Google, social media, phone apps – all of these sources play a role in the development of our thoughts and opinions around many things but commonly regarding health. Protein is one of those topics that is searched and discussed often, but the information can get confusing pretty quickly!
One website may talk about how you can only get the protein you need from animal products, while another only supports plant-based protein to meet your needs. Or maybe you read that the more protein the better, or protein is bad for your kidneys … but have you come across a source that provided a better understanding of what protein actually is? And the several roles it plays in your health, especially your hormones?
Let’s start with the basics – what are proteins?
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are known as the building blocks for a healthy and efficiently functioning you!
There are a few classifications of amino acids – essential, non-essential, and conditionally essential (don’t let the names fool you – each amino acid is essential to your health)!
Essential Amino Acids
There are 9 essential amino acids you need to consume through foods because the body cannot make them.
- Histidine: meat, poultry, fish, potatoes, beans, buckwheat, chia seeds
- Isoleucine: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soy, lentils, oats, brown rice, almonds, cashews, chia seeds
- Leucine: dairy products, soy, beans, peas, pumpkin
- Lysine: eggs, meat, soy, pumpkin, black beans, quinoa, spirulina, parsley, avocado, almonds
- Methionine: eggs, whole grains, beans, onions, Brazil nuts, figs, cacao
- Phenylalanine: meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, soy, quinoa, rice, beans, berries, leafy greens, seaweed, avocado, raisins, seeds
- Threonine: meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy beans, leafy greens, watercress, hemp seeds, chia seeds
- Tryptophan: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, bananas, chickpeas, peanuts, pepitas, chocolate
- Valine: meat, poultry, cheese, soy, beans, whole grains, spinach, broccoli, apricots, oranges, blueberries, apples, cranberries, sunflower seeds
Non-Essential Amino Acids
There are 11 non-essential amino acids that can be synthesized by a healthy body with adequate nutritional intake. There is some discrepancy from one source to another in regards to the true list of non-essential amino acids, but all in all, every amino acid is important! Non-essential amino acids are created as the body needs them and they can be made in various ways. Some can be created from normal chemical processes that happen in the body and others can be created by other amino acids. To give you a better idea of what that means, here are a few examples:
- Arginine (can be synthesized from proline and glutamine)
- Cysteine (can be synthesized from methionine)
- Glutamine (most abundant non-essential amino acid in the body & ~90% of glutamine is produced by skeletal muscle)
- Glycine (can be synthesized from serine, threonine, choline)
- Serine (can be synthesized from glycine & can be produced in cells through several mechanisms)
- Tyrosine (can be synthesized from phenylalanine)
Conditionally Essential Amino Acids
Of the 11 non-essential amino acids, 8 of them are considered conditionally essential. Although your body can produce them in a healthy state, in the presence of stress, illness, and disease, you may not be able to synthesize enough of them. Fortunately, you can count on specific food sources until you are back in the game.
- Arginine (meat, seafood, watermelon, nuts)
- Cysteine (beef, poultry, eggs, whole grains)
- Glutamine (meat, eggs, dairy products, tofu, corn)
- Glycine (meat, fish, dairy products, legumes)
- Ornithine (meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, soy, rice, whole grains)
- Proline (meat, dairy products, soy)
- Serine (meat, shellfish, eggs, lentils, chickpeas, walnuts)
- Tyrosine (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, whole grains, beans)
So, what do amino acids do for us?
Amino acids of all classifications make up different protein sequences and each protein sequence is responsible for a specific role in the body.
We need amino acids for a crazy number of things – to make protein-based hormones, to make antibodies for our immune system, to keep our brain in good shape, to transport essential nutrients between organs and throughout our body, to make enzymes such as those needed to digest food, and on a larger scale, even make our BODY MOVE! Although that was a mouthful, protein is clearly important, especially when it comes to hormones!
There is a laundry list of hormones (peptide and protein hormones) that are made up of all types of amino acids – including the essential ones! So, to name a few…
Insulin is made up of a 21 amino acid chain and not only keeps your blood sugar from rising too high after eating, but also stimulates skeletal muscle to convert amino acids into protein.
Glucagon is made up of a 29 amino acid chain and converts those “lazy fat” cells into energy! Glucagon also works to stabilize your blood sugar level in between meals so it doesn’t go too low.
Leptin is made up of a 167 amino acid chain and suppresses your appetite to avoid overeating and promote a healthy weight.
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) consists of 2 different very lengthy amino acid chains and promotes a healthy metabolic rate – the rate at which your body breaks down food for energy.
Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), like TSH, consists of 2 different very lengthy amino acid chains. FSH plays a role in sexual development, fertility, amenorrhea, and menopause – meaning it affects estrogen levels! Aside from the roles estrogen plays in reproductive health, it also contributes to bone health, mood, and promotes blood clotting.
Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. It affects your mood and is your “feel good” hormone! Dopamine also plays a role in your physical movement, speech, and reward/reinforcement behavior.
Difficulty sleeping can be caused by many things, but melatonin is your sleepy hormone made by tryptophan. Melatonin helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. Even appropriate supplementation may speed up jet lag recovery!
So, if you are not getting the protein your body needs, specifically the amino acids you need, you may be hindering the optimal function of not only your hormones, but everything else your body uses amino acids for!
How much protein do you actually need?
The amount of protein you need depends on your age, personal health, how active you are in your daily routine, and can actually change from week to week or month to month!
The recommended amount for the average healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, there is some uproar that daily protein recommendations for the average healthy adult should increase to reduce the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age, especially since muscle mass starts to naturally decline for several reasons after the age of 30. One of those reasons is that our body’s ability to utilize protein efficiently, declines – bad news for our protein-based hormones, not to mention our whole body! One review suggests healthy male and female young, older, and elderly adults should consume 25-30 grams of good quality protein per meal. Another study suggests protein recommendations up to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, in young to elderly men and women. We may only need a small amount of protein to technically survive, but you may want to increase the amount of good quality protein in your diet if you want to actually thrive!
The best way to consume protein
Research and several sources including Precision Nutrition agree our body can only use and store a limited amount of protein at a time (~30-40 grams), meaning you should spread out your protein intake (as evenly as possible) throughout the day between 3 or more meals. By spreading out your protein intake, you are making the most out of every gram you consume!
Protein can be poison? Can you overdo protein consumption?
It is very important to consume all foods, even the healthy ones, in moderation. Anything consumed in excess consistently over time can be harmful to your body. Whether it is protein, carbohydrates, or fat – anything in excess can be converted into extra fat, which puts unnecessary stress on your organs and entire body.
Protein, in the right amounts, is essential for your body to survive and thrive. Start looking at your food labels and find out just how much good quality protein your regular diet is providing before you make any significant changes. If you have trouble getting in enough protein through whole foods and are looking for simple additions, I personally like YouMaxa protein powder!