Essential Amino Acids 101

What Are Amino Acids?

Amino acids are the “building blocks of proteins”. Our bodies use amino acids for important functions such as breaking down food, repairing bodily tissues, growth, and for energy. They’re also essential for producing hormones and neurotransmitters. Amino acids are what is left after proteins are digested.

Our bodies need 20 amino acids in order to grow and function properly. Amino acids are classified in these categories: Essential, conditionally essential, or non-essential. This article outlines all you need to know about amino acids, their functions, connections, and top food sources.

What Are Essential Amino Acids?

Essential amino acids are not made by our bodies; therefore, it should come from food. Amino acids are organic compounds. They are composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

The 9 essential amino acids are:

  • histidine
  • isoleucine
  • leucine, lysine
  • methionine
  • phenylalanine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • valine

Conditionally Essential Amino Acids

Conditionally essential means that these amino acids are considered necessary under certain circumstances such as illness or disease.

Conditional amino acids are:

  • arginine
  • cysteine
  • tyrosine
  • glycine
  • glutamine
  • ornithine
  • proline
  • serine.

Non-essential Amino Acids

These amino acids are produces by our bodies. They include: asparagine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and alanine.

Why Do We Need These 9 Essential Amino Acids?

LEUCINE

Leucine provides the basic building blocks for muscles. It:

  • Stimulates muscle strength and growth
  • Regulates blood sugar levels
  • Positive impact on the brain and neurotransmitters

Leucine Sources: Soybeans, pumpkin, seeds, nuts, peas, beans

ISOLEUCINE

  • Helps produce hemoglobin (Hemoglobin carries iron into the blood)
  • Regulates blood sugar
  • Assists with nitrogen growth

Isoleucine sources: soy, cashews, almonds, oats, lentils, beans, brown rice, legumes, chia seeds.

LYSINE

  • Repairs muscle and helps with growth
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Helps with mineral absorption
  • Synthesizes collagen, which is needed for forming connective tissue and bones

Lysine sources: beans, peas, chia seeds, spirulina, parsley, avocados, almonds, cashews

METHIONINE

  • Critical for new blood vessel growth
  • Important for muscle growth
  • Contains Sulphur, which is necessary to prevent arthritis, damaged tissues, and promote proper healing
  • Aids in the formation of creatine, which is essential for energy
  • Dissolves fat

Methionine sources:  beans, seeds, chia seeds, brazil nuts, oats, wheat, figs, whole grain rice, beans, legumes, onions, and cacao.

PHENYLALANINE

This has a massive impact on the mood and overall mental health.

  • Becomes tyrosine, which makes proteins, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline, and norepinephrine is a stress hormone)

Phenylalanine sources: spirulina, seaweed, pumpkin, beans, rice, avocado, almonds, peanuts, quinoa, figs, raisins, leafy greens, berries, olives, and seeds.

THREONINE

  • Supports healthy immune system function
  • Supports healthy liver, heart, and central nervous system function
  • Creates glycine and serine – needed to produce elastin, collagen, and muscle tissue
  • Keeps muscles strong and elastic
  • Builds strong bones
  • Speeds up wound healing and tissue injuries

Threonine sources: nuts, seeds, lentils, watercress, spirulina, pumpkin, leafy greens, hemp seeds, chia seeds, soybeans, almonds, avocados, figs, raisins, and quinoa.

TRYPTOPHAN

This chemical is what helps us feel happy. It lowers stress levels and decreases depression.

  • Converts to serotonin
  • Provides relaxation to the body
  • Promotes good rest
  • Supports brain and nervous system function

Tryptophan sources: chocolate, milk, cheese, turkey, red meat, yogurt, eggs, fish, poultry, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seed, pepitas, spirulina, bananas, and peanuts.

VALINE

Valine is responsible for providing energy during exercise or other physical activity. It’s essential for good muscle health.

  • Repairs muscles and promotes growth
  • Provides glucose to the muscles
  • Promotes healthy function of the nervous system cognitive abilities
  • Aids in curing liver diseases

Valine sources: cheese, red meat, chicken, pork, nuts, beans, spinach, legumes, broccoli, seeds, chia seeds, whole grains, figs, avocado, apples, blueberries, cranberries, oranges, and apricots.

HISTIDINE

  • Supports brain health
  • Detoxifies the body
  • Produces red and white blood cells
  • Protects tissues from radiation or heavy metal damage

Histidine sources: red meat, cheese, white meat and poultry, seafood, soybeans, beans, legumes, chia seeds, buckwheat, potatoes.

Not only are amino acids essential in repairing and maintaining muscles but for supporting a healthy immune system, nervous system reproductive, and digestive system. They are the building blocks of life.

Should You Take Supplements?

There is a beneficial link to taking amino acid supplements. The best sources are from food. However, if you are experiencing a deficiency, taking supplements will prove beneficial. It may help improve your mood, sleep cycle, boost exercise performance, and promote weight loss.

Amino Acids in a Nutshell

Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are referred to as complete proteins. Complete protein sources include:

  • Soy (Non-GMO)
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Grains: Wheat, barley, millet, spelt
  • Spirulina along with grains or nuts
  • Hummus and pita

Other sources include nuts and seeds.  

You can ensure proper intake of all essential amino acids as long as you eat a variety of nutrients over a period of a week. It isn’t necessary to balance all the nutrients into one meal. If vitamin C is included in your meals, and other nutrients are taken along the week, you can be properly nourished. Studies show that “we secrete into the bowel from the body stores a full complement of amino acids for the balanced absorption of the protein foods.”

https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/01.CIR.0000018905.97677.1F
https://www.ucheepines.org/absorption-and-handling-of-food/
https://www.nutritionletter.tufts.edu/issues/14_9/special-reports/The-Power-of-Plant-Based-Proteins_2455-1.html
Grace Jauwena
Grace Jauwena

Grace Jauwena is a health coach that focuses on plant-based nutrition and natural remedies. She strives to help others thrive holistically, and is pursuing a doctorate degree in natural medicine. She loves to cook, create recipes, style food, and take photos. In her free time, she explores new foods, hiking trails, and beaches with her husband, and spends time with family and friends.

3 Comments
  1. Can you injest toovmany amibo acids? I noticed my protein powder has typical amino acid profile and i also noticed today my collagen powder has amibo acids in it too. Can you be injesting too many amino acids? Im presently recovering from adrenal fatigue. I eat a plant based diet?
    Thank you, sharon calidornia

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