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Definition of Purines & Pyrimidines

author image Sandi Busch
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.
Definition of Purines & Pyrimidines
Scallops and mushrooms are high in purines. Photo Credit: Jonathan Steele/iStock/Getty Images

Purines and pyrimidines are essential for building the molecules that carry your genetic code and produce all the proteins needed for a healthy and active body. Both molecules are found in foods, but after digestion, only a small amount makes it to cells. You can support their production by consuming proteins that supply the amino acids used to make purines and pyrimidines.

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Purines and Pyrimidines

Purines and pyrimidines, also called nucleotides, sound like two specific substances, but they actually represent larger groups of naturally occurring compounds. The members of each group share a defining chemical structure.

One nucleic acid -- DNA -- contains your genes, while a second nucleic acid -- RNA -- helps duplicate genes to produce proteins. Purines and pyrimidines are one of three building blocks needed to make DNA and RNA.

Free purines are more commonly found in foods than pyrimidines, while pyrimidines are used to make drugs that treat cancer, high blood pressure and anxiety, reports Rx Pharmatutor.

Nutrients Needed for Production

Three amino acids -- glutamine, glycine and aspartate -- are needed to produce purines and pyrimidines. Glutamine is especially important because it triggers the first step in the synthesis of the two nucleotides.

The body produces all three amino acids, but if you’re sick or under long-term stress, glutamine and glycine can become depleted. When that happens, it’s important to get them through your diet.

Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products contain glutamine, glycine and aspartate. Foods such as spinach, cabbage, wheat germ and oats provide glutamine, while other choices for glycine include gelatin and soy. To boost aspartate, add lentils, peanuts, almonds, chickpeas and soybeans to your diet.

Health Concerns

Catabolism is a normal part of body maintenance in which molecules are broken down and eliminated or reused. Pyrimidine catabolism isn't a problem, but the breakdown of purines results in uric acid, which can accumulate and cause gout. The uric acid crystals tend to accumulate in joints, resulting in inflammatory arthritis.

Genetic disorders cause gout, while being overweight, age and health conditions such as kidney disease increase the risk of developing gout. Dietary habits also have an impact. Overconsumption of alcohol or high-purine foods contributes to the condition, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Purines in Diet

If you have gout, or you’re at a higher risk for developing it, your doctor may recommend following a low-purine diet. The institute's list of high-purine foods to avoid includes beef kidneys, brains, game meats, herring, liver and sweetbreads. Asparagus, dried beans and peas, gravy, mushrooms, scallops and sardines are also on the high-purine list.

Coffee, tea and cocoa contain purines called xanthines. Caffeine, theophylline in tea and theobromine in cocoa are all xanthines. The good news is that these beverages are safe to drink even if you're following a low-purine diet, reports the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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