine, proline, serine, taurine and tyrosine.
Essential amino acids (EAAs) include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
‘Nonessential’ does not mean that they are not necessary.
This means that these amino acids do not need to be obtained through the diet because the body can make them as required. EAAs, however, cannot be made by your body and must be obtained from food. Good sources of EAAs are animal proteins, like meat, eggs and poultry. For those on a plant-based diet, soy, quinoa and buckwheat contain all nine essential amino acids, making them complete protein sources as well.
In addition to making up proteins in your body, and therefore maintaining and repairing muscles, tendons, skin, hair, nails, organs and glands, amino acids provide many vital functions. They aid in the production of hormones, such as insulin, and regulate body fluids and enzymes that trigger important bodily functions. Some act as neurotransmitters (message-carrying brain chemicals). Others enable nutrients to be adequately metabolised – low iron levels iron may be due to a deficiency of the amino acid tyrosine, for example.
Depression can be linked to inadequate stores of tryptophan and the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) valine, isoleucine and leucine. BCAAs are amino acids which help to supply energy to muscle tissue. Additionally, the BCAA leucine is essential for protein synthesis and muscle repair, regulation of blood sugar levels, wound healing and the production of growth hormones. The BCAA isoleucine is also important for immune function, haemoglobin production and energy regulation.
Additional benefits of amino acids
Additional benefits provided by individual amino acids include: alanine aids in glucose metabolism and energy production, while asparagine maintains balance in the nervous system. Arginine is essential for muscle metabolism and also widens blood vessels and helps to lower elevated blood pressure. Carnitine strengthens the heart and may help lower triglyceride levels. Glutamine may ease gut health problems, such as diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome; taurine supports gall bladder function and insulin production. Methionine plays an important role in metabolism and detoxification and is also required for the absorption of important minerals, like zinc and selenium. Valine helps to stimulate muscle growth and regeneration and is involved in energy production.
What can go wrong?
If your diet is not properly balanced – that is, if it fails to supply adequate amounts of the essential amino acids – then this may eventually manifest as some sort of physical disorder. Amino acids may also be negatively affected by infection, trauma, stress, medications, age and chemical imbalances within the body.
An amino acid supplement may compensate for deficiencies and can also be taken to benefit certain health conditions, such as to help the body cope better with illness and stress and to boost mood, cognition and sleep. In particular, supplementing with BCAAs has been found to promote athletic strength performance, stamina and muscle recovery and to reduce muscle soreness. Some evidence also suggests that BCAAs may be effective in stimulating body fat loss. Check the label of the individual product for the recommended dosage, because potency, formula and timing of dosage will vary between brands.
A better way to supplement
Whether you follow a vegan lifestyle or not, supplementing with a vegan amino acid formula may be just as effective as a conventional one, as well as being a more ethical choice. Why? Because the source material for some amino acid products is animal by-products, such as duck feathers, pig skin and animal blood. Vegan amino acids, on the other hand, such as White Wolf Vegan Aminos are made from the fermentation of non-GMO plant sugars, in much the same way as our internal gut microbiome produces amino acids from the digestion of our food. The White Wolf product also contains a proprietary organic mushroom blend and a proprietary electrolyte mineral mix, as well as fulvic minerals and digestive enzymes.