Glycine is the body’s natural regulator of inflammation and is also the smallest and simplest of all the 20 amino acids your body uses to make proteins.
It is so simple that it is even made naturally by inorganic processes. In addition to being one of the fundamental building blocks of proteins, it has long been known that glycine participates in many different important chemical reactions within the body. For example, glycine f forms part of the structure that constitutes the bases that make up the structure of DNA.
Yet as a nutrient, glycine has long been undervalued because it is considered (incorrectly) to be nonessential. That means the body can survive without consuming any glycine, because it can make glycine on its own (mainly in the liver, the body’s main center for amino acid chemistry), from such simple components as carbon dioxide and ammonia! But the liver’s capacity for making glycine is not unlimited, and rglycine has a special function with respect to inflammation. For this function glycine is needed in very high concentrations surrounding the immune cells that cause inflammation. (These cells are called macrophages, and they’re everywhere, residing in every organ of the body, even including the brain.) Inflammation is a natural function of the immune system, but it is needed only as a non-specific, first response to infection. Glycine serves as a “trigger lock”, preventing the macrophages from causing inappropriate or excessive inflammation, which only harms normal healthy tissues.
The protein-rich foods most of us eat are rich in what is considered to be high quality protein, because they have similar proportions of the 8 essential amino acids that make up our bodies. This raises an interesting question: How can consuming flesh made with the same mix of amino acids as our own flesh possibly throw our body out of amino acid balance? The answer is quite simple, broken down into three parts:
1. The body’s main structural protein—what makes up the basic fibrous structure of our bones and connective tissues—is collagen. The most abundant amino acid in collagen is glycine. (One out of every three amino acid molecules in collagen is glycine!) When we eat meat, fish or poultry, we usually throw away the bones and connective tissues, so we actually throw away most of the glycine!
2. The essential amino acid that the body needs the least of is called methionine. In addition to being one of the 20 amino acids that the body uses to make protein, methionine also has other critical functions. It is the universal methyl donor, that is, it adds one-carbon units to a myriad of biological molecules within the body, including DNA. In order to do this, methionine first needs to be activated; converted into a molecule called S-adenosyl methionine (often called SAM-e). SAM-e is a very reactive molecule, and although it is often touted as a useful nutritional supplement, in fact most of us have too much of it!
We have an excess of methionine in our bodies because although our body needs to consume about half a gram a day, a standard diet contains several times that much! In order to get rid of excess methionine, the body needs to convert it to SAM-e and then have it harmlessly donate its methyl group to a suitable safe molecule. So important is this process of excess methionine clearance, that there is a special metabolic pathway exclusively for this purpose. A key enzyme of this pathway is glycine N-methyltransferase (GNMT).
This means that glycine—and only glycine—can detoxify excess SAM-e, which all excess methionine is turned into. Otherwise, harmful excessive methylations can occur, resulting in the formation of such reactive and toxic substances as formaldehyde, which causes oxidative stress by generating reactive oxygen species (ROS) that cause cellular damage and need to be neutralized by antioxidants.
3. Although antioxidants from fruits and other foods are helpful in combating oxidative stress, the body’s main antioxidant molecule is called glutathione (GSH). Glutathione is a molecule made up of three amino acid molecules, one of which is glycine! Therefore, when methionine intake is high, the body needs extra glycine for two reasons: to directly detoxify the extra SAM-e, and to combat the higher level of oxidative stress by making more glutathione. The activation of the methionine clearance pathway also activates the pathways for the synthesis of glycine, but the body cannot keep up, because the consumption of glycine is too low! (Remember, most of the glycine in the food is thrown away!)
This would all seem to make the solution childishly simple: Eat more glycine! And in fact, eating more glycine actually works! The only difficulty with glycine supplementation is that glycine is not a micronutrient that you need to take in micrograms or milligrams per day, like most other nutritional supplements. For optimal amino acid balance, you need to eat several grams per day! The typical diet only provides about 2-3 grams per day of glycine, but the body needs to take in about 10 grams per day, leaving a dietary glycine deficit of about 8 grams.
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