Essential Amino Acids vs Conditionally Essential Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of what is commonly referred to as protein and are compounds that play many key roles in your body. You need them for important processes like building proteins, hormones and neurotransmitters. Amino acids are concentrated in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and soybeans. Some people also take certain amino acids in supplement form as a natural way to improve athletic performance or improve mood. They are classified as required, conditionally required, or non-essential based on several factors.

1. What are the essential amino acids?

Amino acids are organic compounds mainly composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly. While all 20 are important to your health, only 9 are classified as essential. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. While your body can make non-essential amino acids, it cannot make essential amino acids, so you must get them from your diet.

The best sources of amino acids are animal proteins such as meat, eggs and poultry. However, some plant foods, such as the soy products edamame and tofu, contain all nine essential amino acids. This means they are a "complete" source of protein. After consuming protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids, which are then used in various processes, such as building muscle and regulating immune function.

2. How are essential amino acids converted?

Several non-essential amino acids are classified as conditionally essential amino acids. These are only necessary in certain situations, such as during illness, pregnancy, infancy or trauma. For example, arginine is considered non-essential, but your body can't keep up with your needs when you're recovering from a serious injury or battling certain diseases, such as cancer.

This is why, in some cases, people may take arginine supplements to meet their body's needs. Additionally, certain amino acids, including glycine and arginine, are considered conditionally essential during pregnancy because pregnant women need more of these amino acids to support their own health and that of the fetus. Your body cannot produce the nine essential amino acids, so you need to get them from your diet. Conditionally essential amino acids are those that become non-essential under certain conditions, such as disease or pregnancy.

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