Building Blocks of the Body: Proteins

There are many types of PROTEINS.  All of them play essential roles in the body’s metabolism, and thus health.  Most of us think of proteins for building muscle size and strength.  However, proteins do much more than that.

While the body “manufactures” the proteins, it needs the individual units called amino acids to do so.  It can make some of the amino acids on its own but is dependent on others from the food we take in on a daily basis.  These amino acids are referred to as essential amino acids.

To really appreciate the various dimensions of proteins, let’s look at major types of protein and their functions in the body’s metabolism.

The manufacture of proteins begins with the selection of amino acids.  These amino acids are strung together like a necklace (primary structure).  Several “necklaces” are connected to each other in parallel to form a pleated sheet (secondary structure), or a helix.  This pleated sheet is then twisted into a 3-dimensional configuration unique to a particular type of protein molecule (tertiary structure).   Furthermore, several of theses protein molecules can then be connected to each other to perform a particular task (quartenary structure).

The body can thus assemble proteins as needed.  The amino acids are either derived from food containing proteins which then are broken down into their respective amino acids, or from proteins recycled after breakdown (metabolism) of the body’s own tissue, such as muscle.

Examples of Types of Proteins:

  • Structural Proteins — Collagen, Fibrin, Elastin, Keratin for cell matrix, skin, nails, hair, muscle fiber, bone matrix, tendons, and other connective tissue
  • Proteins for Cell Signaling and Cell Communication — Insulin, for example, signals to cell membrane receptors to allow glucose to enter the cells
  • Transport Proteins — One of them, hemoglobin,  binds oxygen and carries it via the blood to all cells in the body.  After unloading the oxygen, hemoglobin binds to the carbon dioxide and delivers it to the lungs to be expelled when we exhale.
  • Carrier Proteins — These proteins are part of a cell membrane and permit the movement of substances across the membrane into or out of the cell interior.
  • Enzymes — These types of protein catalyze (ignite and facilitate) a biochemical reaction, such as digestion.
  • Hormones — These proteins permit communication within the body.  Nerve conduction is another form of communication.  Major organs of hormone production are the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, the reproductive organs (testes, ovaries), placenta, adrenal glands of the kidneys, pancreas, and thymus.
  • Antibodies — These proteins, also referred to as immunoglobulins, are the warriors of our immune system.

The above are just some examples of the types of proteins and their functions in the body.  Needless to say, proteins are vital to our physical, emotional, and mental health.

While most Americans get plenty of protein in their diet, it does not always come from the most healthy sources.  Meat and dairy are the most prevalent and easily accessible sources of protein.  However, today’s meat and dairy supply contain often large traces of the growth hormones and antibiotics pumped into the source animal.

These chemicals may adversely affect our health and reproductive ability.  Moreover, exposure to the antibiotics may render us allergic to antibiotics and/or may increase antibiotic resistance in the bacteria that inhabit or invade our bodies.

Thus be mindful of the kinds of food you ingest on a regular basis.  Organic foods, while more expensive, will in the long run spare you from ill health caused by hormone and antibiotic additives, as well as the residues from pesticides abundant in non-organic fruits and vegetables.