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Amino Acids Overview

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Twenty amino acids are needed to build the various proteins used in the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissues. Eleven of these amino acids can be made by the body itself, while the other nine (called essential amino acids) must come from the diet. The essential amino acids are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Another amino acid, histidine, is considered semi-essential because the body does not always require dietary sources of it. The nonessential amino acids are arginine, alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamine, glutamic acid, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Other amino acids, such as carnitine and taurine, are used by the body in ways other than protein-building and are often used therapeutically. L-Theanine is an amino acid found in tea that is said to help relieve stress. Beta-alanine has been used to prevent fatigue during exercise.

How It Works

Nutrition experts recommend that protein, as a source of amino acids, should account for 10–12% of the calories in a balanced diet. However, requirements for protein are affected by age, weight, state of health, and other factors. On average, a normal adult requires approximately 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Using this formula, a 140-pound person would need 50 grams (or less than 2 ounces) of protein per day. An appropriate range of protein intake for healthy adults may be as low as 45–65 grams daily. Some athletes have higher amino acid requirements. Most American adults eat about 100 grams of protein per day, or about twice what their bodies need and at least as much as any athlete requires.

Supplements of individual amino acids are recommended by doctors for specific purposes, such as lysine for herpes or phenylalanine for pain.

In one study, supplementing with amino acids reduced symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia, including urgency, frequency, and delay starting urine flow. Participants used 760 mg of a combination of glycine, alanine, and glutamic acid three times per day for two weeks, then 380 mg three times per day.

Where to Find It

Foods of animal origin, such as meat and poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, are the richest dietary sources of the essential amino acids. Plant sources of protein are often deficient in one or more essential amino acids. However, these deficiencies can be overcome by consuming a wide variety of plant foods. For example, grains are low in lysine, whereas beans provide an excess of lysine. It was previously believed that, in order for vegetarians to obtain adequate amounts of protein, all of the essential amino acids had to be “balanced” at each meal. For example, a grain and a bean had to be consumed at the same meal. However, more recent research has indicated that, while consuming a proper mix of amino acids is important, it is not necessary to consume them all at the same meal.

Possible Deficiencies

The vast majority of Americans eats more than enough protein and also more than enough of each essential amino acid for normal purposes. Dieters, some strict vegetarian body builders, and anyone consuming an inadequate number of calories may not be consuming adequate amounts of amino acids. In these cases, the body will break down the protein in muscle tissue and use those amino acids to meet the needs of more important organs or will simply not build more muscle mass despite increasing exercise.

Side Effects

Many Western diets provide more protein than the body needs, causing excess nitrogen to be excreted as urea in urine. The excess nitrogen has been linked in some studies with reduced kidney function in old age. Some, but not all, studies have found that when people have impaired kidney function, restricting dietary intake of protein slows the rate of decline of kidney function.

Excessive protein intake also can increase excretion of calcium, and some evidence has linked high-protein diets with osteoporosis, particularly regarding animal protein. On the other hand, some protein is needed for bone formation. A double-blind study showed that elderly people whose diets provided slightly less than the recommended amount of protein suffered less bone loss if they consumed an additional 20 grams of protein per day. A doctor can help people assess their protein intake and requirement.

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