Marc S. Schneider, M.D.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are growing in popularity for their impact on muscle building, but the benefits of BCAAs don’t stop at fitness. Many studies support BCAA supplementation for your overall wellness, nutrition, and managing lean body mass.
So what are BCAAs, and why are they important for your overall health?
All proteins consist of amino acids characterized based on their structure. The combined amino acids form the building blocks of your body’s tissue. There are three main branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs are essential amino acids, which means our bodies cannot create them. They play a vital role in general wellness and a unique role in muscle tissue.
The power BCAAs provide is due to the fact that they make up 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein. Unlike other amino acids that are broken down in the liver, they contribute to energy metabolism during exercise.
We’re sharing fifteen benefits of BCAAs and how supplementing with these amino acids can positively impact your well-being.
15 Benefits of BCAAs
Increased muscle growth and strength
One of the most common uses of BCAAs is to build muscle and increase muscle growth. BCAAs make up about one-third of muscle protein and play a vital role in muscle growth and maintenance. Your body uses BCAAs and other proteins to repair, grow, and add muscle tissue. This continuous process is known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Although muscles require all essential amino acids for the best results, providing even a small amount of BCAAs pre, intra, and post workout shows significant effects.
Reduced exercise fatigue and improved endurance
When it comes to endurance exercise, combatting fatigue can be a struggle. BCAAs provide a helpful solution. BCAAs play a role in limiting fatigue by decreasing tryptophan concentrations in the brain. This process delays fatigue and leads to a higher-performing exercise session.
BCAAs can also aid in performance. A 2018 study found that combining BCAA supplementation with sprint interval training led to improved maximum oxygen uptake, also known as V02 Max. For endurance athletes, BCAAs can enhance performance and reduce exercise fatigue.
Decreased muscle soreness & aided recovery
If you’ve had an intense workout and experienced pain and stiffness days later, you’ve probably experienced muscle fever… also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS occurs 12-24 hours after exercise and can last up to 72 hours. It’s commonly experienced after a new or intense workout and likely caused by tiny muscle tears after exercise. Since DOMS can delay or prevent workouts, finding effective ways to prevent this damage and speed recovery is important.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research states that supplementing with BCAAs before and after high intensity workouts can bring lower muscle damage and less muscle breakdown after exercise. BCAAs aid exercise recovery, leading to higher performance. Although there are BCAAs in protein, protein itself doesn’t reduce muscle damage and enhance recovery of muscle function. This makes BCAAs crucial supplements for any athlete who trains daily.
Prevent muscle protein breakdown (MPB)
Not only do BCAAs increase muscle mass – they also can prevent muscle loss. But how does this work?
Muscle protein is in a constant state of turnover, meaning that new protein is always being produced while older proteins are being broken down. Consuming BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis at an increased rate. During a reduced calorie, starved state, or during exercise, the body breaks down muscle tissue through a process known as proteolysis. Supplementation of the branched-chain amino acid leucine after 24 hours of fasting suppressed proteolysis and muscle protein breakdown.
Even without physical activity to stimulate muscle growth, consuming adequate BCAAs can lessen muscle wasting. According to research by The Journal of Nutrition, supplementing with BCAAs on a calorie-restricted diet allowed individuals to maintain muscle mass while still losing weight.
Supporting the liver
After you consume a meal, the food is broken down in the stomach and intestines and the nutrients from that meal are absorbed by the intestines and passed into the portal bloodstream. This is then carried to the liver where the nutrients are processed and toxins removed.
Most of the BCAA’s absorbed into the portal bloodstream are not catabolized by the liver and simply pass through for use by other organ systems like the muscular system. In certain cases where the liver is impaired, BCAA’s may not make it into the normal bloodstream and their . quantities may be reduced.Several studies have found that BCAA supplementation can support the liver nutritionally. BCAA supplementation may provide a good benefit for those who have put stress on the liver.
Enhanced weight loss
One of the most common New Year’s Resolutions is to lose weight. For many people, this goal remains all year long as they continuously look for healthy ways to supplement their weight loss. When combined with a healthy diet and exercise, BCAAs lead to greater fat loss and overall weight loss. Higher intakes of BCAA are associated with a lower rate of overweight and obesity in adults. BCAAs also help improve fat oxidation that leads to increased fat burning.
Dietitian Meredith Crilly recommends, “If your goal is weight loss, make sure to consume adequate protein sources on a reduced-calorie diet – especially protein sources rich in branched-chain amino acids. This encourages breakdown of fat rather than muscle mass.”
Muscle loss prevention
Weight loss is commonly accompanied by muscle loss. This can be really disheartening to those looking to cut fat and build muscle and creates a difficult muscle building process.
BCAAs can help mitigate muscle loss and promote efficient fat loss. Supplementing with BCAAs prior to exercise stimulates mTOR proteins, assists muscle protein synthesis, and supports fat oxidation. Even without physical activity to stimulate muscle growth, consuming adequate BCAAs can lessen muscle wasting. According to research by The Journal of Nutrition, supplementing with BCAAs on a calorie-restricted diet allowed individuals to maintain muscle mass while still losing weight.
Improved energy levels
Step aside, caffeine. BCAAs increase glucose breakdown to use as fuel. Studies have shown that glucose uptake in muscle tissue increased 73% after receiving the BCAA isoleucine. Increasing glucose uptake by muscle cells can lead to higher energy since they have a fuel source readily available. This is especially important for athletic endurance. BCAAs can be used pre and intra-workout to improve performance.
Insomnia is a chronic issue for many adults. To help aid sleep, BCAAs have been studied to learn how they impact sleep quality. The results of one small study giving BCAAs by intravenous injection during sleep showed deeper breathing patterns. Does this correlate with better sleep? It is too soon to say whether supplementing with oral BCAAs at night will help with sleep but this is an interesting study deserving further research.
Support immune functions
Your immune system protects you from disease and other infectious organisms. And even when in good health, BCAAs are beneficial for protection against these harmful pathogens. In fact, The Journal of Nutrition states that BCAAs are necessary to support immune cell functions.
But how exactly do BCAAs support immune function?
All three branched chain amino acids perform both individual and collective roles to enhance immunity. BCAAs are required for building new immune cells and providing them with fuel.
Individually, they play the following roles:
- Isoleucine increases levels of β-defensin, an antimicrobial compound.
- Leucine increases the body’s general immune function and also the adaptive immune response to pathogens in the body.
- Valine increases dendritic cell function which regulate the immune system and signal the presence of toxic substances in the body to the immune system.
Support healthy nutrition in pregnancy
It is recommended that most pregnant women should take in around 70 grams of complete protein every day. A complete protein has all 9 essential amino acids.
Not only does a pregnant mother have increased metabolic needs for herself, but she also is the provider for adequate nutrition for the fetus. Providing adequate nutrition is essential for a healthy mother and baby.
BCAA supplementation during pregnancy can can support proper nutrition for increased metabolic needs.
Gut (instestinal) support
The gut plays an incredibly complex role in digestion, absorption, and immune function. Nutrients need to be properly absorbed but the instestine must also prevent bacteria and toxins from getting into the blood stream. The cells lining the intestine use BCAA’s for their normal function. Due to their role in gene expression and signaling, BCAAs support healthy gut function. They:
- Support normal intestinal cells
- Support absorption of amino acids
- Support thehealthy immune function in the intestine
Supported hormone balance
BCAAs have been shown to improve the balance of two important hormones post-exercise:
- Testosterone: Although testosterone is typically associated with males, both women and men produce testosterone to grow and repair body tissues. Higher levels of testosterone lead to solid lean muscle building.
- Cortisol: Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol helps regulate your metabolism, blood sugar, peace of mind and immunity. High levels of cortisol may upset your normal balance.
Testosterone and cortisol must be balanced to promote better recovery, fat loss, and muscle growth. Athletes that use BCAA experience higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels. This balance provides a peak hormone balance that supports lean muscle growth.
The BCAA leucine plays a direct role in appetite suppression. There seems to be a mind-body connection related to leucine. The BCAA leucine can stimulate a protein in your body called rapamycin (mTOR). mTOR helps control cell division and cell survival. When mTOR is stimulated by leucine supplementation, it increases and plays a role in brain detection of nutrient availability. As mTOR levels increase, the brain senses that the body’s nutritional needs have been met and signals of satiety are sent out you stop eating.
Role in blood sugar
BCAAs play a role glucose (blood sugar) levels in the body through:
- preserving liver and muscle sugar stores
- stimulating the use of glucose by cells
They are thought to increase glucose uptake in the muscles. Specifically, the BCAA leucine spikes insulin levels, acting as an anabolic agent. You want the body to be sensitive to insulin so that a small amount goes a long way. Leucine increases insulin release from the pancreas, which helps drive the amino acid into muscle cells, where it stimulates growth.
Where to Get BCAAs
Now that we’ve illustrated the many health benefits of branched-chain amino acids, let’s dig in to where you can find BCAAs to add to your lifestyle.
For convenient, high-performing BCAA consumption, branched chain supplements are available in liquid and powder forms. Supplements like VMINO BCAAs contain 7 grams of BCAAS in a 2:1:1 ratio.
Foods High in BCAAs
You don’t have search far to find BCAAs. In fact, branched-chain amino acids are readily available in many common foods.
Foods high in protein typically contain the highest amounts of BCAAs. Besides BCAA packed supplements, the best sources include:
|Dairy||Soy||Brown Rice||Lima Beans|
|Chicken||Baked Beans||Brazil Nuts||Cashews|
|Fish||Whole Wheat||Pumpkin Seeds||Lentils|
Image Courtesy of BodyBuilding
Consuming an adequate amount of BCAAs serves numerous benefits for muscle building, weight loss, energy production, metabolism, and much more.
You don’t have to be a health or fitness buff to integrate more of these amino acids into your life. Use quality sources of essential amino acids to strengthen your overall wellness.