Essential & Nonessential Amino Acids: Difference & Roles

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  • 0:01 Nonessential vs.…
  • 1:14 Essential Amino Acids
  • 3:57 Nonessential Amino Acids
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The proteins in your body are made up of 20 amino acids. Your body can synthesize the nonessential amino acids, but the remaining amino acids need to come from your diet, making them essential amino acids. Learn about this difference and their roles.

Nonessential vs. Essential Amino Acids

Let's say you want to mix up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I'm betting you already have some of the ingredients stored in your pantry, like sugar, flour and salt, but what about chocolate chips? If you don't have any chocolate chips in your pantry, then it is essential that you pick up some at the store or else your cookies will be incomplete.

The ingredients in your chocolate chip cookie recipe are much like the amino acids in your body, which are the basic building blocks of proteins.

Some amino acids can be made by the body and are always available; much like the dry ingredients stored in your pantry are always on hand. They are called nonessential amino acids.

Other amino acids cannot be made by the body so you must get them from your diet; much like you must travel to the store to get your very important chocolate chips. These are called essential amino acids. If you are missing any of these amino acids your body has a hard time making all of the protein it needs. And, since protein is needed for the repair, growth and maintenance of the cells, you can see just how important it is to obtain all the needed amino acids.

Essential Amino Acids

Your body works like a mixer taking 20 different amino acids and mixing and matching them together into bonded chains that vary in length and sequence, kind of like a beaded necklace with beads of all different shapes and colors.

Of these 20 amino acids, 10 are essential, so you consume them when you eat protein-containing foods such as meats, fish, poultry, eggs and certain combinations of plant proteins. These foods get broken down in your digestive tract into the individual amino acids, which are then reassembled by your body to make the wide variety of proteins it needs.

You can remember the names of the 10 essential amino acids by using the mnemonic PVT TIM HALL. The P in PVT stands for Phenylalanine, which has a chemical makeup that consists of a big side chain, so we get to start our mnemonic with something big. Valine is next, which sounds somewhat 'valiant', which is a good word to associate with a private in the military. This is followed by Threonine, and that 'three' at the beginning is nice because it's the third amino acid in our mnemonic.

Next we see that TIM stands for Tryptophan, Isoleucine and Methionine. Because private Tim is in the military he takes many 'trips' overseas, which keeps him 'isolated' from his family, yet Tim is very patriotic, so he sees that there is a 'method' to this maddening travel requirement. Tim's last name is HALL, and these letters stand for the remaining essential amino acids, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine and Lysine. Private Tim Hall is proud of his 'history' as a member of the military, and although the traveling has been 'arduous' at times, he feels 'lucky' whenever he gets to 'lie' his hands back on U.S. soil.

Now before we move on, we might want to go back to the essential amino acid Arginine and put an asterisk beside it. That's because arginine is only essential during periods of rapid growth and development, like childhood. Arginine can be made by the body, which makes it partly nonessential, but it might not be able to make enough during times of high demand, so we call it semi-essential.

Did you notice that most of our amino acids end in -ine? This is not a hard and fast rule for naming these substances, but you should keep this in mind because it can be a helpful clue when identifying essential and nonessential amino acids.

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