Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have garnered a lot of attention in recent years as a potential performance-enhancing supplement, but are the benefits worthwhile? Let’s takes a look at exactly what BCAAs are and the science behind their role as a dietary sports supplement.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; our body breaks down t he protein we eat into individual amino acids and short peptide chains. Amino acids play a multitude of roles in the body, including synthesizing new tissue (such as muscle), enhancing the immune system, proper hormone function, and many others.
Given this, read on as we take an in-depth look at amino acids – specifically branched-chain amino acids – and how they can benefit gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts alike.
PRETEINOGENIC AMINO ACIDS
Humans harness 21 proteinogenic amino acids to synthesize specific proteins and hormones that we need to function. Of these 21 amino acids, nine are considered essential, meaning our body cannot make them on its own and we must obtain them through diet. The remaining 12 amino acids are considered non-essential and/or conditionally essential (since they can be synthesized by our body using other substrates when necessary).
Below is a table of all the essential and nonessential proteinogenic amino acids, excluding selenocysteine (which is considered a nonessential amino acid).
BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACIDS (BCAAs)
Three of the essential amino acids, leucine, valine and isoleucine are referred to as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) due to their chemical structure. Recent research finding s suggest that L-leucine may well be the most important amino acid for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and inhibiting muscle protein breakdown.1
BCAAs are unique in terms of their physiological roles in that they c an be taken up directly by skeletal muscle tissue instead of having to be metabolized by the liver. They also may serve as an efficient energy source for muscle tissue during exercise, and therefore they can improve exercise capacity.2 Research has also demonstrated that supplementation with BCAAs before and after exercise has a beneficial effect for decreasing recovery time and promoting muscle protein syn thesis.3
BCAAs occur in nature (i.e. protein from foods, especially animal meat s) in roughly a 2:1:1 ratio (leucine: isoleucine: valine). However, many BCAA supplements alter the ratio of these three amino acids, despite research suggesting the 2:1:1 ratio is ideal.
WHY DIET IS NOT ENOUGH
Many gym-goers assume that supplementing with BCAAs is useless because they eat a diet high in protein. Sadly, modern food processing has rendered many domestic meats and otherwise rich sources of proteins sub-par for meeting our BCAA needs on a daily basis.
Therefore, it is wise to consider supplementing with BCAAs even if your diet is rich in protein.
TOP 5 BENEFITS OF BCAA SUPPLEMENTATION
BCAA supplements have received a lot of attention in recent years due to the mounting evidence both for and against their purported benefits. Read on as we divulge the truth about the benefits of BCAA supplementation.
1. BCAAs rapidly improve recovery from both endurance & resistance training
As noted earlier, research has shown that supplementation with BCAAs can significantly improve th e time it takes to recover from exhaustive training bouts. It appears that this is due to BCAAs being a readily used substrate during exercise, and that by supplementing with them yo u essentially prevent the body with an alternate energy source.
Moreover, the increase in muscle protein synthesis exhibited by BCAA supplementation has direct impact on recovery and can allow you to train harder and more frequently.
2. BCAAs are low in calories
Amino acids provide roughly an equal amount of calories as other peptide molecules/proteins (i.e. 4 calories per gram). However, BCAAs are still a low calorie option as the nominal dose is usually less than 10 grams, whereas you would need to consume a larger amount of protein to reach that dose of BCAAs.
3. BCAA supplements are easily-digested & highly practical
BCAAs are free-form, unbound amino acids, meaning they are rapidly absorbed and elevate plasma amino acid levels minutes after ingestion. Contrarily, protein from food needs to be digested/hydrolyzed to a degree before plasma amino acid levels rise. Not to mention drinking a refreshing BCAA supplement is much more practical than cracking open some Tupperware full of chicken breast in between sets or while you ’ re on the Stairmaster.
4. BCAAs spare muscle tissue during periods of fasting
BCAAs can act as anti-catabolic substrates during a fast since they are insulinogenic amino acids; insulin is a hormone that strongly inhibits protein breakdown (catabolism). Thus, by ingesting BCAAs, even the slight increase in plasma insulin can indirectly suppress hepatic gluconeogenesis by reducing proteolysis in muscle and other tissues.
In other words, this means BCAAs prevent the use of amino acids (from skeletal muscle) as energy during periods of fasting, such as sleeping overnight. Also, insulin is a highly anabolic hormone in the presence of necessary substrates. Insulin increases muscle protein synthesis by drawing directly from the intracellular amino acid pool of essential amino acids (which includes BCAAs). Therefore, having sufficient amounts of BCAAs in your system when insulin levels are elevated may accelerate muscle protein synthesis.
5. Complete BCAA products are superior to pure L-Leucine powder products
The “more is better” attitude definitely does not apply when it comes to leucine intake since there is a cap to how much the body can use at a given moment.
Furthermore, chronic supplementation with leucine has been shown to promote insulin resistance non-specifically, which in an energy surplus could result in increased fat gain. 4 Furthermore, L- isoleucine appears to be responsible for the non-insulin dependent enhanced rate of glucose clearance/uptake into skeletal muscle tissue (via increase in GLUT-4 expression). 5 That’s just one example of why you can ’ t discount the benefits of the “other” two BCAAs (isoleucine and valine).
Labrada BCAA Power
BCAA supplements are a dime a dozen these days, with many companies using unproven ratios of leucine : isoleucine : valine and inferior quality sources (such as human hair and animal product extractions) of these key amino acids. Labrada ’ s BCAA Power, however, uses fermented amino acids that are produced in a pharmaceutical lab and tested to be free from allergens and other harsh chemicals (not to mention they are free from animal products).
On the same token, BCAA Power has key electrolytes from coconut water and fermented L-glutamine to enhance hydration and recovery before, during, and after training. The best part is BCAA Power comes in four delicious flavors that are sure to be refreshing anytime of the day!
To read more about BCAA Power and how it can help you reap the benefits o f these key amino acids, safely, CLICK HERE!
1 Stipanuk, M. H. (2007). Leucine and protein synthesis: mTO R and beyond. Nutrition reviews , 65 (3), 122-129. 2 Mittleman, K. D., Ricci, M. R., & Bailey, S. P. (1998). B ranched-chain amino acids prolong exercise during heat stress in men and women. Medicine and science in sports and exercise , 30 (1), 83-91.
3 Shimomura, Y., Murakami, T., Nakai, N., Nagasaki, M., & H arris, R. A. (2004). Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. The Journal of nutrition , 134 (6), 1583S-1587S.
4 Macotela, Y., Emanuelli, B., Bång, A. M., Espinoza, D . O., Boucher, J., Beebe, K., … & Kahn, C. R. (2011). Dietary leucine-an environmental modifier of insulin res istance acting on multiple levels of metabolism. PloS one , 6 (6), e21187.
5 Zhang, S., Yang, Q., Ren, M., Qiao, S., He, P., Li, D., & Zeng, X. (2016). Effects of isoleucine on glucose uptake through the enhancement of muscular membrane concentrations of GLUT1 and GLUT4 and intestinal membrane concentrations of Na+/glucose co-transporter 1 (SGLT-1) and GLUT2. British Journal of Nutrition , 116 (4), 593- 602.