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Amino Acids | The Building Blocks of Protein

We tend to think that protein is a simple macronutrient your body needs. However, if you have ever taken a biology class, you know that a protein is not a single substance. Instead, proteins are made up of many different parts called amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Let's take a deeper dive into these organic compounds and their important functions in our everyday lives.

What Are Amino Acids? 

Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. They are typically known as the building blocks of protein. Beyond building proteins, they also assist in the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters.1

Made up of one or more linear chains of amino acids (called polypeptides), in total, there are 20 types of amino acids commonly found in proteins.2 You can think of it as different flavours that get linked together like beads on a string to make long chains that we call polypeptides, and those are the building blocks of proteins. The really neat thing about amino acids is that when they're linked together, they fold to make the final shape of the protein, and the shape of the protein dictates what it can do in the cell.3 The basic structure of an amino acid is a central carbon atom bonded to an amino group (NH2), a carboxyl group (COOH), and a hydrogen atom.4

3 Types of Amino Acids 

Amino acids can be grouped in lots of different ways. One way of doing so is by looking at their importance and functions in the human body, which gives rise to three different groups of amino acids.

1. Conditional amino acids

When the body experiences periods of extreme trauma or stress from thermal injury, sepsis, or surgery, nonessential amino acids become conditionally essential or conditionally indispensable.5 Your body overworks during periods of recovery and needs all the assistance it can get. Therefore, conditional amino acids are usually not essential except during times of illness and stress. These include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine. 

2. Non-essential amino acids

Nonessential amino acids are those which are created in the body, even if we do not get it from the food we eat.6 Nonessential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

3. Essential amino acids

Lastly, we have our essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that your body cannot make, so they must come from food.7 The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

You do not need to eat essential and nonessential amino acids at every meal, but getting a balance of them over the whole day is important.8

Learn more about the 9 essential amino acids and food sources to find them

Benefits of Amino Acids


Amino acids are ultimately the building blocks of protein, providing a crucial role in repairing health and protecting your body from diseases. Studies have also shown several health benefits when taken in concentrated doses, such as in supplements.9 Other studies show that amino acids decrease protein breakdown during exercise and decrease levels of creatine kinase, which is an indicator of muscle damage.10

By incorporating foods that are filled with amino acids, you will see improvements in your mood, sleep, athletic performance, and muscle gain. Fortunately, you can find these compounds in many animal and plant-based foods.

Read more on protein rich foods

Created by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

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