These days, turning up to gym with just a bottle of water doesn’t quite cut it. Look around you and you will see fellow gym-goers with their shakers full of sweet smelling liquid, sipping away as they go about their sets and reps or heavy cardio session. Protein may be the king of the supplement world, but branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) have their rightful place also. You may have heard of them, and may be using them yourself when you train, but what exactly are BCAA’s, and their benefits?
What are BCAA’s?
BCAA’s are the building blocks that our bodies use to build proteins. There are thousands of proteins in the human body and there is a total of twenty amino acids that make up these proteins. Of the twenty, nine cannot be by produced by the body and so must be obtained from food sources. It is these nine that are considered to be essential amino acids.
Now to break it down even further, of those nine essential amino acids, three are called branched-chain amino acids. The term ‘branched-chain’ refers to the chemical structure of the amino acids themselves. They are the only three amino acids that have branches off to the side.
The three amino acids –
What do BCAA’s do and how do they work?
So what is it that they actually do? BCAA’s have several roles in the body, a few of which you are probably unaware of. Aside from your body using them as the building blocks for protein, BCAA’s are believed to be involved in regulating blood sugar levels and also aids in reducing fatigue during exercise and muscle soreness felt after physical activity.
Most amino acids are broken down in the liver. BCAA’s differ as they are broken down in the muscle tissue instead. Now this has two advantages as BCAA’s are able to enter the bloodstream rapidly. They are then readily used by the muscle tissue in an efficient manner. The other advantage is that this also provides an additional fuel source for the muscles. This is especially advantageous during prolonged exercise or training.
Out of the three, leucine is thought have the biggest impact on your body’s capacity to build muscle proteins. If increasing muscle mass is your primary goal the use of BCAA’s will aid in muscle protein synthesis and decrease any form of muscle degradation.
Isoleucine and valine however are the branched chain amino acids that appear to be more effective in regards to energy production and in regulating blood sugar levels.
Benefits of BCAA’s
So are these sweet tasting powders all just a bit of hype and more than just flavoured water? Well in short they are actually pretty neat and intelligently formulated supplements. They do happen to have a number of benefits that can be advantageous regardless of your goals.
Increased Muscle Protein Synthesis
Within our bodies, new protein is being synthesised and old proteins are being broken down on a continual basis. When the body is in an anabolic state the rate of protein synthesis is greater than the rate of protein breakdown. Now this is the sweet spot and where muscle building occurs.
Whey protein is generally thought to be the hero when it comes to building muscle mass. BCAA’s have their place here too. In the case of whey protein, peptides are bound to other amino acids and are required to be liberated to be able to be utilised. BCAA supplementation on the other hand is free form and can be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
BCAA’s also have their place with inhibiting cortisol. Cortisol is catabolic or muscle breakdown, BCAA’s are advantageous here in aiding in decreasing cortisol and enhancing muscle recovery. So if increasing muscle mass is your aim then BCAA’s definitely should be part of your supplement stack.
Increased Exercise Performance
In regards to performance it is suggested that BCAA’s are beneficial in a few ways. As we have touched on, leucine acts as a stimulant for muscle protein synthesis. There is also some knowledge that BCAA’s can act as a fuel source. This is due to their ability to bypass the digestive system and broken down in the muscle tissue instead.
Furthermore BCAA’s may interfere with the transport of tryptophan into the brain. This leads to a decrease in the synthesis of serotonin and hence resulting in lower levels of fatigue.
Decreased Muscle Soreness and Enhanced Recovery
Muscle soreness is often experienced after exercise. BCAA’s may actually assist in reducing muscle soreness after exercise. By lowering the levels of enzymes which are known to catabolic such as creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase BCAAs are thought to provide some protection to the muscle from exercise induced damage and equally aid in recovery.
BCAA’s are also used as a source of fuel during prolonged exercise. Once your body has exhausted glycogen as a fuel source, BCAA’s can then be used as an alternative.
Consuming BCAAs pre and post workout can help speed up muscle recovery between workouts. This allows the body to recovery faster and so there is little down-time experienced after heavy training sessions.
Reduction in Central and Peripheral Fatigue
Serotonin is an important brain chemical that plays a role in the fatigue experienced after exercise. Consuming BCAA’s either before, during or after physical activity or resistance training is believed to reduced serotonin production and hence reducing the soreness experienced following an intense bout of exercise.
Recovering faster is something that we all are all wanting. Faster recovery means less downtime and an overall increase in performance an d output in general. Taking BCAAs during your workouts can help reduce the damage to your muscles while accelerating the recovery process.
Taken before or during exercise, BCAAs can inhibit the onset of both central fatigue or mental fatigue and also peripheral fatigue of the muscles. BCAAs provide an additional fuel source when the body has exhausted all of it’s glycogen stores especially in endurance type forms of activity. By BCCAs doing such, peripheral fatigue in the muscles is significantly delayed.
In terms of central fatigue, this is delayed due to the BCAAs inhibiting tryptophan from getting into the brain. Tryptophan is also an amino acid and is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with relaxation and sleepiness. The overall result is that you will feel more motivated, have more energy, feel stronger and less fatigued.
Preventing the Loss of Lean Muscle Mass
During exercise or resistance training, muscle protein breakdown and the use of BCAA’s for energy is increased. Supplementing with BCAAs will ensure that the body limits the use of its own amino acid stores and prevent overall muscle protein breakdown.
If you are in a dieting phase, the retention of lean muscle mass is crucial for your overall results. BCAA supplementation will ensure that muscle mass is retained and increased even during this phase.
Advantages for the Immune System
Heavy training or being in a calorie deficit can have a significant impact on the immune system. Having and maintaining a strong immune system will aid in recovery and ensure that your chances of becoming unwell are reduced.
BCAAs are used to make immunoglobulins and cytokines among other things. They are also used in the process of muscle protein synthesis after exercise. The immune cells in the gut can also use BCAAs as a source of fuel. This allows the immune system to regenerate itself at a more rapid and efficient rate and provide the body with ongoing protection from harmful and potential pathogens.
There is also some evidence to suggest that supplementing with BCAAs can improve the immune system by anhancing the body’s use of antioxidants, reducing inflammation, or supporting the functions of white blood cells.
Aiding in Weight Loss
If weight loss and preventing a loss of lean muscle mass is your goal then sipping on BCAAs during the day can aid in suppressing your appetite and keep you felling fuller for longer.
As always, a healthy diet and exercise regimen is first and foremost, however BCAAs containing a formula with the correct leucine ratio can be highly advantageous to allow you to achieve your body recompositing goals.
Who can Benefit from Taking BCAAs?
BCAAs are extremely versatile and suited to a broad range of individual and goals. In general the following individuals are most likely to benefit from BCAAs –
- Vegetarians and vegans who require additional amino acids from supplements due to their intakes being inadequate
- People who train at a high level and are wanting to protect their muscle mass and speed up recovery
- If you are involved in endurance activities or who are looking for additional energy and to reduce central and peripheral fatigue
- Those who are dieting and concerned about losing muscle while in a calorie deficit
When to take BCAA’s
BCCA’s are highly versatile and can be taken before, during or after training sessions and physical activity. Doing so will provide the correct dose of branched chain amino acids into the bloodstream and promote muscle protein synthesis, and prevent muscle protein breakdown.
How much should I have per day?
In regards to muscle protein synthesis and enhanced recovery it is suggested that a BCAA formula that provides 2-3 grams of leucine is sufficient between meals and before, during or after training.
For health adults, taking BCAAs in supplement form is healthy in doses of 4-20 grams per day spread across the day. Long-term intake is also shown to have greater benefits than short-term intake.
Overall a 2:1:1 ratio, meaning twice as much Leucine as Isoleucine and Valine appears to work best for those looking for the most benefits from BCAAs. Keeping this in mind when choosing your BCAA supplement will ensure that you choose a high quality powder that will offer you the benefits that you are after.
What are the food sources containing BCAA’s?
As we have touched on earlier, BCAAs are essential amino acids, and means that we are unable to make them and so they must be obtained from food sources. A wide variety of foods contain BCAAs, and most of us can get enough by eating a high quality protein rich diet.
BCAA’s can be found in such food sources as –
- Meat, poultry, and fish
- Dairy Products
- Nuts, seeds and Soy products
What are the side effects of BCAA’s and are they safe?
For the most part, BCAAs are safe, and daily intake is believed to increase their effectiveness. BCAA side effects are uncommon, and usually related to excess use.
Such side effects can include fatigue, nausea, headaches and effects on insulin resistance and changes to blood sugar levels.
So What do we Think?
So are sipping on those sweet tasting BCAA’s all that they are cracked up to be? Taking BCAA supplements can be highly advantageous regardless of your goals.
For muscle protein synthesis, BCAAs can just pip whey protein here due to the faster uptake in bypassing the digestive system. However using whey protein and BCAA’s post training can enhance muscle protein synthesis even further.
BCAA’s also aid in supporting muscle repair, recovery and also limit the post-workout pain associated with delayed onset muscle soreness.