Do you ever wonder what makes up the human body, or the foods we consume on a daily basis?
Protein is one of them. Not only does it make up every single cell in the human body and play numerous roles essential for your survival, but it’s a critical component of your diet. A diet sufficient in protein can help you build more muscle, keep hunger at bay and maintain high levels of health as you reach old age.
But what exactly makes up protein and its complex structure?
What are Amino Acids?
If protein is considered to be a building block of life, then amino acids can be described as the building blocks of protein. Every protein consists of several amino acids attached to each other through a “peptide bond”. When a protein gets digested, it is broken down into its individual amino acid components.
In total, there are 20 amino acids, each with their own unique structure and chemical properties. When these amino acids are connected in a certain manner, they are folded to create a distinct protein structure which serves a unique function in the body. In other words, a very minor change in the amino acid structure can be the difference between making a protein used in your bones and one that’s used in your muscle.
Both the 3D structure and biological function of a protein are entirely determined by the sequence of amino acids.
What is the difference between Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids?
Essential amino acids are required for our bodies to function. However, they cannot be made by our bodies and therefore must be obtained through our daily diet. There are 9 in total, as follows:
Non-essential amino acids are amino acids that can be made by our bodies. This requires a breakdown of the proteins present within our bodies (i.e. from essential amino acids), but they may also be obtained through diet. There are 11 in total, as follows:
- Glutamic acid
- Aspartic acid
In the context of food, you may sometimes hear the words “complete protein” and “incomplete protein”. A complete protein is simply a dietary source of protein which contains an adequate amount of all 9 essential amino acids. Certain soy products, meats, seafood, poultry and cheese are examples of complete proteins.
The truth about Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs merely refer to isoleucine, leucine and valine. The term “branched chain” refers to their unique molecular structure, as all 3 essential amino acids have long chains extending from the center.
They have gained popularity over the last few years, particularly in the bodybuilding community, for their supposed ability to increase muscle and muscle growth, and the rate at which the body rebuilds muscle tissue (i.e. muscle protein synthesis) over time. However, further inquiry into this “ability” reveals that the muscle-building benefits of BCAAs are over-exaggerated.
First, the process of muscle protein synthesis requires the presence of all 9 essential amino acids at once. If you merely use the BCAAs alone while the other 6 amino acids are in short reply, muscle protein synthesis is significantly limited.
This means a far more effective approach to building lean muscle would be to supplement with whey protein or consume foods like meat and eggs that already have sufficient amounts of BCAAs in them. If one ends up eating 1.0-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, BCAA supplementation provides no extra benefit, whatsoever. Furthermore, many of the studies used to promote BCAA supplementation are not properly conducted in a way that allows for a proper conclusion to be made about the effectiveness of BCAAs. The subjects being tested are consuming an insufficient amount of protein relative to their activity level, training while fasted, or the study itself lacked rigorous dietary control.
Health Benefits of Amino Acid Supplementation
As previously discussed, amino acids have unique effects due to their individualized structure. In particular, here are a few health benefits of amino acids that have been extensively studied by scientists.
Prevention of bone loss: Lysine can increase absorption of calcium, which helps treat and prevent bone loss in both healthy patients and those suffering from osteoporosis. If you’re looking for a vegan lysine option that boosts energy production and supports collagen formation, CanPrev’s L-Lysine Powder may be what you’re looking for.
Lowers stress levels: When your body produces cortisol (the “stress” hormone), the small amount of dopamine produced by the adrenal glands gets depleted. L-tyrosine can help reverse this, and therefore improve your mental and physical performance when you’re experiencing high levels of stress.
Energy: One notable study involved L-arginine supplementation in healthy men engaging in vigorous cycling. The people who took 6 grams of L-arginine prior to exercising were able to complete the same amount of exercise while expending less energy.
Cardiovascular Health: Taurine has been shown in numerous studies to help treat cardiovascular disease through decreased blood pressure and improved cardiac function. However, a recent 2016 study in 125 men aged 18-25 revealed that a combination of taurine and magnesium supplementation could decrease the progression of cardiovascular disease.
Should I be taking Amino Acid Supplements?
Not only do amino acids work synergistically with other vitamins and minerals in your body, but they also work with each other! Additionally, many of the high-protein foods you eat are laced with numerous amino acids.
Amino acid supplementation may not be necessary if you are getting sufficient quantities through diet alone. However, if you tend to consume the same foods frequently, are exposed to high levels of stress, are physically active, follow a specific dietary protocol, have impaired digestion, or have a health concern that you are working to improve – amino acid supplementation may be a viable and necessary option for improving your health.
Speaking with your healthcare practitioner, Naturopathic Doctor, or someone that is familiar with your health history before beginning any new supplement regimen is always recommended.