Amino acids are the building blocks of hundreds of different proteins, all of which are responsible for a host of important bodily functions such as building and repairing tissue, hormone production, strengthening your immune system, and keeping you energized—and that’s just naming a few! Of the 20 amino acids, nine are considered essential, meaning your body can’t produce them on its own and that they must be obtained through the food you eat. In order to maintain your health, it’s important to understand what these nine essential amino acids are, how they function, and the primary food sources in which you can find them.
THE NINE ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS AND THEIR FUNCTIONS
1. HISTIDINE is responsible for making histamine which plays an important role in immune function, digestion, sleep, and sexual health. Found in meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
2. ISOLEUCINE helps your body make hemoglobin which is responsible for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide between organs and tissues, and regulates energy. Found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
3. LEUCINE aids your body in protein and growth hormone production as well as to grow and repair muscle tissue, heal wounds, and regulate blood sugar. Found in dairy, soy, beans, and legumes.
4. LYSINE assists with hormone and energy production as well as bolsters immune health. Found in meat, eggs, soy, black beans, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds.
5. METHIONINE helps you absorb zinc and selenium, as well as assists the body in building muscle, regulating metabolism, and supporting its detoxification processes. Found in eggs, grains, nuts, and seeds.
6. PHENYLALANINE is essential for the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Found in dairy, meat, poultry, soy, fish, beans, and nuts.
7. THREONINE assists collagen/elastin production as well as fat metabolism and immune function. Found in wheat germ, lentils, cottage cheese, meat, and cheese.
8. TRYPTOPHAN helps make serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle and serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and pain. Found in most high protein foods including wheat germ, cottage cheese, chicken, and turkey.
9. VALINE aids muscle growth, tissue repair and regeneration, and energy production. Found in soy, cheese, peanuts, mushrooms, whole grains, and vegetables.
“COMPLETE” VERSUS “INCOMPLETE” PROTEINS
When it comes to getting all your essential amino acids in one shot, look no further than “complete” proteins. These proteins, which include fish, poultry, red meat, eggs, and dairy, as well as plant-based sources such as soy, quinoa, and buckwheat, contain all nine essential amino acids.
Foods that contain some, but not all, of the nine essential amino acids are called incomplete proteins. These include nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, pulses, whole grains—and yes—even vegetables! While incomplete, these are by no means inconsequential sources, so plant-based eaters need not despair. And the latest research also suggests that you don’t necessarily need to get all the essential amino acids at one sitting as previously thought. So, if you love the combo of rice and beans, go for it, but don’t worry if you can’t pair sources to make a complete protein at every single meal.
COULD YOU BE DEFICIENT?
Not getting enough amino acids in your diet will show in ways similar to a general lack of sufficient protein intake, as explored in this previous post. As the body doesn’t store excess amino acids, it will first break down muscle tissue in search of the amino acids it requires. Therefore, muscle wasting is the first sign of deficiency. You will also likely notice a weakened immune response, fatigue, malaise, and brittle hair and fingernails. Changes in mood, memory, hormonal health, reproductive function, and digestion are also symptoms of inadequate essential amino acid intake.
It is a common misconception that those following a plant-based diet don’t get enough—or all—of the essential amino acids. As long as you eat a diverse diet rich in whole foods, plant-based or not, you should expect to meet your recommended daily intake for each amino acid. It is worth noting, however, that only lysine tends to be a concern for vegans as it is not as abundant in all plant sources as it is in animal sources. Vegan sources of lysine include lentils, black beans, and tempeh, to name a few.
SHOULD I BE SUPPLEMENTING?
If you’re eating well and have no obvious symptoms supplementation is likely unnecessary, though a targeted approach with certain amino acids can help specific conditions or concerns.
For example, tryptophan is essential in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin which regulates mood and sleep, among other things. For those with depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances, high-quality studies have shown that a tryptophan supplement can boost mood, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality.
For athletes, research shows that a supplemented combination of leucine, isoleucine, and valine (also known as the three essential branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs) can help reduce muscle fatigue, boost athletic performance, decrease muscle soreness, and promote recovery. Taking BCAAs has also been shown to lower the rate of perceived exertion during high intensity exercise. They may even be beneficial for those recovering from surgery or a bone fracture.
When it comes to amino acids—essential or non—a diverse diet rich in whole foods and low in processed ones is key to getting every one you need. However, health conditions, pregnancy, age, and lifestyle are all important determining factors as well. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough protein, or may be lacking certain essential amino acids, contact me. Together we can get you back on the road to vibrant health.