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Amino Acids

The body uses chemical substances called amino acids to build the exact type of protein it needs. There are two types: essential and nonessential. While the body must get the essential amino acids from foods, it can manufacture the nonessential amino acids on its own if the diet is lacking in them.

Of the approximately 80 amino acids found in nature, only 20 are necessary for proper human growth and function. Not only do they help make neurotransmitters--the chemicals that convey messages in the brain--they also help produce hormones such as insulin; enzymes that activate bodily functions; and certain types of body fluids. In addition, they are essential for the repair and maintenance of organs, glands, muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, hair, and nails.

An amino acid deficiency is usually caused by a diet that is low in protein, although the level of certain acids can also drop in the presence of trauma, infection, medication effects, stress, aging, and chemical imbalances within the body. A blood test can detect a deficiency, which can be corrected by taking amino acid supplements. In addition, certain amino acids taken in supplement form may aid in fighting heart disease, lowering blood pressure, protecting against stroke, and alleviating intermittent claudication (a type of leg pain caused by blocked arteries in the legs). They may also help in treating cancer, reducing sugar cravings, building immunity, and protecting the body in various other ways.

Look for amino acid supplements prefaced by the letter L (such as L-arginine). These are more similar to the amino acids in the body than are amino acid supplements prefaced by the letter D. (One exception is D-L phenylalanine, which treats chronic pain.)

The essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, cysteine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

The nonessential amino acids are alanine, aspartic acid, arginine, citrulline, glutamic acid, glycine, hydroxyglumatic acid, hydroxyproline, norleucine, proline, and serine.

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