Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/26/2022
Amino acids are one of those things you hear about every day but don’t really understand. It’s okay — you’re not alone.
While the average person may have a working understanding of the purpose of collagen or keratin, the things that make those proteins tick are a little more elusive — and not just because they’re so much smaller.
Understanding the importance of amino acids, however, is key to understanding not just collagen or protein, or even your skin as a whole, but the function of your body from the top down.
That’s because, whether you know about them or not, amino acids are the things pulling the strings on many of your daily behaviors. They’re the building blocks.
Amino acids are elemental to the structure of all proteins — the stuff that gives structure to our skin.
From the keratin in our nails, to collagen production (what gives you plump skin) and the elastin that keeps our faces looking smooth and youthful, proteins are an important part of how we look, and also how we function.
The purpose of essential amino acids — why they’re there — is to regulate processes like cell signaling (how our cells know what to do and when) and things like gene expression, which play a crucial role in cell replication and performance.
You’ve likely heard some of the names of prominent amino acids before, including tryptophan, cysteine, glutamine and arginine.
These all serve purposes in our body for the regulation and prevention of things that ail us. Things like obesity, diabetes, heart diseases and infertility.
Amino acids play a crucial role in processes like wound healing and repairing skin damage when it happens to skin and other tissues.
They’re also important to your skin’s ability to find balance in pH and retain water between cellular layers, as well as for how your body does or doesn’t protect itself from sun-damaged skin.
Studies have shown that amino acids are crucial elements for the function of your skin, and not just with regards to the production of new cells.
They’re crucial to the management of aging, protecting against skin diseases and promoting barrier function of your skin — but also for the ongoing structural integrity of your skin as a whole.
Your skin is an important collection of cells and proteins, and the three most important — elastin, collagen and keratin — basically prevent your skin from oozing off your body like slime.
Keratin works as a sort of hardened shield, while elastin and collagen keep your cells from moving around or disfiguring.
Remember being a kid and your grandma’d come over and pinch your cheeks? It’d be pretty weird if they just stayed squished like that your whole life, right? Well, we have elastin to thank for that — not today, Bubbi!
Amino acids effectively regulate these proteins (and a lot of other things), so if you don’t have the right amino acids, you’re going to start looking wrinkly and unwell.
So can you ever have enough of these molecules? Heck yes you can.
While the human body contains about 20 amino acids, many of them are there not just to create proteins, but to regulate and destroy other things in your body.
Unfortunately, as with anything in nature, there’s a need for balance. Excessive levels of amino acids can lead to increased risks of neurological disorders, cardiovascular disease and oxidative stress — the free radical activity that damages cells and hinders their performance.
When it comes to skin, insufficient or excessive levels of amino acids related to these skin proteins can create problems related to sweating, cause odd bodily secretions and even make your hair, skin and nails fall out.
Getting amino acids is about your diet, and a continuous supply of amino acids is required within your diet for everything to keep working.
Some of these amino acids, including tryptophan, aren’t something we can even make with our own bodies, so a dietary intake is crucial. That makes the post-turkey Thanksgiving nap feel a little more productive, doesn't it?
Getting enough, then, is about consuming a balanced diet, while maintaining healthy skin and a healthy body that can properly produce the amino acids you’re able to produce on your own.
It’s a complicated process — and an important one — but also one that we don’t have fully decoded with respect to the “how much?” question.
The good news is that, if you’re consuming a balanced diet and taking care of your health, you’re likely meeting many of these minimums already.
A healthcare professional can help you identify what amino acids are important for different skin types, as well as identify deficiencies if need be.
They’ll be able to help you identify key micronutrients and specific benefits of amino acids that you might be deficient in, but they’ll also be able to help you identify major causes of concern.
Skin issues, after all, can be caused by a multitude of internal and external risk factors. And while they all may involve amino acids, amino acids may not be the source of concern.
We’re all for better education about the things our bodies need to live, but there are complicated systems in motion and amino acids are just one of the micronutrients you need to keep an eye on.
From vitamins and minerals, to antioxidants and more.
If you’re seeing signs that anything may not be functioning the way it should, the solution is not to hit up Butterball and fry up a turkey for some extra tryptophan. That sounds like delicious fun any time of the year, but it won’t address medical issues that arise.
Instead, the right thing to do is talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns.
Your skin is a complex organ defined by its ability to regulate cellular production and fight off wrinkles, blemishes and injuries.
Amino acids are a crucial part of the function of every part of your body, and your skin is no different. But it’s easy to get lost in the questions of individual micronutrients and forget about the big picture.
The big picture, if you will, isn’t about making sure you get enough cysteine — it’s about eating a balanced diet, containing that and other essential micronutrients that help your skin, liver, kidneys and other organs function the way they should.
A healthcare professional can help you manage the essential amino acid lists. Leave that part to the experts, and worry about living a happy, healthy big picture life so you can see many more tryptophan holidays to come.