What Is Amino Acid Deficiency?

Introduction to amino acid deficiency

Definition of amino acids and their role

Amino acids consist of fundamental amino and acidic carboxyl groups, constituting organic compounds. Within the human body, amino acids play a pivotal role in constructing tissue proteins, serving as potential sources of energy through fat conversion, undergoing oxidation to generate energy in the form of carbon dioxide and water, and metamorphosing into enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and acids. These transformations are integral to regulating bodily fluids, a critical component for fostering metabolism and facilitating growth.1

Importance of balanced amino acid intake

Amino acids serve as the elemental constituents for the construction of our cellular machinery, manifesting as proteins and intricate protein complexes. Furthermore, numerous vital metabolites, including purine/pyrimidines and neurotransmitters, emanate from the metabolic processing of cellular amino acids. Unlike the storage depots specific to fats (lipid droplets in adipose tissue) and carbohydrates (glycogen in the liver and muscles), the human body lacks a dedicated reservoir for protein storage. During periods of complete nutrient scarcity or withdrawal, the preservation of bodily protein is upheld. This preservation is orchestrated through cellular mechanisms like the recycling of amino acids through autophagy and protein refinement within lysosomes, along with physiological processes such as the reduction of cellular turnover in tissues reliant on amino acids, the curbing of protein synthesis in inactive tissues, and the precise regulation of urea production aligned with dietary protein intake. Despite these mechanisms, certain vital biochemical pathways necessitate the detachment of amino acid amine groups, leading to an inherent loss of amino acids. This loss mandates replenishment through dietary intake.2

Overview of amino acid deficiency

Amino acid deficiency is frequently utilized to denote diminished concentrations of specific amino acids within the bloodstream. In numerous illnesses and periods of insufficient nourishment, there can be a reduction in the rate of amino acid turnover. These deficiencies might pertain to particular amino acids in specific diseases, or they could manifest as a broader deficiency across various amino acids. The outcomes of these functional insufficiencies can play a role in exacerbating the symptoms, intensifying the gravity, and influencing the advancement of the ailment.3

Types of amino acids

Essential amino acids

  • Definition and significance

Essential amino acids are a subset of amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the human body and must be obtained through the diet. These amino acids play a critical role in various physiological processes, contributing to protein synthesis, cellular function, and overall health. Unlike non-essential amino acids, which the body can produce, essential amino acids must be sourced from external dietary intake. The significance of essential amino acids lies in their role as building blocks for proteins and their pivotal contributions to metabolic pathways. They are crucial for maintaining muscle mass, promoting growth, supporting immune function, and facilitating the synthesis of neurotransmitters and hormones. Deficiencies in essential amino acids can lead to a range of health issues, impacting growth, immune response, cognitive function, and overall well-being.

  • List of essential amino acids

Phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methylation, histidine, leucine, and lycine are commonly referred to as essential amino acids.

  • Food sources: Essential amino acids are vital components of a balanced diet, as the body cannot synthesize them and must be obtained through dietary sources.
    • Phenylalanine: Found in foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
    • Valine: Found in foods like meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, soy, and whole grains.
    • Tryptophan: Present in turkey, chicken, lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
    • Threonine: Available in foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
    • Isoleucine: Found in meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, legumes, and whole grains.
    • Methionine: Rich sources include meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, legumes, and nuts.
    • Histidine: Abundant in meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and whole grains.
    • Leucine: Present in meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, soy, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
    • Lysine: Found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, soy, and legumes.4

Non-essential amino acids

  1. Definition and significance

Non-essential amino acids are a category of amino acids that the human body can synthesize internally. These amino acids are not considered essential components of the diet since the body can produce them through various metabolic pathways. Their production typically occurs within the body's cells, ensuring a continuous supply for vital physiological processes. The significance of non-essential amino acids lies in their integral roles within numerous biological functions. While not required in dietary intake, these amino acids contribute substantially to overall health. They serve as building blocks for protein synthesis, support neurotransmitter production, aid in the formation of molecules critical for cellular function, and play pivotal roles in maintaining bodily homeostasis.

  1. Synthesis within the body

Non-essential amino acids are synthesized within the human body through intricate biochemical pathways that involve various enzymatic reactions. These processes allow the body to produce these amino acids internally, ensuring a continuous supply for essential physiological functions. 

  1. Role in Preventing Deficiency

While non-essential amino acids are synthesized within the body, their availability plays a crucial role in preventing deficiencies and maintaining optimal health. These amino acids contribute to various physiological functions that are essential for overall well-being. Alanine plays a pivotal role in glucose-alanine cycling, which is crucial for energy production during periods of increased demand or fasting. Asparagine contributes to the synthesis of other amino acids, nucleotides, and glycoproteins. It plays a crucial role in promoting cellular growth and proliferation. Aspartic acid is involved in the urea cycle and serves as a precursor for other amino acids. It contributes to neurotransmission and plays a role in cellular metabolism.5

Causes of amino acid deficiency

Inadequate dietary intake

  • Unbalanced diets

 An unbalanced diet can significantly impact amino acid intake, potentially leading to amino acid deficiencies that have far-reaching health consequences. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and play vital roles in various physiological processes. An inadequate intake of specific amino acids can result in deficiencies that affect protein synthesis, cellular function, and overall health.

  • Vegetarian/vegan diets

Vegan diets, which exclude all animal-derived foods, can be nutritionally rich and beneficial when well-planned. However, they may pose challenges related to amino acid deficiency due to the absence of certain protein sources. Vegan diets may lack some essential amino acids, particularly lysine and methionine, which are less abundant in plant-based foods compared to animal sources. Vitamin B12, essential for amino acid metabolism, is primarily found in animal-derived foods. Vegan diets may lack sufficient B12, potentially impacting amino acid utilization.

Malabsorption and digestive disorders

  • Conditions affecting absorption

Amino acid absorption is a critical process in the body's utilization of dietary proteins. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition distinguished by an adverse reaction to gluten. It can damage the lining of the small intestine, impairing the absorption of nutrients, including amino acids. Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis can lead to chronic inflammation and damage to the gastrointestinal tract. This inflammation can disrupt the normal absorption of amino acids and other nutrients. 

  • Impact on amino acid uptake

Amino acid uptake is the process by which cells transport amino acids from the bloodstream into their interiors and is essential for various physiological functions, including protein synthesis, cellular metabolism, and overall health. Adequate amino acid uptake is crucial for muscle growth and repair. The brain relies on the uptake of specific amino acids, such as glutamate and tryptophan, for neurotransmitter production and function. Disruptions in amino acid uptake can affect brain health and contribute to neurological disorders. Impairment in amino acid uptake can have significant impacts on cellular metabolism and overall health.6

Symptoms and effects

General signs of deficiency

  • Muscle weakness and wasting: Amino acids are essential for muscle protein synthesis. Inadequacy can result in weakened muscles and muscle atrophy.
  • Fatigue and weakness: Amino acids are involved in energy production and metabolic processes. Inadequacy can lead to tiredness and diminished strength.
  • Poor wound healing: Amino acids are crucial for collagen synthesis which is essential for wound healing. Deficiencies can impair the body's ability to repair tissues. 

Specific amino acid deficiencies

  1. Protein synthesis disruption

Amino acids, specifically essential amino acids, are essential for the initiation of protein synthesis. Deficiency in these crucial components can disrupt the formation of the translation initiation complex. Ribosomes, the cellular machinery responsible for protein synthesis, require an adequate supply of amino acids to function efficiently. Amino acid deficiency can impair ribosome activity and slow down protein production. In conditions of amino acid deficiency, such as fasting or inadequate protein intake, the body may resort to breaking down muscle proteins to release amino acids for vital functions. This process, known as muscle protein degradation, can lead to muscle loss. 

  • Neurological issues

Amino acids play a crucial role in brain function and neurological health. Deficiencies in specific amino acids can lead to a range of neurological issues and disorders. Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation. A tryptophan deficiency can lead to low serotonin levels, contributing to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Phenylalanine and tyrosine are precursors for dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters critical for mood and cognition. Deficiency in these amino acids can result in mood disorders and cognitive impairments.

  • Immune system compromise

Arginine, an amino acid, is essential for the production of nitric oxide, which plays a critical role in immune cell function. Arginine deficiency can impair immune responses, particularly in conditions like sepsis. Protein-energy malnutrition often results in amino acid deficiencies and negatively impacts immune function. Inadequate protein intake leads to reduced synthesis of immune proteins and antibodies, weakening the immune response.7

Diagnosis and medical assessment

Physical symptoms and clinical examination

Amino acid deficiencies, particularly in essential amino acids, can lead to muscle wasting and weakness. Clinical examinations may reveal reduced muscle mass and strength. In severe cases, protein-energy malnutrition, characterized by amino acid deficiency, can lead to fluid retention. Clinical examination may reveal swelling of the extremities. Amino acids play a role in skin health. Deficiency can lead to dry, scaly skin, and examination may show dermatitis or other skin abnormalities.

Blood tests and amino acid profiling

Amino acid profiling involves analyzing the concentration of individual amino acids in a blood sample. It helps identify deficiencies in specific amino acids. Branched-chain amino acid analysis focuses on measuring levels of essential amino acids like leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Plasma amino acid panels analyze a broad range of amino acids in the blood.8

Treatment and prevention

Dietary adjustments

Essential amino acid-rich foods

  1. Animal Based Protein Sources:
  • Eggs: Eggs are a complete protein source, providing all essential amino acids. They are particularly rich in leucine, an essential amino acid crucial for muscle protein synthesis 
  • Lean Meats: Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and beef are excellent sources of essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and tryptophan 
  • Fish: Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are not only rich in essential amino acids but also provide omega-3 fatty acids for heart and brain health.
  1. Plant-Based Protein Sources:
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are high in protein and contain a variety of amino acids. They contain notable amounts of lysine and arginine.
  • Tofu and Tempeh: Soy-based products like tofu and tempeh are complete protein sources, offering all essential amino acids. They are also rich in glutamine. 
  • Quinoa: Quinoa is a unique plant-based source of complete protein, containing all essential amino acids. It is particularly high in lysine.9

Amino acid supplements

  • Situations warranting supplements

Supplements for amino acid deficiency may be necessary in certain situations when dietary intake or the body's ability to synthesize amino acids is compromised. Individuals with inborn errors of amino acid metabolism, such as phenylketonuria or maple syrup urine disease, often require specific amino acid supplements to manage their conditions. Individuals suffering from severe malnutrition, including protein-energy malnutrition, may require amino acid supplements to restore protein balance and support recovery.  Individuals following strict vegan or vegetarian diets may benefit from specific amino acid supplements, particularly if their diet lacks diversity or essential amino acid sources.

  • Medical supervision and dosage

Before starting amino acid supplementation, a thorough assessment of the individual's nutritional status and specific amino acid deficiencies should be conducted. Healthcare professionals can develop individualized supplementation plans tailored to the person's age, weight, medical condition, and nutritional needs. This ensures that the supplementation is safe and effective. The dosage of amino acid supplements depends on whether the amino acids are essential or non-essential. Essential amino acids may require specific dosing to meet daily requirements.10

Addressing underlying health conditions:

Inborn errors in amino acid metabolism are genetic disorders that impair the body's ability to process specific amino acids. Treatment often involves dietary modifications, including restricted intake of certain amino acids, supplementation of deficient amino acids, and medications to manage symptoms. Gastrointestinal disorders like Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease can lead to malabsorption of amino acids. Management includes addressing the underlying condition through medication, dietary changes and nutritional support to improve amino acid absorption.

Importance of early intervention

Long-term consequences of untreated deficiency

Untreated amino acid deficiency can have significant and lasting consequences on overall health and well-being. Amino acids are essential for growth and development, particularly in infants and children. Untreated deficiency can lead to stunted growth, delayed puberty, and cognitive impairments. It is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and strength. Chronic deficiency can result in muscle wasting and weakness, which can affect physical function and quality of life. It plays a significant role in immune system function. Prolonged deficiency can weaken the immune response, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.10


Amino acids, composed of essential amino and acidic carboxyl groups, are crucial organic compounds in the human body. They play diverse roles, constructing tissue proteins, serving as energy sources, transforming into enzymes and hormones, and regulating bodily fluids for metabolism and growth. Deficiency in amino acids, often indicating low concentrations in the bloodstream, can result from various illnesses or inadequate nutrition, affecting amino acid turnover rates. Essential amino acids, vital for physiological processes, must be obtained through the diet, while non-essential ones can be synthesized internally. An imbalanced diet can lead to amino acid deficiencies with far-reaching health consequences. Amino acid profiling, including branched-chain amino acid analysis and plasma amino acid panels, helps identify deficiencies. Supplements may be necessary in specific situations, such as inborn errors of amino acid metabolism or severe malnutrition, to prevent lasting health consequences. Strict vegan or vegetarian diets may also benefit from amino acid supplements to address potential deficiencies and support overall well-being.


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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dr. Suruthy R S

Doctor of Pharmacy - PharmD, SRM University

I'm a Clinical Pharmacist with extensive experience in Pharmacovigilance, including the oversight of safety aggregate reports and Individual Case Safety Reports. My background encompasses Regulatory, Clinical, and Safety domains. Currently, I'm dedicated to writing medical articles focusing on chronic disorders and general patient well-being.

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