Amino acids are building blocks for proteins that are part of every cell, tissue and organ in your body. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential because you need to consume them through food. The protein in your body plays a role in immunity, carries out chemical reactions, transmits signals and provides structure and support to your cells. Most Americans get enough protein, but speak to your pediatrician if you're concerned your child lacks this nutrient in his diet. Amino acid supplements are being studied to determine their effect on behavior problems in children, but more research is needed, and as of now, supplementation is not recommended for kids.
If your child is a picky eater or doesn't eat much, you may be tempted to give him an amino acid supplement. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend supplements for children, and says eating a well-balanced diet is best for young athletes. Nutrients need to be consumed together to be most effective. For instance, phosphorous, vitamin D and protein are all needed for strong bones. Supplements may also interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications, causing unwanted side effects. Prescription amino acid supplements may be safer but still cause severe stomach pain, fatigue and upset stomach.
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Older children and adolescents may turn to supplements for a competitive edge. Amino acids allegedly build body mass and boost muscle and strength. The Federation of American Societies for Experiential Biology states it is risky for children and adolescents to take amino acid supplements, and there is not enough information to establish a safe amount of amino acids in supplements. Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so they might not be independently tested for safety before hitting store shelves. They may be mislabeled and not contain the ingredients or amount of ingredients claimed.
Amino Acid Therapy
Amino acid supplements may be beneficial to certain populations. A study published in 2006 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed at-risk children who supplemented with amino acids increased chemicals in their brain that improved attention and decreased aggressive behaviors and depression. Amino acid supplements may also help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because these children have lower levels of tryptophan, an amino acid crucial to attention and learning. A 2012 study demonstrated children with a specific form of autism had low amino acid levels due to a genetic mutation. More research is needed on larger sample sizes and in human subjects though, and a doctor should always prescribe and supervise any supplements given to children.
Children need 10 to 35 percent of their daily calories from protein. This equates to about 13 grams for 1- to 3-year-olds, around 19 grams for 4- to 8-year-olds and about 34 grams for 9- to 13-year-olds. Adolescent girls and boys require 46 and 52 grams, respectively.
Give your child foods such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs which contain all 9 essential amino acids. Incomplete protein sources, like most plant-based foods, do not have all the amino acids, but when combined throughout the day, meet your child's protein needs. Serve vegetable protein sources such as beans with whole grains or nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, tofu with rice or whole-grain cereal with milk.
- Genetics Home Reference: What Are Proteins and What Do They Do?
- Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension: Food and Young Children
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Amino Acid Supplement
- Children's Healthcare of Atlanta: The Facts About Supplement Use for Teens
- Nationwide Children's Hospital: Supplements: To Use, or Not to Use?
- Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: An Experimental Evaluation of Targeted Amino Acid Therapy With At-Risk Children
- Behavioral Brain Function: Altered Tryptophan and Alanine Transport in Boys With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
- Science: Mutations in BCKD-Kinase Leads to a Potentially Treatable Form of Autism With Epilepsy
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Protein
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Protein and Amino Acids
- Bastyr University: What Are Complementary Proteins, and How Do We Get Them?
- HealthyChildren.org: Performance-Enhancing Substances