What is Glutamine? – Structure, Uses & Benefits

Have you heard of glutamine? If not, you’ll be excited to learn that it’s very important in the function of your body. In this lesson, you learn about the amino acid glutamine, it’s structure, why it is important in the body and its overall benefits.

Definition of Glutamine

What is glutamine? Glutamine is one of the twenty amino acids needed by animals to function. This amino acid is considered a conditionally, non-essential amino acid. Amino acids are categorized in two ways: essential and non-essential.

Essential amino acids are those amino acids that must be obtained in one’s diet because the body cannot synthesize or build them for other chemicals. Non-essential amino acids are those that the body can make from other chemicals and a dietary source is not needed.

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A conditionally, non-essential amino acid is one in which synthesis is limited due in part to disease. Glutamine is vital in protein synthesis, donation of nitrogen and carbon, cellular energy and kidney function. The structure of glutamine is what makes this amino acid special.

The Structure of Glutamine

In general, all amino acids have the same structure: an amino group attached to a hydrogen, a carboxyl group and a side chain group, denoted by ‘R’ via a central carbon. The amino and carboxyl groups and central carbon are considered the amino acid backbone and are the same in all amino acids. It is the side chain that is specific to each amino acid.

Amino acid structure
Amino acid structure

The specific structure of glutamine is indicative of its chemical formula, C5H10N2O3. The side chain or R group of glutamine is a simple amide, NH2; located at the tail end of the R group. Glutamine is a linear molecule and polar in nature. Polar means that the glutamine molecule is both positively and negatively charged. This amino acid is water loving because of this polar characteristic.

In general, glutamine is made from two other molecules glutamate and ammonia using an enzyme called glutamine synthetase. This is commonly done in muscles but is also in lung and brain tissue and the liver. When studying glutamine the abbreviation Gln or Q might appear; both are indicative of glutamine.


The Uses of Glutamine

Glutamine is vital to protein synthesis. This means that this amino acid is essential in making proteins. Without glutamine, a protein might not fold correctly or function properly. If a protein doesn’t fold correctly, disease or death can happen. If a protein folds but cannot function due to a change in amino acid structure, death can also occur.

Glutamine is a precursor to cell energy, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The living system typically uses the simple sugar glucose, but when glucose is not available, glutamine is used. Glutamine is the highest concentration of free floating amino acid in the blood and can cross the blood-brain barrier, unlike many chemicals. This is due in part to its role in energy formation.

Glutamine, under special conditions, can donate nitrogen. An anabolic process is a process where energy is needed to make a new chemical in biochemistry. A typical process in humans is the production of purines or one of the four base pairs of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This requires extra energy, but the amide group is removed and added to other chemical constituents to make purine.

Glutamine can also donate carbon and is an important source of carbon in the second half of energy metabolism. The second half of energy metabolism is called the citric acid cycle were ATP is made. The carbon groups from the R group of glutamine can be used to form ATP to ensure energy for life.

Where Do Humans Get Glutamine?

Humans typically synthesize glutamine. However, there are foods we consume that are rich in glutamine. Foods rich in glutamine are typically high in protein content, such as fish, red meat, chicken and eggs. Products made from milk are also rich in glutamine. Some vegetables are also high in glutamine, such as cabbage, beets, beans, spinach and parsley.

What Are the Benefits of Glutamine?

If you are in the gym regularly or health conscientious, you will have noticed that amino acid supplementation has become a popular phrase in the health/fitness industry. There are many drinks that have glutamine in them to increase performance, reduce muscle stress and increase recovery time after strenuous exercise. These claims are not officially supported by medicine.

Medically speaking, glutamine supplements are great to:

  • Prevent weight-loss
  • Reduce soreness and swelling of body parts affected by chemotherapy due to cancer treatment
  • Increase recovery times by improving the immune system after surgery
  • Increase the healing of injuries

Glutamine Deficiencies

Common diseases associated with changes in proteins due to glutamine deficiencies are intestinal issues in infants and digestion in infants and adults. This can affect growth as well as nutrient absorption which could lead to very serious health issues. That being said, excessive amounts of glutamine in a living system can lead to a lack of movement or transport of other amino acids, resulting in other issues within cell communication and function. This too could cause very serious health issues.

Lesson Summary

The amino acid glutamine is a conditionally, non-essential amino, vital in protein synthesis, carbon and nitrogen donation and energy production. It can float around in the blood in high quantity. Glutamine is typically made through synthesis but can be obtained through things we eat, like meat, milk and beans. The side chain structure of threonine is C5H10N2O3. This amino acid is linear and polar. Benefits of glutamine range from increased recovery times after cancer and surgery treatments to immune system support.


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