Essential and nonessential amino acids are the building blocks of life. These small organic compounds play a vital role in several biological process, particularly when it comes to building and rebuilding muscle tissue, in the form of growth and creating new proteins. But what’s the difference between essential vs nonessential amino acids?
What Are Amino Acids
Often referred to as the building blocks of protein, when protein is metabolized, it’s broken down into its simplest form amino acids. There are 20 common amino acids that play numerous roles within your human biology. Amino acids are composed of an amino group and a carboxyl group which is acidic, hence the name amino acid. Between these groups are alpha carbons which are shared through a covalent bond to both the amino group, carboxyl group, and a carbon atom, thus making the general molecular structure of an amino acid.
Your body constantly utilizes amino acids from your diet and is in a steady state of turnover, meaning that new proteins are constantly being produced, while older proteins are being degraded. These amino acids are utilized in several enzymatic reactions and support the muscle-building process, prevent muscle mass breakdown, and provide your body with more energy through neurotransmitter regulation. When your body exceeds the number of amino acids that are being broken down, you are in what’s considered to be a ‘positive amino-acid balance’ also known as a muscle-building or anabolic state. When the number of amino acids being broken down, exceeds the number of amino acids being created, you are in what is considered a breakdown of muscle mass, or a catabolic state. Theoretically, the anabolic state can also be achieved through inhibition of muscle protein breakdown. High-intensity training requires fuel for energy. The first line of energy comes from glycogen, obtained from the food you eat, with the secondary source coming from fatty acids. The tertiary source or reserve tank is obtained from amino acids.
Amino acids are broken down into three different groups, essential, non-essential, and conditional.
Essential Amino Acids
Essential amino acids cannot be produced by your body, therefore it is essential to obtain them from your diet and the foods you eat or from supplements. Nine of the twenty amino acids are categorized as essential, which include leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, histidine and tryptophan. Each amino acid, is separately, or in combination responsible for various functions in your body. Tryptophan, for example, is used to make niacin, melatonin, and serotonin, which promote healthy sleep and a positive mood state, while leucine is part of the branched chain amino acids, which helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Nonessential Amino Acids
The remaining eleven amino acids are considered nonessential. Nonessential amino acids are those that your body naturally produces and therefore not essential to acquire through dietary sources. Alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, tyrosine are all considered nonessential amino acids. Additionally, there is a sub-group of amino acids, called conditionally essential amino acids.
Conditionally Essential Amino Acids
Six of the eleven remaining nonessential amino acids are considered conditionally essential amino acids. Conditionally essential amino acids are amino acids that are produced by the body, yet in times of severe physical stress, growth, or trauma, may become depleted. At times your body requires additional stores of certain amino acids which can exceed the amount we naturally produce.
For example, L-Glutamine is one of the most versatile conditionally amino acids. Glutamine is depleted quickly through physical exercise and severe physical stress, and is one of the very few amino acids, that can cross the blood-brain barrier while supporting healthy intestinal lining and immune function. Studies have shown that glutamine can reduce exercise induce muscle soreness, and muscle mass breakdown, making glutamine one of the best supplements for exercise recovery. A growing body of evidence also supports the use of glutamine for digestive health, specifically in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Inflammatory bowel disease states such as chrons, ulcerative colitis, leaky gut, and IBS, are characterized by gut hyperpermeability. Glutamine rebuilds and repairs the gut lining by feeding the epithelial cells, which line your digestive tract.
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Essential Vs Nonessential Amino Acids: Takeaway
Essential and nonessential amino acids are crucial for the muscle building and repair process. Animal protein provides is a complete source of protein, providing an abundance of all essential and nonessential amino acids. Since essential amino acids are not naturally produced by the body, you must obtain them from food or supplements. If you’re plant based, it’s important to eat a variety of different foods, to obtain all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids, to keep your body performing at an optimal level.
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Lopez MJ, Mohiuddin SS. Biochemistry, Essential Amino Acids. [Updated 2021 Jan 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557845/