Plasma amino acid levels with a note on membrane transport: characteristics, regulation, and metabolic significance

Nutrition. 2002 Sep;18(9):761-6. doi: 10.1016/s0899-9007(02)00780-3.


The plasma concentration of an amino acid (AA) is the result of its rates of appearance (Ra) in and disappearance (Rd) from plasma. As for most nutrients, AA Ra and Rd are tightly regulated and at the postabsorptive state Ra equals Rd. Factors controlling Ra are protein intake and tissue release; those controlling Rd are tissue uptake and body losses (urine, sweat, etc.). Regulation of plasma AA concentrations involves hormones, in particular insulin and glucagon, both of which induce hypoaminoacidemia (but for quite different reasons), and cortisol, which induces hyperaminoacidemia. In addition, in pathologic states, catecholamines, thyroid hormones, and cytokines modulate plasma AA levels. Peripheral availability of AAs after protein ingestion is controlled by the liver, with an activation of ureagenesis in hyperprotein feeding and repression during a hypoprotein diet. The arginine-to-citrulline pathway in the intestine plays a key role in this adaptative process. In some circumstances tissue uptake of AAs and further metabolism depend on plasma AA concentrations. Plasma glutamine level may be the driving force controlling the flux of this AA at the muscle level. Also, channeling of the arginine cellular pathways means that plasma arginine is a major controlling component of nitric oxide synthesis in endothelial and immune cells. All these features explain the excessive increase in glutamine and arginine demands, in particular for energy expenditure, leading to morbidity (e.g., gut atrophy, muscle wasting, and immune dysfunction) in stressed patients. Normoaminoacidemia is not synonymous with health because this state is observed in level 2 starvation (Ra and Rd decrease) or after minor injury (Ra and Rd increase). Hyperaminoacidemia may be the consequence of organ failure (Rd decreases) or excessive AA intake during parenteral nutrition (Ra increases). Hypoaminoacidemia is observed after organ removal (Ra decreases, e.g., decrease in citrulline concentration in short bowel syndrome) or in stress situations (Rd increases). Mere determinations of plasma AA concentrations at the basal state (i.e., postabsorptive) provide rather limited information. Their usefulness can be improved by measuring arteriovenous differences or performing time course measurements, but techniques based on stable isotopes are necessary to obtain more precise information on the behavior of a particular AA or group of AAs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / blood*
  • Amino Acids / metabolism*
  • Amino Acids / physiology
  • Biological Transport
  • Dietary Proteins / administration & dosage*
  • Homeostasis
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Nutritional Requirements
  • Nutritional Status
  • Protein Biosynthesis*
  • Proteins / metabolism


  • Amino Acids
  • Dietary Proteins
  • Hormones
  • Proteins