By Biplab Das
What is Phenylalanine?
Phenylalanine is one of the essential amino acids. Animals and humans cannot synthesize it. But plants and microorganisms can produce it. Therefore, humans and animals have to obtain phenylalanine from diet. Phenylalanine is available in three chemical forms: L-phenylalanine, the natural form of phenylalanine found in proteins throughout the body, D-phenylalanine, a mirror image of L-phenylalanine that is synthesized artificially, and DL-phenylalanine, a combination of the previous two forms. L-phenylalanine is required for protein synthesis. D-phenylalanine, however, does not participate in protein biosynthesis although it is found in proteins in small amounts.
L-phenylalanine can be converted into L-tyrosine, a non-essential amino acid, which is in turn converted into L-DOPA. L-DOPA is a precursor for dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenalin), and epinephrine (adrenaline).
Health Benefits of Phenylalanine
Preliminary evidences suggest that D-phenylalanine may help reduce chronic pain associated with certain health conditions by stimulating nerve pathways in the brain that control pain. One animal study suggested that D-phenylalanine may improve rigidity, walking disabilities, speech difficulties, and depression associated with Parkinson's disease. Furthermore, research shows that combining L-phenylalanine (oral and topical) with UVA radiation for people with vitiligo (a condition characterized by irregular depigmentation or white patches of skin) may lead to some darkening or repigmentation of the whitened areas, particularly on the face. Other beneficial effects of phenylalanine include improvement in mood by enhancing the production of brain chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine. But, further research is needed to confirm this benefit.
Deficiency Symptoms of Phenylalanine
Symptoms of phenylalanine deficiency include confusion, lack of energy, decreased alertness, decreased memory, and diminished appetite.
Side effects of Phenylalanine
DL-phenylalanine may cause anxiety, jitteriness, and hyperactivity in children. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may need to avoid foods containing aspartame, which is made from phenylalanine. Children with phenylketonuria (PKU), a metabolic disorder, lack an enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase needed to breakdown phenylalanine and then to eliminate it via the urine. This means for children with PKU, phenylalanine cannot be eliminated and as a result it builds up in their blood stream. Phenylalanine doses in excess of 5,000 mg a day may be toxic and can cause nerve damage. High quantities of DL-phenylalanine may also cause mild side effects such as nausea, heartburn and headaches.
Dietary Sources of Phenylalanine