Amino Acids Explained: The Building Blocks of Protein

Amino acids are the fundamental building blocks of protein, the workhorse molecules that play a crucial role in nearly every bodily process. From building and repairing tissues to fueling energy production, amino acids are essential for optimal health and performance.

Amino Acids Explained: The Building Blocks of Protein

Let’s take a look at amino acids as they relate to nutrition and physical fitness, exploring their types, functions, and impact to your overall health.

The Science Behind Amino Acids

Amino acids play essential roles in numerous physiological processes that determine your levels of health performance. With over 20 different amino acids identified, each with a unique structure and function, these compounds are integral to sustaining life and supporting optimal health.

There are two primary categories of amino acids - essential amino acids (EAAs) and non-essential amino acids (NEAAs). There are nine EAAs, including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Unlike NEAAs, which the body can synthesize on its own or from existing EAAs, EAAs cannot be produced internally and must be obtained through dietary sources. According to the nutrition and fitness experts at EveryBody Nutrition, amino acid intake can be optimized for your specific body needs and goals with high quality supplements. This makes ensuring adequate intake of EAAs for supporting protein synthesis, muscle repair and growth, immune function, and neurotransmitter production easy and with faster and more consistent results.

While NEAAs are not considered nutritionally essential due to the body's ability to synthesize them, they still contribute significantly to overall health and fitness. NEAAs such as alanine, aspartic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, and serine, among others, play vital roles in protein metabolism, energy production, and cellular signaling pathways. Despite being synthesized internally, increasing the availability of NEAAs can improve protein synthesis rates and overall metabolic processes, making their inclusion in the diet important for supporting optimal health and fitness outcomes.

Types of Amino Acids and Their Functions

While all amino acids are essential building blocks of protein, some have specific functions and have gained particular attention for their health benefits:

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs):  Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three BCAAs prized for their role in muscle protein synthesis and recovery. During exercise, your body may break down muscle protein for energy. BCAAs can help counteract this breakdown and promote muscle growth and repair, especially after intense workouts.  They may also help reduce muscle soreness and fatigue.

Glutamine: This abundant amino acid is the most plentiful free amino acid in the bloodstream.  Glutamine plays a multifaceted role in the body, including:

  • Immune Function: Glutamine serves as a fuel source for immune cells, potentially supporting a healthy immune system.
  • Gut Health: Glutamine is a critical nutrient for the cells lining your gut. Adequate glutamine levels may contribute to maintaining a healthy gut barrier and digestive function.
  • Muscle Protein Synthesis: Similar to BCAAs, glutamine can also play a role in muscle protein synthesis and may help prevent muscle wasting.

Arginine:  This amino acid is a precursor for nitric oxide, a molecule that helps relax blood vessels and improve blood flow.  Enhanced blood flow can benefit exercise performance in several ways:

  • Delivery of Oxygen and Nutrients: Increased blood flow delivers more oxygen and essential nutrients to your muscles, which can improve exercise performance and endurance.
  • Removal of Waste Products: Improved blood flow also helps remove waste products like lactic acid that can contribute to muscle fatigue.

Dietary Sources of Amino Acids

As you’ve probably concluded by now, obtaining a complete spectrum of amino acids is critical for maintaining a high performance, healthy lifestyle. Let’s dive a bit deeper into how you can incorporate the right amount of amino acids in your diet. Certain sources provide what are called “complete” proteins, meaning these protein sources contain sufficient amounts of all nine EAAs. Animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are excellent sources of complete proteins. Other, primarily plant-based sources like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds provide “incomplete” proteins, as they are missing certain EAAs. That said, you can still obtain the full spectrum of EAAs by combining a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day. A balanced diet rich in protein sources from various food groups is the best way to ensure you're getting enough of all the essential amino acids.

Supplements and Amino Acids

For athletes and bodybuilders, high-intensity training can increase amino acid requirements beyond what can be readily obtained through food alone, especially if their schedules make meal planning difficult or inconsistent. Supplements can help bridge the gap between dietary intake and physical needs. Individuals with restrictive diets or certain health conditions may also benefit from supplementation.

Choosing the Right Supplement:

If you're considering amino acid supplements, look for products that provide a complete spectrum of EAAs or target specific needs (e.g., BCAAs for muscle recovery). Always choose amino acid supplements that come from reputable brands that provide transparent information about dosage and source, including 3rd party testing to verify their claims.

The Impact of Amino Acids on Health and Performance

Amino acids play a critical role in various aspects of health and performance, such as muscle growth and recovery. After all, Amino acids, particularly BCAAs, are essential for building and repairing muscle tissue.

Adequate amino acid intake supports energy production, reduces fatigue, and enhances recovery after exercise to help improve your athletic performance. Furthermore, amino acids contribute overall health and well-being by supporting immune function, wound healing, and various other physiological processes.


Amino acids are the building blocks of life, and understanding their importance is crucial for optimizing your health and fitness. By consuming a balanced diet rich in protein sources and considering targeted supplementation when necessary, you can ensure your body has the amino acids it needs to thrive.