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Amino Acids: Benefits & How to Get Them into Your Diet
By Dr. Josh Axe
June 23, 2023
Have you ever been told to eat more protein for health interests, such as putting on muscle or decreasing a big appetite? Protein is made up of smaller amino acids, which are critical components of nearly every process in the body.
We need amino acids for functions such as: normal repair of tissues, muscle growth, recovery after workouts, enzyme production, supporting a healthy immune system and normal neurotransmitter production that supports overall brain function.
Where do you get amino acids from? They’re found in the greatest quantities in foods that are high in protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, soy, legumes and seeds. In this article, learn about the different types of amino acids, why we need to seek out certain types from our diets more than others, plus the best foods and supplements to boost your intake.
Of course, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to beginning any new dietary or lifestyle regimen, including dietary supplementation.
Amino acids are often called the “building blocks of proteins.” When chained together, they help form bigger proteins in your body that play critical roles in protein synthesis, normal tissue repair and nutrient absorption.
How many amino acids are there? The human body requires 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly. The body makes some, while others are only found in protein foods.
What are amino acids made of? On a chemical level, amino acids are composed from organic compounds including nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Do humans need all 20 amino acids? Yes, although not each type needs to come directly from your diet. The 20 amino acids we need are categorized into three main types: essential, non-essential and conditional.
These are nine amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own, and, therefore, they must be obtained from our diets. They include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
These are amino acids that the body can produce on its own from other compounds. They include alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid. Even though we can make non-essential amino acids, getting them from food sources can still benefit us by further boosting our levels.
Conditional amino acids are usually not essential, except in times when our bodies can use extra support, such as occasional stressful times. They include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline and serine.
Another term you may hear is “Branched-Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs),” which are essential amino acids that are branched together by their chemical structure. These are particularly important for protein synthesis and muscle recovery, which is why they’re sometimes taken in supplement form by athletes and eaten before or after a workout.
What do amino acids do to your body? Amino acids are indispensable for a range of bodily processes that keep us healthy, strong and well overall.
Here are some of the major functions and benefits of amino acids:
As mentioned above, amino acids form proteins, which are vital for forming cellular structures within muscles and other tissues. Obtaining enough amino acids is necessary for muscle functions, building and maintaining muscle mass, and for overall physical activities and fitness.
Certain amino acids, such as BCAAs, can be used for energy production during exercise. A dietary intake and/or supplement routine that includes adequate protein/amino acids may help to keep your energy and stamina up and aid in physical performance.
Some amino acids, such as arginine, glutamine and cysteine, play a key role in promoting a healthy immune system, including supporting the normal production of antibodies.
In order to digest and absorb nutrients from your foods, your body needs amino acids which assist in metabolic and digestive processes. For example, glutamate, glutamine and aspartate are all amino acids that support functions of the digestive organs and help to promote a healthy gut lining, which is where nutrient absorption occurs.
Many amino acids are involved in normal tissue repair, especially the skin, bones, joints and muscles. For instance, amino acids found in collagen protein help to maintain the skin’s and joints’ structure and elasticity, including as you age.
Other benefits of amino acids for normal tissue repair include supporting blood flow and cell division. Amino acids that have been found to be particularly helpful for skin health and healthy tissue support include arginine, glutamine, glycine and leucine.
Amino acids like tryptophan and tyrosine are precursors to the neurotransmitters called serotonin and dopamine, which can directly affect your outlook, appetite and cognition.
Eating a high-protein diet and supplementing with protein may help to support a positive mindset, while also contributing to normal appetite regulation, energy and potentially more restful sleep.
The best way to get all the amino acids you need is through a healthy, balanced diet that includes enough protein. Supplements that contain protein, such as collagen for example, can also boost your intake.
Meat and Fish: What food has all 20 amino acids? Meat and fish are excellent sources of essential amino acids. They are considered "complete proteins" because they contain all nine essential amino acids, plus all other amino acids as well. In general, animal-derived foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy) are the most protein-rich, complete proteins.
Eggs and Dairy: Eggs and dairy products are other examples of complete proteins.
Organic Fermented Soy: What plant foods are high in amino acids? Soy is among the few plant-based foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source and a great option for plant-based eaters. Fermented soy is a good choice.
Whole Grains (Such as Quinoa and Oats): 100 percent whole grains contain a decent amount of protein, as well as fiber and other nutrients. Quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds and chia seeds all contain all nine essential amino acids in sufficient quantities. Choose whole grains over refined types for more protein.
Legumes: While not complete proteins on their own, when legumes and whole grains are paired together (like beans and rice, for example), they can provide all the essential amino acids.
Nuts and Seeds: These are rich in certain amino acids and also provide healthy fats and fiber.
Do any vegetables have all 9 essential amino acids? All plant-based foods contain some amino acids; however, most vegetables are considered "incomplete" proteins because they do not contain all nine of the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities.
That said, as long as you're consuming a variety of plant-based foods and protein sources (such as grains and legumes) throughout the day, your body can assemble the complete proteins it needs. That's why a diet that includes a variety of plant foods can still meet all of a person's amino acid needs.
How much protein do you need each day? This depends on your body size, age, gender and activity level. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for an average adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This means that a 150-pound adult would need a minimum of 54 grams of protein per day.
However, this is just a basic guideline and individual protein needs can vary. People who are very physically active, pregnant or breastfeeding women and older adults may require more protein, such as up to 100 grams or more daily.
If someone’s dietary intake of protein is not sufficient, then amino acid supplements or protein supplements may come in handy. While it's generally recommended to get nutrients from whole foods when possible, supplements are particularly popular among athletes for muscle recovery, or those who eat plant-based diets and may be lacking complete proteins.
Here's a brief overview of a few types of protein supplements to consider:
Bone Broth Protein Powder: Bone broth protein powders are made by cooking bones from animals (usually chickens or cows) for an extended period, then dehydrating and concentrating the resulting broth into a powder form. Bone Broth Protein benefits include those related to joint health, digestive health and healthy immune system support as well as promoting muscle recovery, joint comfort and exercise performance. Try a scoop of Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein in soups, coffee, smoothies or baked goods. It’s also available as a sipping broth.
Multi Collagen Protein: Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up a significant portion of our skin, hair, nails, bones and connective tissues. Collagen protein powders are typically made from the bones, skin and connective tissues of animals. Ancient Nutrition’s Multi Collagen Protein is used for benefits including skin, joint, digestive, nails and hair, making it a versatile protein powder for bodywide support. Try it in coffee, shakes, oatmeal, baked goods and soups.
Whey Protein Powder: Whey is a complete protein derived from dairy that's typically high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are especially important for normal muscle growth and repair. Whey protein is often used as a workout supplement by athletes and those looking to help increase muscle mass.
Plant-Based Proteins: These are typically made from foods like peas, rice and hemp. While individual plant-based proteins (except for soy and quinoa) aren't typically complete, many plant-based protein powders aren’t USDA Certified Organic. However,Ancient Nutrition’s Plant Protein+, made from seeds, is.