Take a moment to think about all of the essential, miraculous functions that, as humans, we don't have to consciously control -- pumping blood, breaking down food, producing energy. Have you ever wondered what lies at the heart of all the cellular functions that make that happen? It’s all made possible by life's wondrous and complex building blocks: amino acids. From forming proteins to transporting nutrients, these remarkable molecules are vital to almost every system in our bodies.
Amino acids are small organic compounds made up of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are the building blocks of proteins that carry out essential tasks in the human body, like energy production, tissue repair, and communication between cells. They are also involved in producing enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tryptophan helps make serotonin a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, and behavior. Let’s look at how amino acids are vital to almost every system in the human body!
They’ve Got Chemistry
Amino acids are organic compounds that contain an amino group (-NH2) and a carboxyl group (-COOH). Their unique structure makes them very versatile and able to help our bodies’ complex processes.
There are 20 different amino acids that make up the thousands of different proteins in the human body. Nine of these amino acids are considered essential; that means our bodies cannot produce them, so we have to get them through our diet or supplementation.
The best sources of amino acids in foods are found in animal proteins such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. These all contain all nine essential amino acids and are called complete proteins. You can get eight of the nine essential amino acids from collagen (more about that below) and bone broth, or there are also plant-based sources like soy, quinoa, and buckwheat, but still, none have all nine essential amino acids. So, it's important to be mindful of what you're eating and what essential amino acids you may be missing.
The nine essential amino acids are:
You may be thinking, “Why do I always see an ‘l’ in front of those names? What’s the deal with the ‘l’?” Fun fact: Amino acids are stereoisomers. That means they have mirror images of their structure. To distinguish the mirror images, they are labeled L (left-handed) and D (right-handed). The amino acids that make up the proteins in our bodies are all L-amino acids; they are the most common form found in nature and are used by cells to build proteins. For my own shorthand, I usually think of l-amino acids as natural and d-amino acids as synthetic. In this article, we'll just think of all of them as l's.
Years ago, I worked in one of my community's first big vitamin stores. I had a husband-and-wife customer team using themselves as guinea pigs to test the effects of high-dose amino acids on various aspects of their health. They were sort of the first biohackers! They were trying to use amino acids in supplement form to boost athletic performance, turbocharge muscle growth, improve cognition, reverse aging, and improve their moods. Other people picked up on their early self-experimentation. Today it's common for athletes to use branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, to increase muscle growth, reduce soreness and fatigue, prevent muscle wasting, and support liver health. We commonly use amino acids to support the body’s immune system and its functions (take some lysine for that cold sore), and it’s second nature to include amino acids in addressing health issues like poor sleep, skin problems, or appetite issues.
There are also 11 non-essential amino acids. Non-essential is a bit deceiving – you definitely need these guys, but our bodies can synthesize them. We don’t need to worry so much about getting them in our diets because our bodies will make them. The 11 non-essential amino acids are:
- Aspartic Acid or Aspartate
- Glutamic Acid or Glutamate
We also label some amino acids as conditionally essential for people with particular health challenges. An example is someone with a condition like phenylketonuria (PKU) who doesn’t have the enzyme to convert phenylalanine to make tyrosine. Lacking any amino acid can have health implications. We classify arginine and tyrosine as conditionally essential.
Let's look at what each amino acid contributes to in our bodies.
What Can I Do For You?
Our bodies need all amino acids to function properly; if we're missing something, the body can try to backfill, but there will always be a price to pay. So it's vital to understand what each amino acid does so we can maintain and improve our health. We can also get warnings from our bodies if something is not working quite right and address the problem before it becomes a huge issue.
Here's a rundown of each amino acid's unique role in your body, starting with the essentials first.
- Histidine helps produce histamine, a neurotransmitter vital to immune response, digestion, sexual function, and sleep-wake cycles. It is also critical for maintaining the myelin sheath, a protective barrier surrounding your nerve cells.
- Isoleucine contributes to muscle metabolism and is used to prevent muscle wasting. It is also involved in producing hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.
- Leucine is essential for muscle growth and repair. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels and promotes the healing of skin and bones.
- Lysine is integral to producing collagen for healthy skin, bones, and connective tissue. It is also involved in producing hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.
- Methionine contributes to the production of cysteine, which is necessary to form healthy skin, hair, and nails. It is also involved in the production of glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant.
- Phenylalanine helps your body make tyrosine, which produces dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters are important for mood regulation, stress response, and energy production.
- Threonine is used to produce glycine and serine, which are necessary to produce collagen, elastin, and muscle tissue. It is also involved in producing antibodies and helps maintain proper protein balance in the body.
- Tryptophan helps your body make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. It is also involved in melatonin production, which regulates sleep-wake cycles.
- Valine is involved with muscle metabolism and is used to prevent muscle breakdown. It is also involved in the production of energy and the regulation of blood sugar levels.
- Alanine is used to produce glucose, which is used for energy by the body and to feed the brain. It is also involved in producing antibodies and helps maintain proper protein balance in the body.
- Arginine gives the body resources to create nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow. It is also involved in wound healing and immune function.
- Asparagine is the building block for aspartic acid, which is involved in energy production. It is also involved in producing antibodies and helps maintain proper protein balance in the body.
- Aspartic acid produces energy and helps synthesize other amino acids. It also produces neurotransmitters, which carry and send messages to/from the brain.
- Cysteine helps make glutathione, aka the “master antioxidant.” It is also involved in producing collagen, which is essential for healthy skin, bones, and connective tissue.
- Glutamic acid is involved in creating energy and the synthesis of other amino acids. It also helps make neurotransmitters.
- Glutamine is involved in producing energy and synthesizing other amino acids. It is also involved in producing neurotransmitters and helps maintain proper protein balance in the body.
- Glycine is integral to producing collagen for healthy skin, bones, and connective tissue. It is also involved in the production of neurotransmitters and helps improve sleep.
- Proline is part of collagen production, essential for healthy skin, bones, and connective tissue. It is also involved in the production of neurotransmitters.
- Serine is involved in producing other amino acids, such as cysteine and glycine. It is also involved in the production of neurotransmitters.
- Tyrosine helps build neurotransmitters and is also involved in the production of melanin, which gives color to the skin and hair.
There's much more to amino acids and their structures (referred to as side chains or R groups.) Their unique differences give them their purpose and determine how they will interact with each other and how they will benefit the body. But for now, this should give you an overview of how vital amino acids are to our essential body functions.
So Let’s Talk Collagen
Collagen is a protein made up of amino acids, most substantially proline, glycine, hydroxyproline, and arginine, that provide structural support to the body’s connective tissues and their extracellular spaces. These amino acids group together to form protein fibrils in a triple helix structure that is as strong as steel fibers. Along with collagen’s role of creating structure, strength, and support throughout the body, it also plays critical roles in tissue repair, immune response, cellular communication, cellular migration, and more.
Collagen is a critical component of our connective tissues, skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage helping to ensure our body’s structure and flexibility, including our ability to move. Jim Caras, the founder of Health Direct, did a great interview with the folks at Nutrition World in Chattanooga, TN, for their podcast explaining the structure of collagen and why it's so important to your health. You can watch it on YouTube here.
Until June 1, 2023, collagen powders and liquids were missing tryptophan. Collagen has been considered an incomplete protein because it didn't have that ninth essential amino acid. But on June 1, Health Direct revolutionized the world of collagen…again! AminoSculpt in the 10-gram formula now includes tryptophan in its liquid micropeptides. As I said, many amino acids work together, and adding tryptophan helps turbocharge the sleep benefits from glycine. You'll remember that collagen is a rich source of glycine, so this can be a game changer for people with regard to sleep. That’s also why, over and over, I recommend taking collagen at night for the greatest benefits.
Things have changed if you've tried AminoSculpt before and not been a fan of the flavor! The newest version of liquid collagen is a dramatic improvement and worth revisiting.
The benefits of amino acids, especially those found in collagen, are vital to your health. Take advantage of this simple pour-and-sip supplement that provides immediate bioavailability, fast absorption, highly concentrated peptides, and amino acids essential to your body.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Lisa Moretti is a Certified Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's been involved in the natural health and supplement world professionally since 1981.