Amino Acids Broken Down: An Essential Guide

Amino Acids: Broken Down

So you may have heard of the term ‘amino acids’ bandied about, but what are they, how do they work, do we need them? And if so, why?

Well amino acids are affectionately referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’, and as extreme as that may sound it is actually very true.

What are they?

Amino acids are organic compounds made up of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. And amino acids are classified into:

  • Essential Amino Acids, and there are 9 of these, they are: histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, theonine, tryptophan, and valine (and arginine can be added to the list for younger adults)

Your body cannot produce Essential Amino Acids, so these would come from your diet and the food you consume.

Foods containing Essential Amino Acids:

Meat Eater/ Vegetarian Plant based options
–       Eggs

–       Turkey

–       Cottage cheese

–       Fish

–       Red meat

–       Chicken

–       Milk

–       Yogurt

–       Seafood

–       Tofu

–       Quinoa

–       Chia seeds

–       Legumes

–       Beans

–       Chickpeas

–       Soybeans

–       Nuts

–       Vegetables



Benefits of Essential Amino acids

  1. Can help with muscle growth 

Valine –  can help promote muscle growth, and with tissue repair.

Lysine – can help build muscle and aids in recovery.

Leucine – can help with the growth and repair of bone and muscle and with the production of growth hormone.

A 2008 study founds that if ‘EAA supplementation is maintained over time and can improve Lean Body Mass, possibly offsetting the debilitating effects of sarcopenia’ (which refers to the gradual loss of muscle mass).

  1. Can Improve Training Performance

Leucine – can help with the growth and repair of bone and muscle and the production of growth hormone

Isoleucine – this is important for immune function and with energy regulation

Valine – is also involved in energy production

These 3 amino acids are the only ones that have a chain that branches off to one side. And a 2016 study concluded that ‘BCAA supplementation in trained individuals performing resistance training while on a hypocaloric diet can maintain lean mass and preserve skeletal muscle performance while losing fat mass’.

Another study from 2017 concluded that the ‘use of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), is better than passive recovery or rest after various forms of exhaustive and damaging exercise. The advantages relate to a reduction in muscle soreness and ameliorated muscle function because of an attenuation of muscle strength and muscle power loss after exercise’.

This is why BCAA supplementation are so popular to gym goers everywhere.

And for anyone new to the gym, one study actually proved that taking ‘4 g/d of L-leucine supplementation may be used as a nutritional supplement to enhance strength performance during a 12-week resistance training program of initially untrained male participants’.

  1. Can help Improve your Sleep

Tryptophan – is a precursor of melatonin and serotonin, which help regulate sleep.

And low levels of Tryptophan have been linked to depression and also anxiety, with one study from 2000 concluded that ‘the panic-enhancing effect of tryptophan depletion as well as the potential protective effect of tryptophan administration in panic disorder patients can be explained by the Deakin-Graeff theory of anxiety.’ 

So how much Essential Amino Acids do I need?

The United States Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adults can be seen in the table below:

Adults RDA: 19 and older RDA per day




Methionine and Cysteine

Phenylalanine + Tyrosine




14 mg

19 mg

42 mg

38 mg

19 mg

33 mg

20 mg

5 mg

24 mg


  • Nonessential Amino Acids, are amino acids that our bodies produce, and are mainly synthesized from glucose.(or synthesized by the body from the food you eat)

Nonessential amino acids include: alanine, arginine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.


Arginine – is a precursor to Nitric Oxide so plays a vital role in the dilation of blood vessels (which is why arginine is popular as a supplement)

Glutamine – beneficial for recovery, healing and is a major nitrogen transporter and is beneficial for a healthy nitrogen balance

Tyrosine – is critical in allowing for the regular function of the thyroid gland and important in the production of dopamine and helps regulate mood.

  • Conditional Amino Acids, are made by the body and are generally considered nonessential unless you become ill or stress induced, if this happens then the body will require a higher level of conditional amino acids and this will have to be obtained via your diet.

Conditional amino acids are arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline and serine. 


Serine – helps support cognitive function

Proline – is essential for the synthesis of collagen

Glycine – helps with the maintenance of sleep, and also promotes glycogen storage

So now you know about your Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s), and yes we need them in our lives. Be ensured to eat a balanced diet to obtain all your essential amino acid needs, and supplement accordingly when your body is feeling weak from illness, fatigued or stressed, as amino acids can help keep us healthy, make us stronger and can give us all the tools we need to make every repetition count to ensure we can all become our optimum selves.



Mehmet Edip is a fitness writer, actor, and model who has worked in the industry for over 8 years. He focuses on achieving his physique through an all natural plant-based diet and shares his insight via his workout & nutrition guides.