Amino acids may sound like highly sophisticated scientific molecules, which they are. But they’re also in practically all the foods we eat, in varying quantities. Amino acid supplements are being touted as solutions for everything from anxiety to weight loss, but are they safe? And should you take them? Here’s the lowdown.
So, what exactly are amino acids?
It’s not in any way an exaggeration to refer to amino acids as the building blocks of life. All proteins are comprised of amino acids, including our DNA. This makes them pretty darn important!
Amino acids can be broadly divided into two categories: essential, and non-essential. Don’t let the name fool you, non-essential amino acids are incredibly important, it’s just that our bodies are not able to synthesize essential amino acids, so it’s essential that we get them in our diet.
There are 20 amino acids in total, 9 of which are essential:
And the rest of which are non-essential:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
Some of the non-essential amino acids, however, are considered conditionally essential (indicated with *) because they are essential only in some cases, such as during certain illnesses. Some of the conditionally essential amino acids are essential in children, but not adults.
How do amino acids work and what do they do?
The way amino acids work in our bodies is that when you ingest a protein, your body breaks it apart into the individual amino acids, reorders them, refolds them and turns them into whatever is needed at the time. Nonessential amino acids are produced in the liver through a process known as transamination.
Amino acids build cells, repair tissues, produce enzymes and play a key role in our health and well-being. Amino acids contribute to blood sugar regulation, energy levels, memory and cognitive behaviour, stress responses, and muscle building and repair. Non-essential amino acids also play a role in immune system function, metabolism, and digestion.
Are amino acid supplements a good idea?
In general, we can meet our basic amino acid needs through a balanced diet. Animal proteins such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy contain all 9 essential amino acids in the amounts that we need. Plant-based proteins also contain all 9, but are often very low in one or more essential amino acid. For example, most beans are low in methionine and high in lysine, whereas rice is low in lysine and high in methionine.
Amino acid supplementation has become increasingly common, for a range of reasons. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are popular for athletic training and muscle repair, whereas essential amino acids such as tryptophan and phenylalanine are being used to improve mood, energy, and quality of sleep. Even non-essential amino acids such as glutamine have become popular wellness supplements.
The amount of research on the validity of amino acid supplementation is currently a bit sparse, and we haven’t yet seen the impacts of long-term supplementation. It does seem that most amino acid supplements are generally safe in recommended dosages, however, since amino acids are the building blocks for proteins, excessive consumption may have adverse metabolic effects.
Starting an amino acid supplement on top of an already balanced diet is something you should discuss with your health care provider to discuss all available options, and any concerns.
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