Non-Essential vs. Essential Amino Acids + Benefits for Weight Loss, Muscle Gain and Even Mood
August 19, 2022
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Protein is incredibly important when it comes to your health. It makes up the structure of your bones, muscles and skin, and it is used to build tissues and synthesize hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which is why getting enough essential amino acids in your diet is critical to maintaining optimal health and preventing protein deficiency.
What are amino acids, and how can you be sure you get the right mix to keep your body healthy? Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Amino Acids?
The official amino acids definition includes any organic compound that contains both a carboxyl and amino group. To put it simply, they are considered the building blocks of proteins.
For example, they make up a large portion of your muscles and tissues, and protein foods like meat, fish, poultry and eggs are composed of many different types of amino acids.
How many amino acids are there, and what is the role of amino acids? There are 20 amino acids in total, each of which plays a very specific role in the body and is distinguished by its respective amino acid side chains.
These amino acids are involved in almost every biological process and aid in:
Your body needs all amino acids to function and thrive. Some can be produced in the body while others need to be obtained from food.
Getting enough through either dietary sources or supplementation can help enhance weight loss, preserve muscle mass, improve exercise performance, boost mood and promote better sleep.
Amino acids have an interesting and long history. Asparagine was the first amino acid to be discovered when it was isolated from asparagus nutrition by French chemists Louis Nicolas Vauquelin and Pierre Jean Robiquet in 1806.
Glycine, leucine and cysteine were soon found in subsequent years, and threonine, the last one to be discovered, was found in 1935 by William Cumming Rose, the same biochemist who also determined which are essential and how much the body needs to function and thrive.
In 1902, scientists Emil Fischer and Franz Hofmeister were the first to propose that proteins are composed of individual amino acids, hypothesizing that bonds are formed between the amino group of one amino acid and the carboxyl group of another, creating the amino acids structure known as a protein peptide.
In recent years, research has continued to unearth new ways that amino acids impact the body as well as a long list of potential benefits associated with supplementation, proving just how important these compounds can be to health.
Related: What Is Protein Coffee? Benefits + How to Make It
Essential Amino Acids vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids
The 20 amino acids that your body needs can be further divided into two distinct categories: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body, That means you must get them from food sources to help meet your needs.
How many essential amino acids are there? There are nine essential amino acids that you must obtain through the diet, including:
Lysine: Lysine is necessary for growth and tissue repair as well as the production of several hormones, proteins and enzymes.
Leucine: This essential amino acid is involved in protein synthesis, wound healing, blood sugar control and metabolism.
Isoleucine: Research shows that isoleucine aids in detoxification, immune function and hormone excretion.
Tryptophan: Tryptophan is one of the most well-known amino acids that increases levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, pain, appetite and sleep.
Phenylalanine: This amino acid helps produce other amino acids as well as neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine.
Threonine: Research indicates that threonine forms the foundation of connective tissues like collagen and elastin.
Valine: Valine supports brain function, muscle coordination and calmness.
Histidine: This amino acid maintains the health of myelin sheaths in the human body, which protects nerve cells against damage.
Methionine: Research suggests methionine keeps skin elastic and helps strengthen the hair and nails.
Getting a good variety of amino acids in your diet is crucial to maintaining overall health. A deficiency in any of these key essential amino acids can cause serious side effects that affect nearly every aspect of health, including immune function, muscle mass, appetite and more.
In contrast, non-essential amino acids can be produced by your body, meaning it’s not as crucial to get them through the foods that you eat. There are a total of 11 amino acids that make the non-essential amino acids list, including:
Arginine: Arginine stimulates immune function, fights fatigue and optimizes heart health.
Alanine: Research suggests that alanine aids in metabolism and provides energy for muscles, brain and central nervous system.
Cysteine: Cysteine is the main type of protein found in hair, skin and nails, and it is crucial for collagen production and skin health.
Glutamate: This non-essential amino acid acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.
Aspartate: Aspartate helps produce several other amino acids, including asparagine, arginine and lysine.
Glycine: Glycine functions as a neurotransmitter to support brain health.
Proline: Proline is found in collagen, which helps promote joint health, metabolism and skin elasticity.
Serine: Serine is necessary for fat metabolism, immune function and muscle growth.
Tyrosine: Tyrosine helps synthesize thyroid hormones, melanin and epinephrine.
Glutamine: Studies indicate that glutamine supports many metabolic processes and provides energy for the cells in the body.
Asparagine: Asparagine acts as a diuretic, and it optimizes brain and nerve cell function.
Some of the compounds on the amino acid list are also considered “conditionally essential.” That means they are usually not required by the body but may become essential under certain conditions, such as extreme illness or stress.
Amino acids can also be classified into other groups based on their structures and side chains, including:
polar amino acids
aromatic amino acids
hydrophobic amino acids
ketogenic amino acids
basic amino acids
acidic amino acids
Related: Citrulline: The Amino Acid that Benefits Blood Blow & Performance (+ Foods & Dosage Info)
1. Enhance Weight Loss
Amino acids benefit weight loss by enhancing fat loss and preserving lean body mass. Supplementing with branched-chain essential amino acids, in particular, has been shown to be especially effective when it comes to weight loss.
Impressively enough, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that consuming a supplement with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) while following an eight-week resistance training program led to significant increases in lean body mass and strength gains, plus greater decreases in percent body fat than consuming a whey protein supplement or sports drink. However, other research has turned up mixed results, indicating a need for additional studies in the future.
2. Preserve Muscle Mass
As the primary building blocks of muscle tissue, amino acids are absolutely essential to muscle maintenance and muscle growth. Plus, some studies have found that supplementing with essential amino acids can help prevent muscle loss, which is a common side effect that occurs with both aging and weight loss.
For instance, a 2010 study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that supplementation with essential amino acids helped improve muscle function for older adults on bed rest. Similarly, a study out of South Carolina found that supplementing with essential amino acids was effective at preserving lean body mass while promoting fat loss in athletes.
3. Improve Exercise Performance
Whether you’re a casual gym-goer or a competitive athlete, essential amino acids are definitely necessary if you’re looking to bring your workout to the next level. In fact, essential amino acids like leucine, valine and isoleucine are commonly used to help promote muscle recovery, prevent soreness and fight fatigue as part of a healthy, post-workout meal.
One large review of eight studies found that supplementation with BCAAs was able to reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle function following intense workouts. Another study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University found that taking four grams of leucine daily helped enhance strength in men during a 12-week resistance training program.
Additionally, a 2020 study published in Clinical Nutrition concluded that 15 grams of essential amino acid supplementation was metabolically safe for healthy older adults with moderate protein intake and did not decrease insulin sensitivity when used in combination with aerobic exercise.
4. Boost Mood
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in regulating mood and maintaining mental health. It’s used by the body to synthesize serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is believed to influence mood.
Research indicates that an imbalance in this important neurotransmitter can also contribute to serious problems like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even epilepsy.