There’s a wide and wonderful world of supplements beyond vitamins and minerals. It’s so wide and wonderful, in fact, that it’s easy to get lost in it. We’re here to help you stay on the right road.
To do that, we have to leave out most herbal products—there are so many useful ones that it would take a whole other book (or maybe two) to write about them. Instead, in this section we’ll concentrate on other supplements, like amino acids, essential fatty acids, natural hormones, and flavonoids. These are safe, easy-to-take supplements that can help you with your everyday good health.
New research and new products come along all the time in this fast-changing area. Not all of them deliver what they promise. We’ve tried to clear up the confusion so you can set a straight course toward better health.
Your body is a very busy place. Every second of every day, all around the clock, year after year, you make thousands of different enzymes, hormones, antioxidants, and chemical messengers. Every day millions of new cells replace old cells. Your taste buds, for example, only last a day or so, while you replace your entire skin every 30 days. Every day you make millions of red blood cells to replace the ones that wear out as they pound through your blood vessels.
The building blocks of everything that happens in your body are just twenty-two amino acids. All cells are made from them, and your body is regulated by them. Where do the amino acids come from? From the protein in the foods you eat, because proteins are nothing more than long chains of amino acids.
Why You Need Amino
Acids Pretty much all of you that’s not bones and teeth is made up of protein. All that protein is made up of different combinations of amino acids. And all those amino acids are made just from atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, with a little sulfur thrown in here and there.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The human body needs twenty-two different amino acids to make up the 50,000-plus proteins that make you, just as we can make all the words in the English language from just 26 letters.
The amino acids fall into two basic categories: essential and nonessential. Essential amino acids are the nine aminos you must get from your diet—like vitamins, you have to have them and, unlike vitamins, you can’t get them any other way. (The amino acids arginine, histidine, and cysteine are essential for growing babies but not for adults.)
Nonessential amino acids are the amino acids you can make in your body by combining two or more of the essential amino acids. Nonessential doesn’t mean unnecessary. You don’t have to get these aminos from your food (although they are found in foods), but you still need to have them. That means your food has to contain enough of the essential amino acids to build them.
Your body contains many other amino acids, such as carnitine and taurine, that don’t fall into the essential/nonessential categories. We know that some of these aminos play important roles in your body. There are others that we still don’t fully understand, but researchers are working on them. We believe there may be some exciting new developments in this area in the next few years.
Amino acids may have complicated names, like phenylalanine, or confusingly similar names, like glutamine, glycine, and glutamic acid. To make them easier to remember, we’ve listed them all in a
chart. We’re going to be talking about the different aminos by name, so refer back to the chart if you get mixed up.
50,000 Proteins from Just 22 Aminos
You need all twenty-two amino acids to make the bigger protein molecules that keep you alive. Amazingly, those twenty-two aminos can be assembled into so many different three-dimensional combinations that your body can make over 50,000 different proteins. That includes all the proteins that make up your tissues and form all the many enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemical messengers that keep your body working.
The instructions for making all those proteins are encoded in your genetic material—the DNA in the nucleus of every one of your cells. In a very complicated sequence of events, your DNA tells your cells to put together specific amino acids, anywhere from two or three to a thousand or so, to make whatever protein happens to be needed at that moment. Amazingly, some cells in your body can produce as many as 10,000 different proteins! When exactly the right aminos are linked together in exactly the right order, they coil and fold up into exactly the shape of that protein and
no other. That protein, folded into its particular shape, fits like a key into a lock with other proteins as it carries out its specific job in your body. When the job is done, other proteins come along and recycle it; breaking it back down so that its amino acids can be used again in another combination. The intricate complexity of your body is truly awesome!
When two or three amino acids combine into a short chain, they form a very simple protein called a peptide. You make a lot of different peptides. We’re just starting to understand how many and how important they are. Most of your neurotransmitters, the chemical substances that send messages to and from your brain and help regulate your body, are peptides. They have complicated names only a biochemist could remember, like bradykinin, leucine, enkephalin, and substance P.
The RDA for Amino Acids
Figuring out the RDA for amino acids gets complicated, because you really need to know two things: How much protein you need, and then how much of that protein should be made up of each of the nine essential amino acids. Bear with us as we work it out.
First, the protein. How much do you really need? Probably a lot less than you’re getting. The RDA for protein is figured using a very complicated formula, but it basically comes down to this: You need 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. So, if you’re that mythical 130-pound woman, you need about 47 grams of protein (130 × 0.36) every day.
To put your protein needs in a different way, you need to get about 10 to 15 percent of your daily
calories from protein. A gram of protein has about 4 calories, so our imaginary 130-pound woman gets about 188 calories a day from protein.
Let’s get real with these numbers. There’s about 28 grams in an ounce. A quarter-pound hamburger has about 14 grams of protein; a baked chicken leg has about 30 grams. In an average American diet, you reach your daily protein quickly. In fact, you probably go way over it every day.
Now let’s look at the amino acids. Animal proteins, such as meat, eggs, and milk, contain all nine of the essential amino acids, along with some of the nonessential ones. Nutritionists call these “high-quality” or “complete” proteins. The protein in eggs is such high quality that eggs are used as the standard to measure other proteins by (see the chart for the breakdown). So, the proportions of the essential amino acids in an egg set the standard for how much of each essential amino acid you need. Looking at the egg chart, you can see that you need relatively little tryptophan, for example, compared to leucine.
Now let’s combine what we know about protein and what we know about amino acids. We know you need 0.36 mg of protein for every pound of your body weight. We know that protein needs to contain the different essential amino acids in roughly the same proportions as those found in an egg. Based on that, we can then figure out how much of each essential amino you need to get every day.
The breakout is shown in the chart in terms of milligrams per each pound of your body weight. Checking the chart, you can see that a 130-pound woman needs to get 1,040 mg (130 × 8), or almost exactly 1 gram, of leucine every day. To put that in perspective, there’s close to 2 grams of leucine in a quarter-pound hamburger.
Eating Your Aminos
Very few people in our modern society get less than the RDA for protein. Most get more—vegetarians get about 50 to 100 grams a day, and meat eaters get a lot more. Protein
deficiency—and therefore amino acid deficiency—is almost unheard of. You’d have to be on a very weird and restrictive diet, or have a serious health problem, to be too low in protein.
It is important to get the right balance of amino acids, though. If you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan, you need to be sure you’re getting enough variety in your food to give you plenty of all the essential aminos. Plant foods don’t contain as much protein as animal foods, and they usually don’t have enough of all the essential amino acids. Corn, for example, is very low in tryptophan and cysteine.
Most people get plenty of high-quality protein in their diet and don’t need to worry about getting enough amino acids. You don’t need to take amino acid supplements if you’re in good health and eat a well-balanced diet.
Sometimes, though, you might want to be sure of having enough of the amino building blocks for a particular protein. For example, you need to have plenty of cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid to make the antioxidant glutathione.
If you need extra glutathione to fend off extra free radicals—because you have an infection, for example—you might need some extra amino building blocks. (Glutathione is so important to your health that we’ll talk more about it in chapter 24 on super antioxidants.) In that case, check out your health-food store for free-form amino acid supplements. Read the label carefully. If it doesn’t say free form, the aminos you want are probably in there only as part of a protein chain made up of a combination of amino acids. Your digestive system will have to break down the chain in order to release the amino acids. Free aminos are already in their simplest form, so they’re absorbed into your body right away.
Watch out for amino acid formulas that claim to contain all the essential and nonessential amino acids. Read the labels carefully. Some of these formulas are really just protein powders with some
added free amino acids. They’re high in calories because they’re designed for weight gain and building body mass.
Most people take their amino supplements by swallowing them in convenient capsules. If you’d rather take the powder form, just put a spoonful on your tongue and wash it down with a few swallows of a cold liquid. Aminos don’t dissolve, so you’ll have trouble stirring them into a drink.
Never add free form amino acids to hot foods or use them in cooking. The heat changes their structure and makes them ineffective.
Source: Dr. Alan H. Pressman with Sheila Buff