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What is Protein, What are Amino Acids?

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Protein comprises 20 building blocks called amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks for life. Eight of these 20 amino acids (namely isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine) are what is known as essential amino acids or amino acids that cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through the food we eat. Amino acid functions in the body are numerous. Proteins provide structural functions in the body and form part of enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones, which regulate bodily processes like sleep, mood, digestion and reproduction. They also help form our muscle and skin tissue. Amino acids also form the basic structure of our DNA- the genetic material that contains our blueprint, or code for life.

Dietary protein is found primarily in animal products, like meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy but is also present in certain vegetable sources including soya, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, with small amounts found in grains too. The protein contained in animal products and soya is what is known as complete protein or protein containing all 9 essential amino acids. Other vegetable sources are incomplete containing only some of the 9 essentials.

The 9 essentials


Essential. These 9 amino acids must be included in the diet because the body can’t make them on its own. They are:

Histidine

Isoleucine

Leucine

Lysine
Methionine

Phenylalanine
Threonine

Tryptophan
Valine

There are 40 000 different types of protein in the human body, which are made up of various combinations of the 20 amino acids. These proteins include:

  • Enzymes
  • Structural
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  • Muscle tissue
  • Transport protein –haemoglobin
  • Immune proteins- immunoglobulins
  • Neurotransmitters
  • Hormones

Proteins are also essential for:

  • Regulating the body’s water balance and maintaining proper pH
  • Exchanging nutrients between body fluids and the tissues, blood and lymph
  • Forming DNA, our genetic material

Types of amino acids

Neurotransmitter amino acids. Unlike most substances, amino acids are able to cross the blood brain barrier, where they help form brain chemicals/neurotransmitters. Deficiencies of these amino acids are often seen in mental/emotional problems and brain disorders. They are:

Aspartic Acid
Asparagine
Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA)
(minor amino acid)
Glutamic Acid
Glutamine
Glycine
Phenylalanine
Taurine
Tryptophan
Tyrosine

Branch chain amino acids. This group contributes to protein synthesis. Surgery, Deficiencies are associated with injury, exercise, and muscle wasting. With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), one usually sees deficiencies in this group, which relates to easy fatigability, and post-exertional exhaustion. BCAA’s are usually taken together for best results. Athletes involved in intense training may often take 5 grams of leucine, 4 grams of valine, and 2 grams of isoleucine per day to prevent muscle loss and increase muscle gain.

The BCAA’s are:

Isoleucine
Leucine
Valine


Sulfur-containing amino acids. Deficiencies of these group are associated with allergies. They are:

Cystine

Methionine

Taurine


Glycogenic amino acids. Deficiencies in this group are associated with problems with sugar metabolism, diabetes mellitus, hypoglycemia, candidiasis, poor concentration, abnormalities in zinc and/or chromium levels, and fatigue. They are:

Alanine
Glutamine
Glycine
Serine
Threonine

Urea cycle amino acids. Deficiencies in this group can be associated with liver disease, kidney disease, or strenuous exercise. They are:

Arginine
Aspartic Acid
Citrulline
(minor amino acid)
Ornithine
(minor amino acid)


Connective tissue amino acids. Abnormalities within this group are associated with trauma, surgery, muscle wasting, and strenuous exercise. They are:

Hydroxyproline (minor amino acid)
Hydroxylysine
(minor amino acid)
Proline

Anabolic amino acids

Certain amino acids may stimulate the release of growth hormone, insulin and/or glucocorticoids, thereby promoting anabolic processes. They include:

Arginine

Histidine

Lysine

Methionine

Ornithine

Phenylalanine


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