Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) have grown in popularity in recent years, in large part, due to their impact on the muscle-building process.
But the benefits don't stop there. Many studies actually suggest that BCAA supplementation may be beneficial for everything from managing your lean body mass to maintaining your overall health and wellness.
Before we dive too far into the benefits though, let's first discuss what BCAAs actually are and what functions they perform within the human body.
What are BCAAs and What Do They Do?
All proteins consist of amino acids, which are characterized based on their molecular structure. All of the different amino acids form the building blocks of your body’s tissues -- they're especially important when it comes to muscle tissue. Of the 20 different types, three are considered branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs are essential amino acids, which means that our bodies cannot create them on their own and instead must obtain them from dietary sources. They play a vital role in our general wellness and an especially pivotal part in the maintenance of our bodies' muscle tissue. In fact, they make up 35% of all the essential amino acids in muscle protein.
Unlike other amino acids, which are primarily broken down in the liver, BCAAs pass directly into the tissues -- muscle included. As such, they also contribute to energy metabolism during exercise.
Now that we've covered most of the basics, we’re sharing fifteen BCAA benefits, with a specific focus on how supplementing with them can positively impact your health and well-being.
15 Benefits of BCAAs
1. Increased Muscle Growth and Strength
One of the most well-known perks to supplementing with BCAAs has to do with building the muscle-building process.
Your body uses BCAAs and other proteins to repair, grow, and add new muscle tissue. This continuous process is known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Of the three BCAAs, leucine appears to be the most important in stimulating MPS.
Research shows that BCAA supplementation helps to activate enzymes that play a critical role in the muscle-building process, which is why they're commonly used by athletes from many different sports.
But there are some controversies when it comes to taking BCAAs. For instance, in a selective review published in 2017, Wolfe opines that BCAA supplementation does not appear to increase muscle protein synthesis.
Furthermore, a 2017 clinical study published in Frontiers in Physiology showed that from the standpoint of muscle protein synthesis, supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein was superior to taking 5.6 grams of BCAA.
It is important to point out though that this study did demonstrate increased muscle protein synthesis from BCAA supplementation, however, the amount that resulted was just not as much as seen with whey.
So should you take BCAAs for building muscle?
In general, it is our opinion that both BCAA and whey protein supplementation can be beneficial when it comes to athletics. Even though there are some mixed findings when it comes to BCAAs and muscle protein synthesis, BCAA supplementation provides a number of endurance and recovery benefits that whey supplementation does not. Therefore, we recommend using both supplements to the athletes we counsel.
2. Reduced Exercise Fatigue and Improved Endurance
When it comes to exercise performance, fatigue can often be a limiting factor. It can occur in both the muscles and brain and when it sets in, it can turn on that little signal inside your head that tells you to stop.
However, BCAAs play a role in limiting fatigue by decreasing tryptophan concentrations in the brain. When the body senses a low BCAA blood level, it causes another amino acid in the bloodstream -- 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.
As tryptophan enters the brain it stimulates serotonin production which leads to fatigue. So when it comes to exercise, consuming enough BCAA before and/or during aerobic exercise reduces fatigue through preventing the rise of brain serotonin levels, resulting in improved athletic performance.
BCAAs can also aid in your performance during High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as well. For example, A 2018 study found that combining BCAA supplementation with sprint interval training led to improved maximum oxygen uptake, also known as V02 Max. This is the amount of oxygen your body can actually take in and utilize when all is said and done. Though many factors affect aerobic performance, VO2max is an important measure.
Research involving human volunteers shows up to 15% less fatigue in those given BCAAs during aerobic exercise, compared to those who were given only a placebo. In the study, the BCAA group, on average, exercised 19% longer before reaching exhaustion when compared to the control group.
Another study had participants undergo heat stress during a cycling test. The researchers had the participants consume a drink containing either BCAAs or a placebo. Ultimately, they found that those who drank the BCAA supplement cycled for 12% longer than the placebo group on average.
3. Decreased Muscle Soreness & Aided Recovery
If you’ve ever experienced pain and stiffness in the days following an intense workout, you’ve had a run-in with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS usually begins to set in in the hours after you exercise but it can actually last for up to 72 hours post-workout.
Both resistance and endurance exercise causes microscopic tears in your muscle tissues, which experts refer to as exercise-induced muscle damage or EIMD.
The enzymes creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LD) play an important role in EIMD. However, 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.
Since DOMS can inhibit your ability to perform at your best, let alone to make it to the gym at all, finding effective ways to minimize and prevent it can hasten recovery and aid in performance.
For instance, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research states that supplementing with BCAAs before and after high-intensity workouts can lead to less muscle damage and less muscle breakdown after exercise.
Although there are some BCAAs in protein, protein itself hasn't been shown to reduce muscle damage or enhance recovery. This makes BCAAs a crucial supplement for any athlete or fitness enthusiast who trains daily.
4. Prevent Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB)
Not only can BCAAs help to increase lean mass, but they can also help to prevent muscle loss.
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 hypocaloric diet as well as during exercise, the body breaks down muscle tissue through a process known as proteolysis. However, supplementation of the branched-chain amino acid leucine, even after 24 hours of fasting, has been shown to suppress 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.
5. Promote Weight Loss
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight. However, for many people, this goal tends to sticks around all year long as they continuously look for healthy ways to supplement their weight loss.
In fact, in our medical office, BCAA supplementation is part of our standard recommendation for patients who are trying to lose weight through a hypocaloric diet.
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 being overweight and less excess body fat in adults. BCAAs also help improve fat oxidation, which leads to increased fat burning.
How much BCAAs 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.
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 the breakdown of fat rather than muscle mass.”
6. Decrease Appetite
The branched-chain amino acid leucine plays a direct role in appetite suppression.
There seems to be a mind-body connection related to leucine. Leucine stimulates mTOR, which is a growth factor for muscles. Supplementation with leucine plays a role in the brains’ 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 to stop you from eating more.
7. Increase Fat Oxidation for 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 help shift the body from using carbohydrates as an energy source to burning fat instead. This strategy may be particularly helpful for individuals trying to decrease body fat.
Interestingly enough, a diet that's 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!
8. Muscle Loss Prevention
Fat loss is commonly accompanied by muscle loss. This can be really disheartening to those looking to shed fat and build muscle. However, BCAAs can help mitigate muscle loss while your calorie intake is reduced, sparing lean muscle mass in favor of body fat.
Even without physical activity to stimulate muscle growth, consuming an adequate amount of BCAAs in your daily diet can lessen muscle protein breakdown.
According to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, supplementing with BCAAs on a calorie-restricted diet allowed individuals to maintain muscle mass while still losing weight.
9. Improved Energy Levels
Glucose is used by your muscles for the production of the biochemical ATP, which is the actual fuel muscle fibers use to power their contractions.
The muscle stores some glucose in the form of glycogen. But when this is exhausted, more has to be supplied from the bloodstream.
Studies have shown that the muscle's glucose uptake increased by as much as 73% after receiving the BCAA isoleucine.
All athletes use this glucose for aerobic metabolism and the more that is available, the more the muscles can burn. This is especially important for athletic endurance.
10. Support Immune Functions
Your immune system protects you; it stands guard against outside agents like bacteria, viruses, and wayward cells. BCAAs play a vital role in the immune system, helping to support cellular function and overall health.
But how exactly do BCAAs support immune function?
All three branched-chain amino acids perform both individual and collective roles. Besides BCAAs being necessary for protein production, they are also an important fuel source for these cells.
Individually, they play the following roles:
- Isoleucine increases levels of β-defensin, an antimicrobial compound.
- Leucine supports the body’s general immune health and how it adapts to pathogens in the body.
- Valine increases dendritic cell function which sounds the alarm and signals the presence of toxic substances in the body.
11. Support Healthy Nutrition in Pregnancy
It's 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 support proper nutrition for increased metabolic needs.
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12. Gut (Intestinal) Support
The gut plays an incredibly complex role in digestion, absorption, and immune function. Nutrients need to be properly absorbed but the intestine must also prevent bacteria and toxins from getting into the bloodstream.
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 help in the following ways:
- Support normal intestinal cells
- Support absorption of amino acids
- Support the healthy immune cells in the intestine
13. Supported Hormone Balance
BCAAs have also been shown to improve your body's balance of testosterone and cortisol post-exercise.
Proper ratios between testosterone and cortisol must be balanced in order to promote recovery, fat loss, and muscle growth. Athletes that use BCAA, on average, experience higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels.
Although testosterone is typically associated with males, both women and men produce testosterone necessary for the growth and repair of tissues. Higher levels of testosterone help to facilitate lean muscle building.
Intense exercise can put a tremendous amount of stress on the body. This can depress testosterone levels in some athletes. In fact, it is something we see in our clinic in many athletes following a long workout season.
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.
14. Glycogen Metabolism
BCAAs play a role in glycogen metabolism. Glycogen is the storage molecule of glucose. The body can only store glycogen in the muscle, liver, and bloodstream. Thus, the amount that can be stored is very limited.
BCAAs can affect available glucose levels via:
- Preserving liver and muscle glycogen stores
- Stimulating the uptake and utilization of glucose by cells
- Elevated leucine levels result in an elevation in insulin release. This acts as an anabolic agent promoting growth.
15. Isoleucine Valine: BCAA Co-factors
Leucine really works best with isoleucine and valine. Yes, leucine is the metabolic workhorse in the muscle. But it works best when teamed with the other BCAAs.
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, which 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.
Where Can You Get BCAAs From?
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.
⫸Foods High in BCAAs
You don’t have to search far to find BCAAs. In fact, branched-chain amino acids are readily available in many common foods.
Foods that are high in protein typically also contain the highest amounts of BCAAs. Some of the best sources include:
For convenient, high-performing BCAA consumption, branched-chain supplements are available in liquid and powder forms.
There are 2 main sources used for the production of BCAA powders. The standard is made from keratin derived (skin, hair, feather) animal parts. A second source that uses fermented plant-based ingredients is used by high-end manufacturers.
Dioxyme VMINO BCAAs is plant-based and contains 7 grams of BCAAS in a 2:1:1 ratio.
What's the Recommended Dietary Amount for BCAAs?
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. Studies conducted more recently have upped that amount to 65 mg per pound of body weight each day.
For women, the recommended daily amount (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.
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.