Essential amino acids: definition, benefits and food sources

Essential amino acids: definition, benefits and food sources

Essential amino acids are also known as the building blocks of proteins. They play a lot of constructional roles in the body. While some of the amino acids might be sourced directly from food, others are taken in the form of supplements to improve the mood of a person. Amino acids are categorized into three categories; essential amino acids, conditionally essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids. In this article, you will find a lot of information regarding essential amino acids; the definition, sources and the benefits they have on the body.

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Here are some of the facts that you might not have been aware of about the importance of amino acids in our bodies.

What are essential amino acids?

These are organic compounds. They are made of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Being building blocks of proteins, the body requires them in order to grow. For growth purposes, the body requires 20 amino acids. Even though all of these are required in the body only nine of them are essential. The nine essential amino acids include:

1. Phenylalanine

Phenylalanine is the antecedent for various neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, tyrosine, dopamine and norepinephrine. These amino acids facilitate the production of other amino acids. It also enhances the functioning of proteins and enzymes.

2. Valine

This amino acid is characterized by a three branched chain, with one side of its molecular structure branching. The main role of valine is to cause the growth and regeneration of muscles. It is also involved in the production of energy. Valine is a good amino acid for people seeking to fight muscle soreness and muscle loss. It can also increase the endurance ability of an individual because of the energy burst that it causes.

3. Threonine

Threonine is a major part of the structural proteins such as elastin and collagen. The main role that this amino acid plays is to improve the skin and the connective tissue. It also helps in fat metabolism and improves the immune function of the body.

4. Tryptophan

This amino acid is mainly linked to the feeling of drowsiness. However, it has major functions in the body. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin as will be discussed later in this text. Serotonin is very important as it regulates the appetite of a person, their sleep and their mood. Tryptophan also helps to maintain a nitrogen balance in the body.

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Pie chart representing the contents of a healthy diet
Source: UGC

5. Methionine

This is another essential amino acid. It plays an integral role in metabolism. It also facilitates detoxification in the body. Methionine is also necessary as it causes the growth of the tissues. It also facilitates the absorption of minerals such as selenium and zinc, all of which are important to the body.

6. Leucine

Leucine has a similar structure to valine. They both are branched amino acids. Leucine is responsible for the synthesis of proteins in the body and the repairing of muscles. It also facilitates the regulation of the levels of blood sugar. Other activities include facilitating the healing of wounds and the production of hormones. Just like valine, leucine prevents muscle loss and muscle soreness.

7. Isoleucine

This is another three branched amino acid. Isoleucine facilitates metabolism of the muscles and is highly concentrated in the muscle tissue. It also enhances immune function, the production of haemoglobin and the regulation of energy.

8. Lysine

Lysine facilitates processes in the synthesis of proteins, hormone production and enzyme production. It also facilitates the absorption of calcium, production of energy, production of collagen and immune function. It is not a three-branched amino acid.

9. Histidine

This amino acid is necessary for the production of histamine. Histamine is a neurotransmitter which is essential for immune response, sexual function, digestion and sleep cycle. Histidine plays essential roles such as acting as a protective barrier to the nerve cells, and maintaining the myelin sheath.

Notably, the only way that these essential amino acids can be obtained is through foods with amino acids. Nonessential amino acids are made by the body. Animal proteins such as egg, meat and poultry are great sources of essential amino acids.

Some nonessential amino acids are categorized under conditionally essential amino acids. These are only considered when a person has some illnesses or stressful conditions. When you have cancer for instance, you need arginine, which is considered as nonessential amino acids. On its own, the body cannot fight cancer without arginine.

What do essential amino acids do?

All of the amino acids play distinct roles. However, all of the activities are aimed at enhancing the immunity and proper functioning of the body. It is through the growth of tissues that our bodies grow, thus explaining the importance of amino acids. Since all the essential acids play different roles in the body, it is wise to consume a diet that includes majority of them.

Amino acids play very integral roles in the growth of the body. Below are some of the benefits of amino acids.

1. Improves mood and helps you sleep better

Depressing moods and sleep disturbances are often associated to low serotonin levels. Studies reveal that if the serotonin is supplemented with tryptophan, sleep can be improved, the symptoms of depression can reduce and the overall mood of a person can be boosted. Tryptophan facilitates the production of serotonin while serotonin regulates mood and sleep behaviors.

A study conducted on 60 year old women revealed that the use of 1 gram of tryptophan led to happiness and increased energy levels. They were also able to sleep without disturbances.

Summary: Amino acids make you happy and ensure you get sufficient sleep.

2. Amino acids boost exercise performance

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Amino acids whose molecular structure is characterized by three chains are used to decrease fatigue, improve exercise performance and also facilitate muscle recovery after doing exercises.

A study that involved 16 resistance trainers was conducted. It was confirmed amino acids like valine were better in facilitating muscle recovery as compared to placebo. They also increase the energy such that a person can carry out a lot of exercises.

Another review of 8 studies showed that supplementing using three branched amino acids reduced muscle soreness and lead to muscle recovery quicker than resting.

People looking to improve their performance as they exercise should take 4 grams of leucine every day for 12 weeks. Essential amino acids can also help people who are not athletic.

Summary: Amino-acids boost your performance as you exercise and take part in various activities.

3. Amino acids prevent the loss of muscle

The loss of muscle occurs when a person has been sick for a long time or when they are on bed rest. During such times, the immunity of person decreases and they are not also very active. Muscle loss is common especially among older people.

Studies reveal that essential amino acids can prevent muscles from breaking down and wasting away. To confirm this, a study involving 22 adults put on bed rest was performed. It was discovered that those who received 15 grams of a mixture of essential amino acids were able to recover from muscle loss.

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Athletes and older adults benefits from essential amino acids because they help in the maintenance of a lean body mass.

Summary: Amino acids prevent your muscles from wearing out.

4. Amino acids can promote the loss of weight

Losing weight down to the desired weight is very important. This is because a lot of weight comes with a lot of struggles and diseases. The good news is that people can really on amino acids to reduce weight.

A study among 36 strength trained men was conducted to examine whether or not amino acids leads to weight loss. It was found out that indeed amino acids do a better job in weight loss than sports drinks and whey protein. Another study confirmed that consuming foods with 4% supplemental leucine caused weight loss in rats.

If you want to lose weight, try supplementing your diet with amino acids. If you are consistent, you will notice the results within a short time. People in fitness eat protein a lot because of such amino acid properties.

Summary: Amino acids are good for weight loss.

Which are the food sources of amino acids?

Amino acids are very essential to the body, but the body cannot produce the essential amino acids. Therefore, we have to source them from food or supplements. The good thing is that foods containing essential amino acids are readily available. There are also supplements that a person can get from stores.

There are foods that contain all of these essential amino acids. These foods include meat, dairy products, eggs, seafood and poultry. Plant based products that contain all essential amino acids include buckwheat, quinoa and soy.

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There are other plants that do not contain all the essential amino acids. These include beans and nuts. If you are a vegetarian, ensure to eat a lot of different plant based proteins. This is because some of the proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. For instance, if you consume nuts, beans, vegetables, seeds and whole grains, your body can get the essential amino acids. Therefore, you do not need to worry if you are a vegetarian.


There are nine essential amino acids that your body requires. They include lysine, leucine, histidine, isoleucine, threonine, phenylalanine, methionine, valine and tryptophan.

These essential amino acids cannot be manufactured by your body. You can get them from animal and plant proteins. You can also take amino acids supplements.

Essential amino acids play numerous roles in the body, they improve you mood and help you sleep better, boost exercise performance, prevent the loss of muscle, promote the loss of weight and lead to increased endurance.

If possible, ensure to consume the recommended intake of each of the amino acids.


The information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content including text, graphics, images, and information contained on or available through this page is for general information purposes only.

READ ALSO: Blood group diet: foods for types O, A, B and AB

Source: Yen

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