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There are 20 different amino acids that your body needs to survive, and they are the building blocks for the proteins that form your body and keep it healthy. However, understanding the differences between the types of amino acids – especially essential amino acids – can help you make better choices about your diet and the supplements you take.
This term can be a bit misleading since all amino acids are essential for a healthy body, but in this context, it simply refers to amino acids that your body can make on its own. When you consume proteins, your body doesn’t use them in their whole form. Instead, it breaks them down into amino acids that go into a pool. As your body needs certain proteins, it can pull the correct amino acids out of that pool to assemble them. Nonessential amino acids are those that result from the breakdown of proteins. They are alanine, asparagine, aspartate, arginine, glutamine, tyrosine, cysteine, glycine, proline, serine, and ornithine.
On the other hand, an essential amino acid list consist of nine that your body cannot produce on its own through the breakdown of proteins. The only way to get essential amino acids into your body is through eating the right foods and taking the right supplements. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Many animal proteins are considered “complete”, which means they contain all nine. Plant proteins are not complete, but most vegans and vegetarians can still get all nine of the essential amino acids each day by eating a variety of beans, nuts, and grains.
Three of the essential amino acids above also fit into the branched-chain amino acids category: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These get their name from the extra molecular branch that contains additional carbon atoms, and many studies have shown that they are especially helpful when it comes to maintaining muscle mass during times of stress or calorie deficiency. They’re also quite good at helping to grow lean muscle tissue, and they play an important role in repairing it after workouts.
Conditional amino acids can be a bit tricky to understand, but it’s actually quite a simple concept. Most of the time, your body has absolutely no problem making all of the nonessential amino acids it needs to thrive. However, when you are very sick, or when your body is experiencing some kind of stress or trauma, it may not be able to make enough of some amino acids. The conditional amino acids are arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
The good news is that you can buy amino acids supplements that can help provide your body with all nine of the essential amino acids as well as most of the others. This means that you won’t have to worry about which ones your meal contains; you’ll always have enough on hand for your body to create the proteins it needs.