BCAA supplements (branched chain amino acids) have been used by bodybuilders and athletes for over 35 years to augment muscle growth and build muscle mass. But extensive medical research on BCAA supplementation has yielded other surprising health and athletic advantages. Here are 20 benefits of BCAA supplementation that make them very useful to include with your daily nutrition.
Before we get there, some facts you should know about BCAAs:
Amino acids when combined together, form proteins: the building blocks of all your tissue. These organic molecules are found in every tissue and fluid in the body.
Your muscles act like a huge reservoir for the branched chain amino acids and they make up 35% of the amino acid content of muscle. That is huge! In fact, the average human has about 20 pounds of BCAA in their body.
1, Regulating Blood Sugar
BCAAs can help control blood sugar levels (glucose) in the body by preserving liver and muscle sugar stores and stimulating the use of glucose by cells. Isoleucine, leucine and valine are thought to increase muscle glucose uptake. and its utilization by the body.
In fact, studies show significant glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity benefits with BCAA supplementation. Ideally, you want your body to be as sensitive to insulin as possible. Desensitization to insulin is one of the main issues with diabetes development.
2, Increased Fat Oxidation to Benefit Fat Loss
Several studies have found that supplementing the diet with BCAAs can increase the use of fat as an energy source. This is called fat oxidation. BCAA supplementation seems to shift the body from using carbohydrates as an energy source to burning fat. instead.
This strategy may help with individuals trying to decrease body fat.
Interestingly enough, a diet specifically deficient in BCAAs will also trigger increased fat oxidation. Thus it seems like there is a certain sweet spot in terms of carbohydrate utilization and BCAA levels.
So there seems to be a choice: feed the body extra BCAAs to burn fat or starve the body of BCAAs (decrease protein intake) to burn fat. I think I would rather take the BCAAs!
Original Photo by yunmai
3, BCAAs can Curb Your Appetite
Leucine plays a direct role in appetite suppression.
There seems to be a mind body connection related to leucine. mTOR stimulation by leucine supplementation 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.
4, Promote Weight Loss
So does this mean that BCAA supplementation can help with weight loss? The scientific evidence seems to support this.
In fact, in our medical office, BCAA supplementation is part of our standard recommendation for helping patients trying to lose weight with hypocaloric diets.
How much BCAA should you consume to lose weight?
In one study, participants who consumed an average of 15 grams of BCAAs from their diet each day had up to a 30% lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than those who consumed an average of 12 grams per day.
5, Pregnancy and BCAAs
BCAAs are very important during pregnancy. In fact, they are one of the vital elements in fetal development. Women who have intrauterine growth retardation have lower concentrations of BCAAs in their umbilical blood.
Supplementing a woman’s diet with BCAAs has been shown to reverse intrauterine growth retardation.
BCAAs are also associated with mammary gland function and milk development during pregnancy. Branched chain amino acids affect the metabolism of the other conditional aminos during pregnancy and mTOR signaling.
6, Liver Disease
In patients with active liver disease, BCAA supplementation has been shown to have a muscle sparing effect.
Typically, in patients with liver failure and hepatic encephalopathy, excess muscle protein is broken down and the metabolites affect brain function and mortality.
Some studies show that administering BCAAs can decrease the amount of protein broken down by these patients and improve their conditions.
Another recent review of studies in patients undergoing liver surgery reported that BCAA-enriched solutions might help improve liver function and decrease the duration of a hospital stay.
BCAA supplements may also be effective at reducing fatigue and improving weakness, sleep quality and muscle cramps in individuals with liver disease.
When it comes to liver cancer, BCAA supplements could help with water retention and decrease the risk of premature death by up to 7 %.
Original Photo by ken treloar
7, Intestinal Health
The cells lining the intestine as well as the bacteria in the gut require BCAAs for normal function. In both newborns and adults, adequate BCAA consumption is needed to maintain the nutrient absorbing properties of the intestine.
A condition called leaky gut syndrome where patients experience bloating, cramps, pain and food sensitivities may be related to increased intestinal permeability. This is where the junctions between individual intestinal lining cells has become loose.
BCAA supplementation has been demonstrated to improve these junctions between intestinal cells.
The bacteria within the intestine also require BCAAs for adequate colony health. The amino acids seem to be necessary for bacterial stability and diversity which science shows affects your health.
8, Immune Function
Intense exercise such as that seen in competitive cyclists and extreme endurance athletes is known to suppress the immune system. Kephart et al demonstrated that supplementing with 12 grams a day with BCAAs improved the sprint performance in trained endurance cyclists as well as improved measures of their immunity.
It is well established that BCAAs are needed to form new immune cells and special molecules used by the immune system. Leucine, isoleucine and valine working collectively and individually help support, improve and sustain a healthy immune system.
Can BCAAs help with viral infections like Herpes? Yes.
Uyangaa et al. showed that Leucine supplementation provides improved mucosal protection from Herpes Simplex Type 1 infections.
9, Sleep and Respiratory Function
Can taking BCAAs cure snoring? Probably not however, taking BCAAs prior to bed can improve your oxygen saturation while you sleep.
Low oxygen levels during sleep can significantly affect your health, function, alertness and how you feel the next day. BCAA supplementation has been shown to decrease the end-tidal CO2 and prevent sleep apnea.
Researchers hypothesize that it is due to the effect BCAAs have on serotonin and tryptophan levels in the brain.
There are numerous athletic benefits to BCAA supplementation as well.
Original Photo by victor freitas
10, Improve Intense Endurance Exercise Performance
Research with human volunteers shows up to 15% less fatigue in those given BCAAs during aerobic exercise, compared to those who were given a placebo. In the study, the BCAA group exercised 19% longer before reaching exhaustion, as compared to the control group.
Another study had participants undergo heat stress during a cycling test. The study had the participants consume a drink containing BCAAs or a placebo. Those who drank the BCAA supplement cycled for 12% longer than the placebo group.
In addition, in athletes performing sprint interval training, BCAA supplementation increases VO2max. This directly improves athletic performance.
These studies are consistent with others demonstrating improved performance in extreme endurance athletes when BCAA supplementation is used. The improvements are associated with decreased exercise fatigue.
How do the BCAAs decrease exercise fatigue?
Consuming enough BCAAs during exercise prevents a low blood level of BCAAs from developing. When the body senses a low BCAA blood level, it causes another amino acid in the blood stream, tryptophan, to cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain.
You may have heard that turkey has a high level of tryptophan and that tryptophan is the reason you get tired after eating turkey on thanksgiving.
When tryptophan enters the brain it stimulates serotonin production which leads to fatigue. So athletically, consuming enough BCAA before and/or during aerobic exercise reduces fatigue by preventing the rise of brain serotonin levels. This results in improved athletic performance.
11, Decreasing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Muscles might feel less sore after exercise with the use of BCAA supplementation.
During both resistance exercise and endurance exercise, the muscles are damaged. This is something called exercise induced muscle damage or EIMD.
The enzymes creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LD) play an important role in EIMD. It appears that BCAA supplementation before exercise and during exercise decreases both CK and LD.
Less EIMD results in less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and improved recovery.
How do we know this?
Studies had volunteers rate their muscle soreness levels after performing certain strength-training exercises. Those given BCAA supplements rated their muscle soreness levels as much as 33% lower than those not given the BCAAs. Furthermore, those taking the BCAAs performed up to 20% better when they repeated the same strength-training tests 24–48 hours later.
12, Increasing Muscle Mass
BCAA research shows that supplementation does activate enzymes responsible for building muscle and increasing muscle mass. This is the main reason many athletes use BCAA supplements.
But there are controversies!
In a selective review of the literature in 2017 (not a clinical study), Wolfe opines that BCAA supplementation does not increase muscle protein synthesis.
A recent clinical study in 2017 by Tipton showed that from a purely muscle protein synthesis standpoint, supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein was superior to taking 5.6 grams of BCAA.
Note: Tipton did demonstrate increased muscle protein synthesis from BCAA supplementation. However, the amount that resulted was not as much as that seen with whey.
So should you take BCAA for building muscle?
We wrote about this extensively in “Do BCAAs Work and Are They Worth It? ”
It is our opinion that both BCAA and whey protein supplementation is important for athletes. BCAA supplementation provides many endurance and recovery benefits that whey supplementation does not provide. Therefore, we recommend both to the athletes we counsel.
13, Preventing Muscle Loss While Dieting
One of the problems usually associated with weight loss, besides the difficulty we have in actually cutting the fat, is the accompanying muscle loss that generally happens with it. It seems inevitable when you set out to lose fat that muscle goes with it.
Supplementing with a BCAA 30 minutes prior to exercise will stimulate mTOR and muscle protein synthesis as well as supporting fat oxidation.
Many athletes who count their macros have requested a Dioxyme BCAA supplement with no carbohydrates. Thus we have developed Vmino which provides 7 grams of fermented plant BCAAs in a 2:1:1 formula with zero carbs, zero sugars and tastes delicious.
14, Timing of BCAA Supplementation
Studies have carefully looked at taking BCAAs before a workout, during a workout, and after a workout.
Here is our recommendation based on these studies and feedback from top professional athletes.
To gain the greatest benefit in decreasing EIMD, DOMS, improving recovery, and minimizing the decreased immunity associated with intense exercise, take an adequate dose of BCAA prior to exercise.
We recommend 7 – 10 grams of Vmino based on how intense the exercise is and how much you weigh. If you want a better drink during your workout than just a carbohydrate sports drink alone, add a scoop of BCAA to it.
Should you add BCAA to your whey protein drink after your workout?
That is a little controversial in terms of benefit and it depends upon the dose of whey protein that you take. However, many of our professional athletes and trainers like to add BCAA to their post workout protein because of how intense and how often they are working out.
Thus the Vmino Raw unflavored BCAA was developed that minimizes the bitterness of BCAAs and can be added to any drink.
We also recommend using Vmino at least one other time during the day. Instead of plain water or your normal drink, Vmino is a healthy, great tasting, beneficial alternative.
15, BCAA Digestion… It is different
When your body consumes protein, it is broken down into collections of amino acids before it is absorbed by the intestines. These aminos are then transported through special cells in the intestinal lining and passed into the bloodstream.
All the blood from the gut goes straight to the liver for processing. There, the amino acids are processed, oxidized, and used for metabolic functions throughout the body.
Except for the branched chain amino acids.
That’s right… they are quite different. Most BCAAs are shunted through the liver and go straight to the muscles where they are an important energy source. They are used in the production of other amino acids and are critical for muscle protein synthesis.
You see, your muscles are always in a continuous cycle of the breaking itself down (muscle protein breakdown, MPB) and forming new proteins (muscle protein synthesis, MPS). What is broken down is used for energy and for the formation of precursor molecules used by other tissues. Muscle protein synthesis continuously happens but at a lower rate than protein breakdown. The only time this changes is when you get an infusion of amino acids into your system.
Since most people only eat protein 2-3 times a day, MPS only predominates MPB 2-3 times a day.
You can see why BCAA supplementation may have a significant advantage in muscle mass strategies.
So, lets explore what is going on with BCAA’s and their importance to you.
16, Leucine & Muscle Protein Synthesis Benefit
Of the three branched chain amino acids, leucine is the most important when it comes to muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Leucine has a direct effect on triggering muscle formation and muscle growth via a number of mechanisms such as mTOR induction.
One other way leucine affects MPS is that it stimulates insulin release. Yes, gym knowledge would have you believe that you need carbohydrates to stimulate insulin release for muscle growth.
That is actually wrong.
Protein and specifically leucine produce insulin release with or without carbohydrate. Carbs are great for fuel, glycogen recovery, and increasing the muscles ability to burn fuel which is associated with improvements in endurance.
However, carbs are unnecessary for the anabolic insulin release that occurs with protein consumption.
Insulin stimulates the clearance of amino acids (essential and non-essential) from the bloodstream and sends the amino acids into the cells where they are needed for muscle growth. Leucine works with glutamine as well as other essential amino acids as MPS promotors.
In fact, leucine is a critical co-factor to glutamine function in developing muscle mass.
17, Isoleucine and Valine: Benefit of BCAA Co-factors
But leucine really doesn’t work all alone.
If leucine is given by itself, scientists have found a depletion of isoleucine and valine in the bloodstream. This lower level of isoleucine and valine then limit the ability of leucine to increase muscle protein synthesis.
Valine is required by the body for the formation of glucose, glycogen (the glucose storage molecule), proteins, brain metabolism, muscle metabolism and functioning of the gut.
Isoleucine induces glucose uptake into cells, is required for glycogen and ketone formation, and is an important energy source in the muscle. Isoleucine is required for hemoglobin formation and for protein production.
Isoleucine and valine seem to function as co-factors for leucine. Meaning that the effect of leucine on muscle growth is increased when ratios of leucine, isoleucine and valine are given together as compared to just giving leucine alone.
Hence the famous 2:1:1 BCAA ratio everyone speaks about.
18, BCAAs Are Naturally Available
It is important to consume adequate quantities of BCAAs daily. Branched chain amino acids are used by the body for the creation of glutamine and alanine.
In the fasted state, branched chain amino acids are created by muscle protein breakdown for glutamine and alanine production.
Foods containing protein are the source for BCAAs. In fact, the protein with the highest naturally occurring amount of BCAAs is whey protein.
You can tell the quality of a whey protein by the amount of naturally occurring BCAAs that it has in its nutritional profile.
BCAAs are found in milk, as well as other animal sources such as eggs, beef, chicken, tuna, salmon, lamb, turkey, and sardines. Vegetable sources containing BCAAs include soybeans, green peas, lima beans, chickpeas, red kidney beans, cannelloni beans, lentils, whole wheat, brown rice, peanuts, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and almonds.
Many of the vegetarian protein sources have lower quantities of BCAA per serving. This is why it is important to quantify your BCAA intake if you only consume vegetarian or vegan sources.
Here is an interesting fact.
Of all of the vegetable protein sources, soy is the most complete. However, when soy is compared in scientific studies to whey, its BCAA content is significantly lower.
For scientists to adequately compare the effects of soy vs whey or casein on muscle protein synthesis, they increase the quantity of soy given so that its leucine content matches whey.
Classic studies have not matched 20 grams of whey vs 20 grams of soy. Nope, they increase the quantity of soy so the measured leucine amounts are similar.
Whey protein has the greatest quantity gram per gram of branched chain amino acids. The higher the quality and purity of the whey, the more the BCAA… Kinda rhymes.
19, How Much BCAA Is Enough?
Original Photo by teddy kelley
A World Health Organization report from 1985 states that the average adult should consume a minimum of 15 mg of BCAAs per pound of body weight each day. Newer studies conducted recently have upped that amount to 65 mg per pound of body weight each day.
How do these studies translate into the recommended daily intake of BCAAs?
For women, the RDA is 9 grams. It is a little higher for men at 12 grams of BCAAs per day.
Many of the studies conducted with athletes’ support supplement doses of 10–20 grams of BCAAs per day. This amount seems to be sufficient to complement whatever BCAAs an athlete takes in on a protein-rich diet.
20, Who Should Not Take BCAA Supplements?
BCAA supplements are not recommended for those suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or those suffering from Maple Syrup Urine Disease.
Before beginning any new exercise or supplement regime, always consult your personal medical professional.
Branched-chain amino acids are very important for the successful function of the body, especially where muscle growth and repair are concerned. BCAA supplementation may benefit and support your health and leanness.
Athletes need to supplement BCAAs for the extra work they put in and the additional wear and tear they put on their bodies.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend.