Amino acids are organic compounds essential to human survival. In recent years, research has turned to a subset known as functional amino acids, an important part of your metabolic pathways. This means they make vital contributions to growth, development and reproduction, which in turn, form a major part of your overall health.
What are functional amino acids?
Most discussion of amino acids divides them into two categories, essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids (EAAs) cannot be synthesized in adequate amounts by the body, so they have to be taken in through the diet. There are nine of them, whilst six are considered conditionally essential, or can be synthesised only in certain conditions. Then there are seven that are nonessential, or can be produced in the body.
Both of these categories, however, include amino acids that are now defined as functional. This means that as well as their role as the building blocks of protein, they have a regulatory role in your metabolism, driving growth and maintenance of cells. In some cases, you may even benefit from the consumption of non-essential amino acids, because of their functional role.
Some of the best-known amino acids with functional roles include Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) which include 3 essential amino acids: valine, leucine and isoleucine and valine which must be acquired through food or supplements. The following is a brief summary of some of the key EAAs:
Glutamine is the most abundant of the non-essential amino acids. It contributes to the integrity of the mucosa, which forms part of the gastrointestinal wall, and provides fuel to the immune system, nervous system and intestine. It also produces ammonia and regulates ammonia levels, which are important for the kidneys, and it donates nitrogen to the brain.
Arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid that becomes essential in various situations including during pregnancy, infancy and after traumatic injuries or during serious illness or infection. It plays a vital role in healing wounds. It also helps produce nitric oxide, which in turn helps control blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Many cells work more efficiently because of arginine.
Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid that also works as a neurotransmitter. As well as its role in fuelling your metabolism, it also helps remove waste nitrogen and contributes to brain development, including affecting the memory and ability to learn. Messages are transmitted between nerve cells because of glutamate.
Leucine is an essential amino acid. It plays a major role in muscle building, recovery and repair, and may also reduce body fat. It is also involved in regulating blood sugar levels and healing injuries.
Ongoing research is looking into the potential of functional amino acids in the management or treatment of diabetes, obesity, infertility, infectious diseases, cardiovascular problems and neurological disorders. It is clear that we need to ensure we have adequate levels of amino acids in our system. Foods high in amino acids include meat, dairy products and beans and legumes.
It is apparent that amino acids should not just be considered as components of protein, but as vital parts of the metabolism, contributing to a range of the body’s processes. Without them, we cannot maintain our health, let alone grow or heal.