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Amino Acids: A Primer

The Feel 21 Health Report

If you take a look at the ingredients on just about every growth hormone product you will see a familar trend. Other than being a list that make the polysyllabically-challenged cringe, a great many of the ingredients are the very building blocks of life - amino acids. In fact, growth hormones are not only made up of amino acids, it takes even more amino acids to trigger their (growth hormones) release. But we're not here to talk about growth hormones. That's already been covered. We're here to discuss amino acids.

You may be thinking, "Wow, there must be hundreds of different amino acids to maintain the human body!". You're right, sort of. There are twenty. However, those twenty can combine to form different amino acids which can combine to form diferent amino acids and proteins, ad inifitum, ad nausea! Fortunately, Mother Nature (with years of experimentation - around 4.6 billion) has weeded out the less-than-effective combinations.

Getting back to those twenty little acids (which, just for the curious, are made up of different arrangements of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur). . .

amino acids can be divided into two groups: Essential and Non-Essential. Essential amino acids are those acids that the body cannot produce. They must be obtained from our diet. Conveniently, there are only eight of them (isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine).

The Non-Essential amino acids are arginine, alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamine, glutamic acid, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Yes, that's only nineteen. The last amino acid on the list is a tricky one to categorize. Histidine is a floater. In children and infants it's considered essential; however, in adults it's non-essential. Confused? Don't be. Simply put, children, particularly infants, use more of it than the body has on hand and can become deficient. At this point it becomes essential. With me so far? Good.

In fact, other non-essential amino acids can flip-flop over to essential if the body's balance is not maintained (i.e. stress, malnutrition, infections, etc.). It's a delicate balance for which the body strives. If your body's not getting enough, or runs out, of an amino acid you run the risk of a deficiency. And in certain instances your body may have a surplous. Both scenarios manifest as some type of ailment, depending on the amino acid(s) involved and the amount present. But what is it, exactly, that amino acids do? Answering that question would take more time and space than this column has. So we're going to take a look at a select few - a few that seem to be everywhere and do everything; a few that may surprise you; and a few that just seemed interesting.

Before we get started, though, there's just one more piece of information - that ubiquitous 'L' appearing in the front of the amino acids. If you think it stands for 'left' you're right (no punn intended). Naming conventions rely on ye olde Latin or Greek. In this instance Latin won. The 'L' stands for levo - Latin for left. It's counterpart - dextro - means 'right' (swap the 'L' for a 'D' and you've got it). It denotes the direction of the spin/rotation of the molecule. Our bodies use the left-spinning form and any products containing amino acids will almost always contain the 'L' variety.

Without further ado and in random order . . .


Arginine - The Good: Arguably the most widely used amino acid in the body, arginine plays an important roll in many different ways. For starters, arginine has shown to trigger the release of growth hormones. In addition, it plays a role in retarding the growth of tumors and cancer by enhancing immune function. It's beneficial for liver disorders, muscle meatbolism, and is one of the amino acids necessary for the processing and removal of ammonia form the body.

The Bad: A deficiency in arginine can lead to complications in functions of the body including insulin production, glucose tolerance, and liver lipid metabolism. Viral infections (i.e. herpes) can flourish in the presence of supplemental arginine. People with schizophrenia should avoid amounts over 30 milligrams daily.


Glutamine - The Good: Glutamine is very distinctive as an amino acid. Firsty, it is able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, glutamine is converted into glutamic acid (and vice versa, to detoxify the brain of ammonia). Glutamine and glutamic acid are necessary for cerebral function. Secondly, it's the only amino acid that can "carry" an extra nitrogen atom. This makes glutamine essential in the removal of ammonia and the transportation of nitrogen. In addition to these distinctions, glutamine is found, greatly, in muscles. It's crucial to the construction of skeletal muscle protein.

The Bad: Deficiency can lead to muscle atrophy, decreased mental funciton, and impaired immune function. If you have a condition that prevents the proper removal of ammonia from the body (i.e. Reye's syndrome, kidney problems, cirhossis of the liver), glutamine supplementation can cause further damage and should not be taken.


Isoleucine - The Good: One of only three Branched-Chain amino acids (leucine and valine being the other two), isoleucine plays a role in the formation of hemoglobin and is necessary fot the stabilization and regulation of blood sugar and energy levels. Isoleucine is known to increase energy and endurance and speed up recovery time from weight-training (muscle repair).

The Bad: A deficiency in isoleucine can lead to hypoglycemic-like symptoms and has been found in various mental and/or physical disorders. It is closely connected with the other branched-chain amino acids and a deficiency in one can lead to a deficiency in the others.


Leucine - The Good: Another Branched-Chain Amino Acid (BCAA), leucine works in conjunction with the other two bcaa's to protect and provide (fuel) for the muscle. In addition, leucine works to lower elevated blood sugar levels.

The Bad: Deficiency can lead to problems with the normal function of the liver, thymus, adrenals, and gonads and can lead to hypoglycemic-like symptoms.


Phenylalanine - The Good: Phenylalanine could be called the "Feel-Good" amino acid. The body can convert phenylalanine into tyrosine (and tyrosine gets used to synthesize dopamine and norepinephrine - both important neurotransmitters). The effects of phenylalanine include the ability to improve mood, treat arthritis (reduce pain), improve memory and mental alertness, and migraines.

The Bad: A deficiency can lead to depression. Pregnant women as well as those who are prone to anxiety attacks, suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, phenylketonuria, or preexisting pigmented melanoma should not take supplements of phenylalanine.


Lysine - The Good: Lysine helps in calcium absorption. It's one of the building blocks in the formation of antibodies, hormones, and enzymes. Lysine also has a hand in post-injury/surgical healing.

The Bad: A deficiency in lysine is not pretty, literally. A deficiency can lead to afflictions including anemia, bloodshot eyes, hairloss, and lack of energy. It can also lead to decreased immune system and decreased mental faculties.


Methionine - The Good: If you like to assign pneumonics, or nick-names, call this one "The Cleaner". A powerful antioxidant, methionine assists in the breakdown of fats, works as a chelating agent to help remove heavy metals from the blood, and has been used to treat rheumatic fever and toxemia (due to pregnancy). Methionine also helps strengthen hair and nails and keeps skin supple.

The Bad: Methionine tends to be a precursor to other amino acids and chemical compounds. As such a deficiency in methionine can lead to deficiencies and/or the prevention of necessary chemical reactions.


Histidine - The Good: Histidine is needed to maintain the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve cells as well as being a crucial ingredient in the production of red and white blood cells. If you've ever sneezed, you've experienced the effects of histidine, or rather, one of it's derivitives: histamine. Histamine is not only an autoimmune response, it may play a roll in improving sexual functioning and pleasure.

The Bad: Because histidine is a necessary element in protecting nerve cells (most notably auditory nerve cells), a deficiency can lead to nerve deafness. Low levels can lead to problems absorbing calcium and zinc and can lead to the development of rheumatoid arthritis. As stated previously, histidine is essential in infants and a deficiency can lead to eczema (as a form of dermatitis).

People suffering from hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) may be deficient as histamine stimulates the secretion of gastric juices.


Valine - The Good: The final BCAA (and final amino acid of this discussion), valine is used by (and found in) muscle tissue as an energy source and for growth and repair. Valine has been used to correct/aid in the normalization of insomnia, nervousness and amino acid levels in drug addicts.

The Bad: Deficiency can lead to negative nitrogen balance in the body and poor absorption of amino acids (by gastrointestinal tract).


We've but seen the tip of the iceberg. The list of amino acids is continually being modified and updated as scientists discover more and more about their (amino acids) functionality and interactions. And as we discover more we develop the possibility of curing more. amino acids are already the building blocks of life. Soon they may be the building blocks to a better way of life.

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If you have or suspect an illness or have a health concern, always consult with your physician or health care provider. We have used our best judgment in compiling this information, however, the information presented may not have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any reference to a specific product is for your information only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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