Amino acids are busy little nutrients, and play a vital role in nearly everything that happens within our bodies.
Known as our body’s building blocks, amino acids are considered either essential or non-essential.
The nine essentials – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – are obtained either through the foods we eat or through a supplement, while our body is able to produce many of the non-essentials on its own. (Ref. 1)
Amino acids help support muscle mass – which burns calories faster than fat – they also help support the process of tissue repair after exercise and they support the healthy function of the immune system, helping our bodies fight off illnesses so we’re able to stay healthy even when a winter bug sweeps through the office.
While we all strive to eat a healthy diet, we all have some kind of dietary deficit.
We may be stuck on the same few fruits and veggies, so we’re missing out on key nutrients, or we may not be eating enough protein, so we aren’t getting enough of the nine essential amino acids required for muscle building and recovery. (Ref. 2)
Those eating a strictly plant-based diet may also benefit from a supplement that includes both essential and non-essential amino acids, such as Xtend-Life’s Total Balance formulas or Zupafood GREENZ or ELITE, which contain spirulina, an excellent plant source of many essential amino acids.
Here’s why the essentials are so important.
Essential amino acids: A closer look
- PHENYLALANINE may help support low moods as it is essential for the synthesis of the mood-boosting brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. (Ref. 3)
To get it: Phenylalanine is best found in meats and salmon, but it is also abundant in spirulina and other seaweed, pumpkin, beans, rice, avocado, almonds, peanuts, quinoa, dried fruit including figs and raisins, leafy greens such as spinach and kale, berries and seeds.
- VALINE, one of three essential amino acids that are also branched-chain amino acids, helps support muscle recovery after exercise. (Ref. 3)
To get it: Egg whites, game meat (especially elk), beans, legumes, seeds including the protein-packed chia seed, whole grains, berries and apricots are excellent sources of valine.
- THREONINE supports the immune system as well as healthy liver function and plays a role in the production of the important skin proteins collagen and elastin.
To get it: The best sources of threonine include spirulina, watercress and spinach, seeds – especially sunflower seeds and sunflower butter – avocados, almonds, quinoa and sprouted grains.
- TRYPTOPHAN, which converts to serotonin in the brain, reducing stress and boosting mood, is also believed to improve endurance, so you can push yourself harder when running or working out. Tryptophan also helps support healthy sleep, which is why the Thanksgiving turkey dinner is so often followed by a nap, at least by those who aren’t part of the dishes cleanup. (Ref. 3)
To get it: In addition to turkey, tryptophan is found in cheese, milk, oats, seeds, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and beets.
- ISOLEUCINE is also a branched-chain amino acid that helps support muscle health so recovery after a workout is faster.
To get it: Good sources of isoleucine include egg whites, rye, soy, nuts such as cashews and almonds, oats, legumes, seeds, apples, blueberries, cranberries and kiwifruit.
- HISTIDINE helps detox the body while working as an antioxidant. It also turns lactic acid – which is responsible for pain during long workouts – back into useable fuel for muscles. (Ref. 3)
To get it: Histidine is found in wild game, potatoes, rice, legumes, cantaloupe, cauliflower and grains including buckwheat, wheat, rye and corn.
- METHIONINE works with the mineral sulfur to help form cartilage in the body, so boosting your dietary intake of the amino acid methionine could help support the health and function of cartilage in your hip and knee joints.
To get it: Methionine is found in egg whites, fish, sunflower seeds and butter, hemp and chia seeds, Brazil nuts, oats, figs, legumes, onions and cacao.
- LEUCINE is another branch-chain amino acid among the nine essentials, and it too helps improve the recovery time after a workout.
To get it: Egg whites, tuna, chicken, pumpkin, peas, whole grains, leafy greens, seeds and legumes are excellent sources of leucine.
- LYSINE helps promote growth and also converts fatty acids into fuel, supporting healthy cholesterol levels. It also helps support the body’s ability to better absorb calcium for stronger bones and promotes the production of collagen for healthier, younger looking skin.
To get it: Chicken and turkey breast and legumes are an excellent source lysine, as are tree nuts, avocados, seeds and spirulina.
Amino acids are the most important nutrient we take in when it comes to building muscle, because our bodies essentially glue amino acid molecules together in order to create muscle.
Without them, we have a harder time seeing our strength and endurance improve during muscle-building cardio such as running or biking.
We need more muscle for a variety of reasons, especially because muscle burns more calories than fat, ensuring that your internal furnace will work all day long, not only while exercising but also while relaxing on the couch with your favorite movie.
The three branch-chain amino acids - leucine, isoleucine and valine – are especially important because they help prevent muscle breakdown, ensuring that the rebuilding process after a workout occurs at a faster rate.
BCAAs also provide fuel for your muscles during exercise, so you can work out for longer periods of time.