Essential Amino Acids...
The Building Blocks of
25,000 Proteins

I'll have the 16 ounce amino acid.
Medium rare, please.

As you might have gathered, essential amino acids have something to do with protein.  

If there still is such a thing, one's preference might be in the form of an organic, antibiotic-free, hormone-free medium-rare rib eye or an end-cut prime rib.  This beats a protein-rich meal replacement drink or swallowing a supplement capsule any day.  Amino acids are, in fact, the building blocks of all proteins.

Ribeye steak, protein for amino acids

Most knowledgeable sources say there are 8 Essential amino acids and four others that are essential nutrients for children and babies since they have not yet developed the ability to make them on their own.

There are eight other aminos that must be administered to certain populations since they can't synthesize enough.  These are usually said to be conditionally essential.  So other than those, the rest of the amino acids can be synthesized by the body from other amino acids and are non-essential.


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How Amino Acids Work

Amino acids or their supplements can't be discussed until an understanding of their workings has been established.  Amino acids are the building blocks of protein but their role is much more than just structure. 

Each of the 20 amino acids required by the human body has very unique functions and if just one of them is missing or deficient, its corresponding protein function will be degraded. 

Each amino acid has unique chemical properties which determine what biological activity that particular protein will perform.

Proteins have an awesome responsibility for our well being.  They enable, or catalyze, almost all reactions within our cells but more important, they actually control most of our cellular processes. 

Everything from metabolism, sleep, growth, transport of molecules throughout the body, production of enzymes and just about everything else depends on one or more proteins.  Combined they make up about 75% of the body.

The Origami of Proteins

Origami is the art of folding paper into interesting designs; a swan, a hat, a boat, a flower or whatever.   The study of the structure of proteins is similar to origami.  

The folding instructions start with our genetic makeup.  In twenty-five words or less, selected strands in our DNA get transcribed to messenger RNA which in turn calls on specific amino acids to create the desired protein. 

Proteins fold themselves into three-dimensional structures according to the instructions given to them by their sequence of amino acids and with proteins, function follows structure. 

It's not that simple though since there are secondary and tertiary levels of folding and certain shapes are designed to fit into other shapes like the key in the lock.  Amino acid supplements don't have to worry about folding since they aren't proteins yet, just the raw material.

Whey Powder Sweet Organic
from: Starwest Botanicals Inc.

Denaturing...Unfolding the Origami

Denaturing of a protein is analogous to unfolding the origami shape.  Heat and chemicals can denature the protein causing it to lose its functionality.  

Fry an egg and watch the gooey transparent part of the egg turn white before your eyes.  What you are witnessing is the denaturing of the protein in the egg white.  What is happening is that the hydrogen bonds that hold the strings of amino acids together in the protein are being broken. 

They are relatively weak bonds and the violent vibration of the protein in response to cooking is what breaks the bonds.  Cooking food and industrial processing of food by heating is the single most powerful argument for the raw food movement.  Now we are starting to close in on amino acids.

Where Do We Get Amino Acids?

Any normal person should be able to get all the essential amino acids they need from eggs, beef, beans, seafood, milk, dairy, soy products and a wide assortment of vegetables. 

That sounds simple enough but the kicker is that ingestion of essential amino acids must take place every day since they cannot be stored like fat or carbohydrates for later use when needed.

For a definitive book on amino acids and nutrition, click on the image of the book jacket to the right.  It is Proteins and Amino Acids in Nutrition by Melville Sahyun in collaboration with the late Professor Carl L. A. Schmidt, Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at U. C. Berkeley.

Non-Essential and Essential Amino Acids

Of the 20 amino acids, our bodies can make half of them internally but the other half are essential, meaning they must be obtained from food and cannot be synthesized by the body.

However due to the prevalence of antibiotics and hormones in so much of the animal factory dairies, many people have given up cow's milk in favor of light soy milk.  Even so, care should be given to choosing an organic non-GMO soy milk, such as those sold under the Silk label. 

In fact, eggs, meaning free range, pastured, organic eggs, are the most perfect food we can eat when it comes to the eight essential amino acids.  The proportion of essential amino acids in eggs is extremely close to those in the human body. 

When compared to corn meal, for example, the essential amino acid content in the corn product doesn't even come close to that of eggs, except for leucine which is about the same.  Feeding factory farmed egg layers a corn based diet degrades the amino acid content of their eggs.

Just be aware that those supermarket eggs, milk, chicken, pork and beef all came from factory farms.  Want to know what a factory farm is?

They are an animals hell on earth; watch the DVD video Food, Inc. sometime or read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
With factory farmed meat and dairy, besides essential amino acids, you're getting a load of antibiotics, hormones and bacteria and setting yourself up to be totally antibiotic resistant when one of the superbugs decides to take up residence in your lungs or intestines.

The truth is, we can get all the protein we need from plant sources and stay a lot healthier in the process.

If you're not a normal person and are into bodybuilding and want to look like The Hulk, then you best supplement with some heavy duty amino acid products. 

Since essential amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and proteins are vital to muscle tissue, then all types of strenuous physical activity relating to sports, energy, recovery, and muscle strength gains are critically linked to amino acids.

The heading above asked the question, "Where do we get Amino Acids?"  Well, if you want to get your amino acids from beef, then the thing to look for is free range, grass fed beef; no hormones and no non-essential antibiotics. 

Most supermarket beef is factory farmed, meaning it may have started out in a pasture but was finished off in a commercial feedlot on a diet of corn, soybeans, chicken litter and assorted other trash.  The idea of the corn finishing is to add pounds quickly and marble the meat with fat.

One could compare steaks from feed lot finished cattle that are irradiated to kill the e-coli with steaks from free-range, grassland pastured cattle who bypass the feedlot right up to slaughter.  Both are real beef but the organically raised product will be the healthier choice.  It's worth it.

What's the Relation to Proteins?

Since the word "protein" has been thrown around, let's give it an overview.  We already said that proteins are made of essential amino acids. 

The amino acids are arranged in a chain where the sequence of acids is determined by a gene and incorporated into the genetic code.  So it could be deduced that proteins are integral to
genetics and therefore, our DNA. 

Those 20 amino acids link together to make the approximately 25,000 different proteins in the human body.  If that's not awesome enough, consider that each one has a unique function. 

Proteins participate in every single process within living cells. Many proteins are enzymes that perform as catalysts in metabolism. 

They have structural and mechanical functions in muscles and the cytoskeleton in cells that maintain the cells shape.  Other proteins are involved in cellular communication, immune responses, binding cells together and in replication of cells.

As an aside, just because we humans need 20 amino acids to function, let's not get the idea that those 20 are all there is.  In nature there are over 300 amino acids occurring in everything imaginable; they have been found in obscure micro-organisms and even in meteorites. 

That in itself opens the door to some interesting speculations.

Not being one to speculate, WebMD has put up a very informative website on branched-chain amino acids that includes uses, side effects, interactions, and dosing. Its good reference material.

Meet the Amino Acids

We will list the essential amino acids and their function but not go into great depth on each one:

  • Phenylalanine: converts to the amino acid Tyrosine
  • Valine: muscles, tissue repair and growth, nitrogen balance in the body
  • Threonine: supports cardiovascular, liver, immune and central nervous system
  • Tryptophan: precursor to serotonin, melatonin, production of niacin
  • Isoleucine: muscle recovery, formation of hemoglobin, regulation of blood sugar and energy
  • Methionine: breakdown of fats, antioxidant, heavy metal removal, converts to cysteine
  • Leucine: blood sugar regulation, muscle repair, growth hormone production, wound healing
  • Lysine: absorption of calcium, formation of collagen, conversion of fatty acids to energy
  • The four needed by infants and children are:

  • Cystiene: synthesized from methionine, functional component of proteins and enzymes
  • Tyrosine: production of brain chemicals, thyroid hormones and protein
  • Histidine: metabolized into neurotransmitter histamine
  • Arginine: blood vessel relaxation, urea production for removal of toxic ammonia from the body
  • Not all 10 of the essentials will be discussed in detail. Since we do get virtually all our amino acids from food or are manufactured in our bodies, more in-depth discussion will be presented in separate pages on those amino acids that we might want to supplement for one reason or another.  

    There are a few essential amino acids that have such vital, specialized functions that they may need to be taken as a supplement especially if one's diet consists of the typical American fast food, highly processed food, no meat such as the vegan diet, or where certain health issues may exist.

    Amino acid supplements attempt to isolate a particular protein building block such as L-arginine and commercialize it in capsule or tablet form. 

    L-arginine is a good example since it is believed to be essential for young people but not for adults.  New findings on arginine indicate that it has properties that may make it an ideal candidate for an amino acid supplement.

    At any rate the discussion will start with L-arginine. Following our coverage of amino acids, we will visit the essentials of fats and fatty acids and see that many of the dietary fats are really good for us.


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