Amino acids are considered to be one of the earliest organic compounds on Earth (organic in the chemistry sense of having a carbon molecule). When the technology to do so became available, scientists quickly discovered hundreds of amino acids. Of these, however, only 20 are known to be vital to human life. 2 additional amino acids were discovered in the last 15 years-ish, one used in humans, the other appears not to be. Amino acids are an area of interest for much study as we try to understand how they are made, how they are coded to build hundreds of different proteins, and what their impact on our health might be. We understand that amino acids are a vital part of our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. They are the building blocks of proteins and protein is responsible for all kinds of things in the body! Things like building connective tissue, muscle, bone, hormones, digestive enzymes and antibodies that fight infection. Proteins are sometimes used as an energy source in the body, some are used as transport vehicles for other molecules in and out of cells and some help maintain the pH of blood and oncotic pressure in blood vessels. This is just a broad list, but it is enough to illustrate the point that without amino acids, our bodies cannot function. But there is much still to understand about them.
Pvt Tim Hall. If you've taken a biochemistry class, this name may sound familiar! Amino acids are categorized as essential, non-essential or conditionally essential. Essential amino acids are ones that our bodies cannot make on their own, that is, we must get them in our diet. Pvt. Tim Hall is the memory trick used to help remember the essential ones: Phenyalanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Methionine, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine and Lysine. Non-essential amino acids include: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid. Conditionally essential amino acids are usually made by the body, but may need to be additionally provided by the diet in times of illness or stress. These include: cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, proline, and serine. Arginine actually falls into 2 categories - in children it is essential, but not in adults. There are other amino acids that are produced as intermediate steps of various biochemical reactions in the body as well. But this is the basic list that works for our purposes here!
Amino Acids and Health. Some people are born with genetic inabilities to metabolize or synthesize a particular amino acid. The most common is a lack of an enzyme to convert phenylalanine to tyrosine, resulting in phenylketonuria (PKU) which causes brain damage. In the U. S., all babies are tested for this problem, usually within the first 24 hours of their little lives. Less common are problems with arginine, tryptophan and tyrosine. It is, obviously, important to avoid these amino acids in the diet in these cases, and certainly not use them as supplements.
But for most of us, maintaining a good supply of all the amino acids is important for our health. Amino acids are readily available in our diet, primarily in meat, fish, dairy and eggs. The most complete vegetable source is soy, but amino acids are also high in nuts, legumes and avocados, and really, all fruits and veggies have some of them. So the common solid nutritional advice of eating a wide variety of whole foods covers the basic requirements for amino acids as well! We don't store amino acids to any great degree, however, so they need to be provided in the diet every day.
Research is ongoing to discover if individual or specific combinations of amino acids may be useful in treating or preventing various health issues. There is positive evidence for amino acid use in gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular problems, brain and liver function, radiation and detox protocols. As with vitamins and minerals, getting amino acids from food sources is the safest, besides being in forms readily available to the body.
If you choose to supplement with amino acids, it is important to do so carefully. There are potential negative effects! Some may be problematic with some medications. There is a possibility for blood pressure and heartbeat dysregulation, respiratory difficulty, stomach upset and seizures. If you have a complicated medical history or other specific concerns, consult a medical health professional before supplementing beyond regular dietary sources.
I have used individual amino acids with great success in gastrointestinal healing, blood pressure and cold sore management with a number of people. It's exciting to have these natural resources available to us. I look forward to further study results that will help us fine tune how we can use them safely and effectively. In the meantime, the still solid naturopathic nutritional advice of eating a varied whole food diet continues to serve us all!
Resources: Medical Nutrition from Marz, Russell Marz, ND, www.pubmed.com, www.dailymail.co.uk/health, www.aminoacid-studies.com