You have probably already heard about amino acids and their importance for our health. Perhaps you have even had one or two personal experiences with a particular amino acid. This may have been during exercise or a diet.
Anyone interested in nutrition is always learning new things about the subject. Nutrition experts, scientists and doctors are intensively engaged with amino acids.
We have summarized the basic current findings for you here.
Amino acids – what do we understand by this?
When chemists and biochemists talk about amino acids, they emphasize the common chemical structure of this class of substances. All representatives of this substance group have at least two carbon atoms. Carbon forms the basis of most chemical compounds on earth.
It also forms the essential basis of our body tissue via the amino acids as building materials.
It makes the entire life on earth possible. Animal and plant life is also fundamentally based on building blocks containing these specific carbon atoms. These are certain representatives of the amino acids.
Many of the amino acids form long chains which are the basis of protein in a branched or straight line. Protein is also known as egg white. You probably know protein as one of the three macronutrients besides carbohydrates and fats. Many of our foods contain protein in one form or another.
This does not mean, however, that all foods contain protein building blocks in sufficient quantity and appropriate combination.
Particularly long chains among the amino acids form special proteins – the peptides. We will also get to know a trio of branched building blocks later on. They are particularly interesting for athletes.
The building material of life – the genetic code
Amino acids are called building materials of the human body. But their functions and significance go far beyond that. For example, 20 representatives of the amino acids are hidden in our DNA as genetic code.
You probably know that our body cells contain genetic information in a certain structure. When cells divide, they pass this information on to the following cells. You can think of the whole thing as a kind of blueprint.
The carrier for this genetic information is DNA. This abbreviation stands for the complicated term deoxyribonucleic acid.
If you take a closer look at the topic of genetic information, you will soon ask yourself how the cells can read this information. In other words: How do the cells know which tissue forms they need to develop in each individual case?
Hidden on individual sections of the DNA – in the genes – reference is made to 20 amino acids. This happens through a specific genetic code. We humans today are able to read this code. In the process, we repeatedly come across the 20 special amino acids in various combinations.
These 20 special representatives of the amino form the group of proteinogenic amino acids. They are also known as protein building blocks. These are the smallest building blocks of protein. This is formed in the additive proteinogenic.
Our entire body tissue and thus our entire physical existence is built from them. The meaning of these building blocks is not limited to human existence. Each amino acid in this group shapes all animal and plant life. This information already makes it clear what an indispensable role protein building blocks play.
The 20 basic building blocks are also known as standard amino acids.
Which amino acids are there?
Amino acids are categorized according to different aspects.
The 20 proteinogenic standard amino acids are:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
Constant transformation processes and functional diversity
Aminos are not only the building blocks of body tissue. Together with other building blocks and various micronutrients, they perform countless other functions in the human organism. They shape large parts of the metabolic functions.
They also convert into other substances such as messenger substances. It is another characteristic feature of all amino acids that they are all subject to conversion processes. The formation of the body’s own protein is another such transformation process.
They also convert into other substances such as messenger substances. It is another characteristic feature of all amino acids that they are all subject to conversion processes. The formation of the body’s own protein is another such transformation process.
This dynamic, especially in the case of standard amino acids, often leads to the highly simplistic and non-scientific statement that proteins – unlike carbohydrates or fats – supply our organism with less energy than it consumes.
This statement is often combined with nutritional recommendations on protein in the context of diets. Whether it contains a true core, we will see when we look at the subject of nutrition and diet.
Essential building block types
Some of the protein building blocks mentioned can be produced by the human organism itself from other amino acids and substances. In contrast, eight representatives of this group form the association of the so-called essential amino acids.
They must be supplied with food. We cannot form them independently in the body.
Essential amino acids are:
- Valine and
Non-essential and semi-essential building block types
In contrast to the essential protein building blocks, the building blocks we form ourselves are called non-essential amino acids. The semi-essential representatives are located in an intermediate area. They are essential in some phases of life and not in others.
This is the case with arginine, for example. This component can be essential in youth years.
The essential protein building blocks can be absorbed and utilised particularly well by the human organism. This prompted the US scientist Professor Luca-Moretti to speak of the human amino acid pattern in connection with these protein building blocks.
In his view, every living being has a specific amino acid pattern. This is formed from protein building blocks, which are particularly good at building up the body’s own protein in every living creature.
The amino acid pattern differs from every living being.
This assessment by Luca-Moretti underlines the importance of a well-composed diet. This must above all ensure a constant supply of the essential amino acids.
The ketogenic group
Another interesting subgroup within the standard amino acids is the ketogenic protein building blocks.
The six building blocks
- and Tyrosine
are represented here. We will see that these amino acids can support certain types of nutrition and diets. They play a key role in a special form of metabolism in which fats, in particular, are converted into energy.
Normally, our body gains energy from sugar and thus from carbohydrates.
L- and D-shapes
You may have noticed: In descriptions of the amino acids we often find a capital L before the name of the building block. The building blocks can have different structures, with their components distributed either on the right or left.
A distinction is therefore made between L- and D-structures. Both forms are in principle constructed in the same way but behave mirror-inverted to each other. When we talk about protein building blocks here, we regularly mean the L-form.
Experts are not yet sure what function the D-structures actually have. So far it seems that L-structures produce more intensive effects than the D-forms.
Functional areas and benefits
We already know that protein building blocks form the basis of all body tissue. However in interaction with other substances, they have an effect on many other areas of the body. Among other things, our nervous system, the health of our blood vessels and many other functions depend on them.
This also means that we can specifically influence certain parts of the body with one or the other amino acid. From a scientific point of view, there are still a number of open questions in this area. Nevertheless, there are already a number of insights into the physiological relationships.
The standard amino acids became particularly interesting for scientists when they began to understand the basics of genetic information in the middle of the 20th century. Scientific studies and field reports have since expanded the knowledge on the subject.
From all this information we can deduce functional areas in our body that could benefit from the additional intake of one or the other amino acid.
Basic information on needs and possible shortages
Before we turn to individual functional areas, we deal with the daily need for building blocks. It is hardly possible to make standardized statements about the amount of protein building blocks each person needs per day.
Since only the standard amino acids have to be supplied with the diet, the World Health Organization WHO has developed recommendations for the daily intake of these protein building blocks.
They advise these intake amounts per day in milligrams per kilogram of body weight:
From these recommendations alone, it can be seen that requirements vary from person to person. They are dependent on bodyweight, among other things.
However, requirements can also vary:
- according to the level of physical activity.
- under stress and special external influences such as UV radiation.
- in old age.
- in special life situations.
- for calorie-reduced diets and special forms of nutrition.
As a rule, the demand will increase under loads of any kind. Since the WHO recommendations only consider the essential building blocks, they do not provide an overall picture of the supply of amino acids.
It is hardly possible to determine whether the formation of non-essential amino acids takes place in sufficient quantities. There are other factors at work here. Some non-essential protein building blocks depend on other substances and micronutrients for their formation. These must also be available at all times in sufficient quantities and, above all, simultaneously.
How do you recognize an amino acid deficiency?
A lack of valuable protein building blocks can occur hidden and not be noticed for a long time.
Since protein building blocks become active in many areas of the body, the symptoms of a deficiency are often uncertain, especially at the beginning.
They can include
- states of exhaustion,
- restlessness and poor sleep
- skin problems and
- the degradation of the body’s own musculature.
Another problematic factor is that many doctors are not able to deal with nutrition and protein building blocks in depth.
Sports physicians and experts in orthomolecular medicine may well be able to assess the importance of amino acids for our health. Orthomolecular physicians, as specialists, deal intensively with nutrients and micro-substances.
This is not necessarily the case with a general practitioner. A lack of knowledge is understandable since the relationships are very complex and specific. Moreover, even experts in the field of nutrition disagree on many issues.
More awareness of the importance of amino acids, but also of vitamins and trace elements is generally only gradually growing.
Daily dietary intake
When building blocks and nutrition are discussed, there is often astonishing controversy.
Some nutrition experts vehemently complain that the typical diet of modern man contains far too much protein. Others, on the other hand, believe that we often suffer unnoticed from a protein deficiency. This controversy arises, among other things, because experts often do not talk about the same topic.
We can eat a protein-rich diet and still not consume one or the other amino acid in sufficient quantity.
Only the protein itself is not interesting. Rather, the protein building blocks in combination are relevant, especially the essential representatives that form the basis for the body’s own protein.
How can you promote a complete amino acid pattern?
For example, many plants contain considerable amounts of protein. Almond flour has, after all, the protein content of 56%. This is only one percent less protein content than smoked salmon.
However, if we take a closer look, one or the other building block is often missing in order to assure a complete series of essential protein building blocks. As far as essential representatives of the protein building blocks are concerned, some animal foods have a clear advantage.
Here the picture is rather that the complete amino acid pattern with all essential building blocks is mapped.
However, not all nutritional experts support the intake of larger amounts of animal protein. Some time ago, for example, the WHO issued a warning against the excessive consumption of red meat.
Many questions are still unanswered here. Some people also reject the consumption of animal products for ideological reasons.
Which foods are particularly rich in protein?
The German Society for Nutrition recommends that the diet should contain at least 15-20% protein per day.
This corresponds to a value of 0.8 g protein per kilogram bodyweight in a healthy adult. In other words, the nutrition experts see the need for an average of 60-70 g of protein for an adult man and about 50 g for an adult woman.
Certain living conditions can significantly increase this need. For example, it is estimated that athletes need up to 1.8 g/kg body weight. This applies equally to strength and endurance athletes.
Besides meat and dairy products, the following are also particularly rich in protein:
- soya flakes
- pumpkin seeds
- tuna fish
- hemp seeds
- red lenses
Valence of protein
When it comes to vegetable protein sources, the so-called biological value must be considered. It is a measure of how effectively our body can convert the protein it absorbs into the body’s own protein.
The theory of the amino acid pattern also takes up this aspect. The human organism is particularly good at converting essential amino acids into the body’s own protein.
If we look at protein sources from animal and vegetable foods, vegetable foods generally come off worse in terms of value.
For vegans and vegetarians, for example, this means that they must carefully prepare their diet. They can convert a sufficient intake of high-quality protein by combining certain foods.
Where and how positive effects can be seen
Every amino acid fulfils a multitude of tasks in the human organism. The protein building blocks, but also other representatives of the amino acids, can, therefore, act on the most diverse areas.
Get to know some important building blocks in the following sections. You may also find here a suggestion for natural support if you have problems in any of these areas.
Aminos for sleep disorders
People who suffer from nervous tension and/or sleep disorders often look for natural alternatives to help.
The amino acid tryptophan may be able to do something for you in this area.
This essential building block contributes to the formation of the messenger substance serotonin in the human body. Serotonin, for its part, is closely related to our nervous restlessness and a night of healthy, deep sleep. The precursor of serotonin tryptophane is therefore considered a kind of natural antidepressant in itself.
It is interesting to know that L-tryptophane is able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
How tryptophan is best delivered to the brain
This means that tryptophane can penetrate directly into the brain’s nutrient fluid. There it is not only the precursor for the messenger substance serotonin, but also for melatonin. You probably know that melatonin is directly linked to the quality of our sleep.
If you would like to increase the L-tryptophan level specifically with certain foods, you should know another special feature of this amino acid. It competes with various other protein building blocks when it is absorbed into the brain.
By combining protein-rich food with carbohydrates, we give L-tryptophan an advantage in the intake.
This has led to the observation, for example, that hot milk with honey in the evening can promote healthy sleep. Honey adds carbohydrates (sugar) to milk rich in protein. This results in an increased release of insulin.
The hormone insulin redirects certain other building blocks competing with L-tryptophane into the muscles. This opens the way for L-tryptophane to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Those who are interested in tryptophane should also note the following phenomenon: Stress can lead to an increased breakdown of L-tryptophane through the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Here the demand for this essential component can quickly increase.
Tryptophan may have side effects
Also important: In high doses, L-tryptophane can lead to side effects such as
- nausea and
L-tryptophan is partly used as a medicine against sleep disorders. Dosages of 0.5 g to 1 g are recommended.
For your own use, you should rather stick to the lower dosage. Caution is advised when taking certain drugs at the same time, such as so-called MAO inhibitors for depression. These drugs raise serotonin levels.
L-tryptophane can enhance the effect of these drugs. An excess of serotonin may result. This could be life-threatening.
Amino acids for skin, hair and connective tissue
Do you also wish to remain wrinkle-free as long as possible as you get older? Perhaps some protein building blocks can help you with this.
Since protein building blocks are the basis of all body tissue, our skin, but also other body structures, depend on a sufficient supply of protein building blocks.
For example, the fibre structure collagen is particularly important for the firmness and smooth, external appearance of our skin.
With increasing age, the regenerative capacity of physical structures gradually diminish. Factors such as free radicals – aggressive and binding oxygen molecules – now have a more intensive effect.
One of the consequences is an increased tendency of the skin to form wrinkles.
Some protein building blocks can help you to counteract premature wrinkling or hair loss.
These are above all
- Arginine with its potential effect on the vascular structure and the blood circulation of the skin
- Histidine with possible skin calming properties
- Methionine as protection against harmful factors from the environment
- Lysine as a strengthening substance for skin and hair
- Leucine, glycine and proline as helpers in the fight against wrinkles.
By no means, all possible effects of protein building blocks have been scientifically proven. However, the investigation of individual protein components speaks for itself.
Fat metabolism and cholesterol level
The amino acid arginine can reduce cholesterol levels by up to 10%. A scientific study already came to this conclusion in 1995.
The building block taurine, which is formed from cysteine and methionine, could also contribute to the protection of the entire cardiovascular system. It also has a positive effect on cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Can you lose weight with amino acids?
Have you ever had to deal with the notorious yo-yo effect during a reduction diet?
Proteins and protein building blocks are closely related to the yo-yo effect. If you do not supply your body with enough protein during a diet, the organism begins to break down the body’s own protein from the muscles. This means that your diet is programmed for failure right from the start.
The yo-yo effect and the breakdown of muscles
Your muscles burn most of the energy in your body. If they decrease during a diet, you will burn fewer calories. If you then stop your calorie reduction and return to higher calorie intake, your body will burn fewer calories than before the diet.
In other words, you would need fewer calories because you have fewer muscles.
We probably all know the result of the yo-yo effect: we quickly weigh more after the diet than before it. So how can amino acids help us lose weight?
It is important that you make sure that you are on a reduction diet to provide sufficient and rather additional amounts of standard amino acids. As far as the amount is concerned, you should at least take the recommended values of the WHO for essential amino acids.
Your requirements during a diet may even be individually higher than these recommended values. A diet also represents a kind of stress for your organism.
Metabolic conversion with protein
But can you perhaps even convert your entire metabolic activity with the help of some protein building blocks?
We have already presented the ketogenic protein building blocks above.
You may know that the human organism normally derives its energy from sugar. Sugar here also stands for carbohydrates, which are complex sugars. Our brain, in particular, consumes a lot of energy and therefore a lot of sugar.
The production of energy from carbohydrates and the associated processes in the liver involving insulin can contribute to weight gain. Today we regularly consume large quantities of starch-rich complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potatoes or rice.
What is less known to most people is that there is another way to create energy.
Our organism can be made to obtain its energy from fats in a complex process. The so-called keto diet is based on this process of metabolic change. The organism has to be programmed to change its metabolic activity by a reduced carbohydrate supply.
This must result in the formation of structures that we call ketone bodies. The ketogenic protein building blocks form ketone bodies. They can, therefore, be used to support a keto diet.
Therefore, when you are on a ketogenic diet, it is essential to remember the building blocks leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, isoleucine, tryptophan and tyrosine.
By the way: A ketogenic metabolism, in turn, consumes a lot of energy. The assumption that protein requires energy in its metabolism is also based on this effect.
Why do we need amino acids for muscle building and in sports?
BCAA – an abbreviation that probably almost all athletes know. Especially strength athletes are convinced of this quartet of certain standard amino acids. BCAA is the abbreviation for the term “Branched-Chain Amino Acids“. This refers to the three essential protein components leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Among other things, they play a major role in supplying energy to the muscles. Strength athletes take advantage of this effect by an increased supply of BCAA.
However, BCAA cannot only have an effect on pure muscle building. Endurance athletes also benefit from these three amino acids. Obviously more energy is provided in the muscles by an increased supply. This promotes endurance.
BCAA are not only interesting for competitive athletes or ambitious hobby sportsmen.
In connection with regular, moderate exercise, older people can also support the maintenance of the musculature. We can already detect a tendency towards muscle loss from the age of 30.
Studies also indicate that BCAA can help keep bodyweight lower from advanced age onwards.
Athletes – especially strength athletes – often use additional special properties of the amino acid arginine. The next section deals with the blood circulation-promoting properties of this protein building block.
Amino acids and potency
Here the semi-essential amino acid arginine is the focus of attention. Potency disorders are a burden to many men of different ages. Classic erectile dysfunction occurs particularly in conjunction with cardiovascular disease and changes in the male blood vessels.
This means that potency disorders can also be caused by serious diseases such as diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis (calcification of the arteries).
In addition, there is the psychological burden of the lack of sexual performance in the case of potency disorders. Drugs that treat erectile dysfunction are often associated with severe side effects. The highly effective PDE-5 inhibitors (for example Viagra) are therefore not without side effects.
Since it is estimated that over 50% of all men over the age of 40 can be affected by erectile dysfunction, many of those affected look for natural alternatives.
The amino acid L-Arginine is very effective against potency disorders. The protein building block has an essential function in the formation of nitric oxide in body tissues. Among other things, nitric oxide ensures that muscles and blood vessels relax.
A man’s erectile function is based in particular on ensuring a sufficient flow of blood into the erectile tissue of the penis. Arginine ensures this necessary relaxation via the nitric oxide cycle and at the same time prevents the backflow of blood.
As a result, the erectile function can be effectively promoted. The PDE-5 inhibitors also use the effect of increased blood flow to the erectile tissue. However, they are based on a different mechanism.
L-Arginine could, therefore, be a side-effect free alternative against potency disorders.
Other applications such as high blood pressure, tinnitus, psyche and menopause
Especially the amino acid arginine takes a special position among the amino acids. Positive effects have also been described for them in the treatment of high blood pressure, diabetes, tinnitus and in supporting the human immune system.
Women in the menopause should be able to benefit from arginine. Hot flushes, for example, can potentially have a positive effect here. L-Arginine works especially well if the amino acid lysine is present in sufficient amounts at the same time. Lysine ensures that arginine is better absorbed into the body cells.
Similarly, the stability of the bones also benefits from lysine. The protein building block increases the absorption of calcium into bone tissue. This could make it easier for menopausal women to prevent bone softening (osteoporosis).
We have already learned about the amino acid tryptophane above, which, among other things, affects our nervous system. Another interesting building block in this context is tyrosine.
Tyrosine for psyche, thyroid and stress consequences
Tyrosine is not an essential amino. The precursor to this building block is phenylalanine. Phenylalanine is in turn essential for the human organism.
Tyrosine is essential for a wide range of tasks and functions in the body. Among other things, this building block forms the precursor for messenger substances such as dopamine. The so-called stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are also formed from tyrosine.
In addition, this building block is considered to be a precursor of the thyroid hormones. A lack of tyrosine can, therefore, manifest itself in the form of many complaints, including depressive moods.
Studies indicate, among other things, that tyrosine can be used specifically to alleviate the effects of stress.
Who needs Aminos and benefits from a dietary supplement?
We have already seen that the need for high-quality amino acids varies from person to person. Here it depends on the special living conditions and the overall health situation of a person.
A sufficient supply of high-quality proteins should above all include the amino acids that are essential for the human organism. However, the requirement for individual amino acids may be increased, for example, in athletes, in old age or in special stress situations.
Certain groups of people have emerged who generally benefit particularly from the additional supply of higher quality amino acids.
Vegetarians and Vegans
Due to the higher value of animal protein, essential amino acids are especially interesting for vegans and vegetarians.
They should pay particular attention to the composition of their diet and protein intake. In particular, if additional burdens such as intensive sporting activities or stress are added, the needs of this group of people can increase further.
In this case, a dietary supplement of high-quality amino acids may be a good decision.
Older people are confronted with many physical changes. Many of them struggle with overweight, changes in metabolic functions and other diseases. The need for valuable amino acids usually increases with age.
One of the reasons for this is that many physical functions no longer function as smoothly and quickly as they did when they were young.
Experience reports suggest that older people could benefit from additional intake of high-quality amino acids. Also, the one or other single building block like L-Arginine could help to feel healthier and fitter in old age.
Women in the menopause
As described, L-Arginine, for example, can help women in the menopause to cope better with hot flashes and other negative symptoms. In menopausal women, due to the changed hormonal situation, the prevention of bone decalcification and cardiovascular diseases is also a priority.
The female sex hormone estrogen protects women to a certain extent from cardiovascular problems, for example, until they reach menopause. If this protection fails due to the lack of oestrogen, women could build up new protection with L-arginine, for example.
Furthermore, a sufficient supply of essential amino acids can also contribute to feeling young and beautiful for longer.
Athletes and top performers
We could see that the need for high-quality proteins is increased among athletes. This is why this group of people, in particular, is dependent on a sufficient supply of amino acids. Aminos should not only play a key role in nutrition.
Under certain circumstances, supplementation can help to absorb peaks in performance and high physical strain.
Even people who have to work hard in their everyday lives and in their jobs could benefit from an additional supply of amino acids.
Dogs, cats and horses
In animals such as dogs, cats and horses, additional high-quality amino acids can have positive effects.
Cats, for example, are generally dependent on high-quality protein in their diet. Cats are carnivores. They are much less tolerant of carbohydrates than dogs. Without a sufficient supply of taurine – essential for cats – cats become seriously ill. They can go blind and get heart disease.
Dogs also benefit from high-quality protein. In horses, amino acids can, among other things, promote muscle building.
Intake and pharmaceutical forms
Amino acids are available as food supplements in various forms and preparations. Especially athletes know the common (protein) powder and amino acid complexes.
In addition, amino acids can also – as in our case – be taken as pellets or capsules.
Products with protein building blocks differ, among other things, in the biological value of the protein. Let us remember: The biological valence describes the extent to which supplied protein can be converted into the body’s own protein.
Supplements with protein building blocks differ in the origin of the added protein.
There are also products that contain all the essential representatives of the building blocks. However, food supplements with only one or a small group of building blocks are also offered.
When should you take amino acids?
The time of taking is as individual as your needs. For athletes, it is often recommended to take it before training, but also after training to promote muscle building.
There are products that promise a particularly rapid transition into the blood. In this case, it may be advisable to take it before a meal.
Is there one or the other component that has a negative effect?
Perhaps you have heard of homocysteine. This component is not essential. It is formed from methionine.
Homocysteine does not have a good reputation. In high concentrations, which also show up in elevated blood values, damage to the blood vessels by this component is suspected. Other micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and B6 are said to be able to counteract this.
In this article on amino acids, we would also like to mention that not all building blocks per se have only positive effects in the human body.
Due to the described constant conversion of amino acids into other building blocks and substances, many of the building blocks are also created which can have negative effects.
Research in this area is not yet complete. It is important that, in addition to a supply of high-quality protein building blocks, the supply of other essential micronutrients is also ensured.
Effect and side effects of amino acids
Particularly isolated protein building blocks supplied in high doses can have side effects. We saw this above with tryptophan, for example. Here it is generally to be noted that an excess of proteins must be excreted via the kidneys. This puts a strain on the kidney activity and can be a problem here, especially in the case of disease-related prior stress.
So if you suffer from reduced kidney function, you should consult your doctor before taking extra protein.
The human organism is absolutely dependent on amino acids in many functional areas. This not only refers to essential representatives of these substances. Protein components not only influence our health but also our well-being.
It is therefore particularly worthwhile to ensure a sufficient supply of amino acids. This is especially true in advanced age.