How much do you know about Amino Acids?

Protein intake is well-known as important for muscle growth and development among active adults and athletes. What improves the quality of protein making it more effective for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the presence of amino acids.1?? Both plants and animal food sources contain protein but differ in the type and proportion of amino acid makeup.

Does the Time of Day That You Eat Certain Nutrients Matter?
Protein and Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and help determine protein quality. There are 20 total amino acids comprised of nine essential amino acids (EAAs) and 11 non-essential amino acids (NEAAs).2 The body requires all 20, but the EAAs are unable to be produced by the body and must come from the food we eat.

The essential amino acids obtained from our diet include methionine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, lysine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine.3 Histidine is included as an additional essential amino acid required for early childhood development.4

The following describes the function of each essential amino acid:

Methionine — A sulfur-containing amino acid responsible for growth and tissue repair. This amino acid also maintains hair, skin, and the strength of nails. Also, methionine is responsible for protecting the body from pollutants, slows cell aging, and is essential for the absorption and bioavailability of zinc and selenium.5
Valine — Prevents muscle breakdown during exercise, supports daily body function, muscle metabolism, growth, metabolism, helps the nervous system including cognitive function and maintains nitrogen balance.6 Part of the branch-chained amino acid (BCAA) group.7
Leucine — Stimulates muscle growth and strength, regulates blood sugar, contributes to growth hormone production, and helps with wound healing. Considered the ‘main’ branched chain amino acid (BCAA) responsible for muscle protein synthesis.8
Iso-leucine — A form of leucine that helps with energy production, assists with wound healing, detoxifies nitrogen waste, stimulates immune function, is necessary for hemoglobin formation, and assists with blood sugar regulation. Part of the branch-chained amino acid (BCAA) group.9
Threonine — Helps maintain the structure of tooth enamel, collagen, and elastin. This amino acid is also vital for the nervous system, fat metabolism, and preventing fat build-up in the liver. Also, this amino acid may improve anxiety and mild depression.10
Lysine —Maintains proper carnitine levels which help lower cholesterol. Required for growth and tissue repair. Also responsible for supporting the immune system, calcium uptake, and production of carnitine and collagen.11
Tryptophan — Acts as a neurotransmitter, regulates certain hormones, and promotes the nervous system and brain health. It is the precursor for serotonin. Serotinin is responsible for regulating sleep, appetite, mood, and pain.12
Phenylalanine —Responsible for the structure and function of many proteins and enzymes. Converts into tyrosine, which is responsible for dopamine and norepinephrine (neurotransmitter).13
Histidine — A semi-essential amino acid. Helps with the development and maintenance of healthy body tissue and the nervous system. Important for children and early childhood development. Also plays a role in the immune system, gastric secretion, and sexual function. In the blood cell formation, histidine protects the cell from radiation and heavy metal damages.4
Proteins from most animal food sources contain all the essential amino acids (EAAs) in the right amounts. These are also referred to as complete proteins. Foods from plant sources tend to lack one or more essential amino acids creating an incomplete protein.14Plant protein is shown to be limiting in specific amino acids including lysine, methionine, and tryptophan which limits the functioning of the protein in the body.15

According to research, animal and dairy-based proteins contain the highest amounts of EAAs for protein synthesis and muscle growth post workout.14?

Protein quality is measured using several methods including:1617

Chemical Score — Refers to the amino acid profile of a protein and each amino acid is ranked against the ideal or referenced protein.
Protein Efficiency Ratio — The first method adopted for the assessment of protein quality of food. A measure of weight gain of a test participant divided by food protein intake during a trial period
Biological value — A measure of protein that is retained and then utilized in the body.
Net protein utilization (NPU) – A ratio of amino acids used by the body compared to amino acids that are supplied in the diet.
Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) — Considered the preferred best method to measure protein quality; evaluates amino acid requirements and our ability to digest it
Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation (IAAO) technique — The newest successful method used to determine metabolic availability of amino acids from dietary proteins and total protein requirements
Overall, protein quality refers to how effective it is at stimulating muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and promoting muscle growth. This is a concern for many active adults, athletes, and fitness-minded people who want the best from their protein intake. It appears the amino acid profile plays the largest role in consuming a quality protein source. Research also indicates there are three essential amino acids that are primarily responsible for regulating protein balance.7

The Top 3 Essential Amino Acids for Muscle Growth
Amino acids provide the ability for protein to repair and rebuild skeletal muscle and connective tissues. While all essential amino acids (EAAs) are important for this function, three are indicated to play a primary role. The EAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine are uniquely identified to regulate protein metabolism, neural function, and blood glucose and insulin regulation.

In a 2017 study involving 11 healthy men, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are also branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) shown to be key components of muscle protein synthesis (MPS).18 Evidently, BCAAs enter the bloodstream rapidly when taken orally and provide muscle tissue with high concentrations of these amino acids for muscle repair and growth. This is why many active adults and athletes elect to supplement with BCAAs.

While the top three essential amino acids have been identified, it appears leucine is superior for muscle growth and strength. Several sports nutrition studies recommend athletes consume adequate leucine from quality protein sources in each of their meals to suppress muscle damage, aid with recovery, and activate protein synthesis.

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