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Can Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Increase Your Gains?

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We created this nifty guide to break down what BCAAs are, what they do, and give you a deeper understanding of how they can impact your workouts.

What are BCAAs? 

The proteins in your body are built from 20 amino acids,[1] of which nine are essential amino acids - meaning your body can't produce them. Of these nine, three are branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

They have a slightly different structure than the rest of the amino acids and play a far more vital role in your body's proper function.

BCAAs fill various metabolic roles, such as increasing protein synthesis and aiding the metabolism of glucose. Oxidation of BCAAs may decrease glucose degradation, and contribute to fatty acid build-up - leading to obesity.

In layman’s terms, amino acids are a vital part of your diet - since every workout you do breaks down your muscle fibers - and amino acids are the building blocks that allow them to grow back bigger and stronger. Without receiving an adequate amount of the proper amino acids, all of the reps in the world won’t give you the gains you’re looking for.

What BCAAs do

When it comes to building muscle mass, isoleucine, valine, and leucine all contribute to it, the latter BCAA being key for you to gain muscle effectively. BCAA benefits[2] range from: 

  • Preventing excess muscle tissue breakdown
  • Helping spur further protein synthesis (how your body gathers different amino acids together and turns them into monster biceps, shoulders, pecs, etc.)
  • Losing fat mass by controlling glucose metabolism (the process your body uses to convert sugars from the foods you eat into energy that your cells can use)

As you are lifting weights, your muscles are constantly breaking down, and so this is the time when leucine is depleted fastest. It practically diminishes during exercise. As this is an essential amino acid, you have to replace it through your diet or supplements. You can get all the BCAA benefits you need from eating food alone, as these amino acids can be found in many protein-rich food sources.

EAA vs BCAA (Essential amino acids vs. branched-chain amino acids)

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Every protein you consume with food or supplements breaks down into 20 amino acids. Later, these amino acids are converted into the building blocks for all of your tissues and muscles. The human body is able to produce 11 of these 20 amino acids internally, so these are called non-essential amino acids (NEAAs). 

Interestingly enough though, in times of chronic stress or illness, the body can begin to underproduce six of these amino acids, and need to receive them from outside sources (they’re classified as conditionally essential amino acids as a result).

The other nine amino acids that the body doesn’t produce are considered essential amino acids (EAAs) because they must come from your diet or supplements. BCAAs are essential amino acids with a branched-chain structure, as opposed to the other EAAs.

While all amino acids have roles in muscle building, BCAAs will give you the most benefits if you are looking to gain a substantial amount of muscle. They are so effective because they enter directly into your bloodstream, and are absorbed primarily by the skeletal muscle, rather than the liver.

Do BCAAs work?

BCAAs may provide you with benefits in certain circumstances, especially when it comes to muscle gain and cutting fatty tissue. Research[3] shows that BCAAs do that by activating enzymes responsible for building muscle tissue. BCAA supplements may be effective at increasing muscle mass, especially if the supplement mix features a higher amount of leucine than valine and isoleucine. Regular BCAA intake also reduces glucose levels and the levels of free fatty acids traveling in the bloodstream, which keeps you healthier and decreases your chances[4] of developing diabetes.

Keep in mind, BCAAs will not enhance your performance during a workout, meaning your form won't be better. You might be able to work out longer, though, effectively cutting calories if that's your goal. Instead, BCAAs will have a positive effect on muscle recovery and the response of your immune system.

Foods high in BCAAs 

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If you’re looking to supplement your diet with BCAAs, lots of meats, poultry, and fish are jam-packed with them. A juicy flank steak or chicken breast can get you a healthy serving of isoleucine, leucine, and valine with your lunch, while a handful of peanuts, walnuts, or cashews are great for loading up while you’re on the go. 

Pound for pound, though, the big winners are eggs. An egg packs more BCAAs per gram of protein than any other type of meat, fish, or nuts, which is why it makes for such a great breakfast menu item. 

If you’re running on a very busy work schedule, fear not: you can hard boil a whole bunch of eggs on Sunday night, and have your BCAA servings ready to eat at a moment’s notice for days.

How to take BCAA supplements

BCAA powder – Since amino acids in this form are digested more quickly, many people sip BCAA powder with water as a shake between sets during a workout or shortly before starting.

BCAA pills – For optimal breakdown time, BCAA tablets are best taken 15-30 minutes before training or a meal depending on your fitness plan. If you have a short walk or drive to the gym, you can take them before leaving your house.

BCAA and protein powder – A protein powder with at least 20 grams of pure protein will give you 2.5 – 3 grams of leucine. Only if your protein powder has less protein should you add supplemental BCAAs to the powder.

BCAA drinks – Similarly to BCAA powder, these drinks work most effectively if you drink them before or during your workout. They sometimes contain added energy boosters, such as caffeine, so be aware of that before lifting.

Foods high in BCAAs – The most common food sources of BCAAs[5] are animal proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. But they can also be found in beans, lentils, corn, whole wheat, and brown rice.

How often to take BCAAs

BCAA supplements can usually be taken up to three times a day, depending on the manufacturer's instructions and your workout or meal plan. Taking 2-3 grams of BCAAs for an extended period of time before, during, or after working out will get you more benefits than if you take a higher dose once in a while.

If you are also consuming whey, isolate, or any kind of protein rich powder, you probably won't need to take BCAA supplements more than once a day. However, if you are only receiving your amino acids from the foods in your diet, you can have it as many times as you need to. For example, if your goal is weight loss, eating two protein-rich meals a day should be enough, as long as it fits your caloric deficit.

Best time to take BCAA supplements

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Pre-workout – Before the workout is the best time to take BCAA powder or tablet supplements. Consuming them up to 15 minutes before your session begins will give you the most benefits.

Intra-workout – Taking BCAA supplements in between sets will help your muscles to begin recovering earlier, allowing you to workout longer. You will be able to do more reps, in order to improve your strength and endurance.

Post-workout – If you are a high-performance athlete or a bodybuilder, taking BCAA supplements after a workout (as well as before) is recommended for increased muscle recovery time.

The optimal time of day – The effects of working out are best in the early hours of the morning,[6] so this is the perfect time to take BCAA supplements. But don't worry if you aren't an early bird, as they do work any time of the day taken before exercise or meals.

BCAAs before or after workout – Although BCAA intake affects protein metabolism in muscles more after exercise, for the leucine to take full effect, it's recommended to take BCAA supplements before a workout.

Who benefits from BCAAs

It's true that most athletes take them for speeding up muscle recovery, but that doesn't mean that BCAAs are only beneficial for the pros. Anyone who sets a goal to lose weight or gain muscle while working out can benefit from taking BCAAs. Even if you consume them only through a healthy diet, BCAAs will speed up your muscle-building process and glucose metabolism. The best BCAA supplements are more concentrated, usually containing more leucine.

The trick to getting the most amino acid benefits, in general, is combining the best BCAA supplements with meals that have plenty of protein. From the healthier animal products, chicken and fish contain the most protein and BCAA, followed by eggs and low-fat cheese. Soy products are also high in BCAAs, while legumes and grains have a moderate amount.

BCAAs & Intermittent Fasting/Weight Loss

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If your goal is weight loss, you can take BCAAs 30-45 minutes before a meal. This way, they will help you maintain normal blood sugar levels after you consume your meal. In the fasting phase of an intermittent fasting diet, you’d probably want to avoid taking BCAAs, except for during your workout - to prevent yourself from breaking the fast.

Those taking an average of 15 grams of BCAAs from their diet each day may have up to a 30% lower risk[7] of becoming overweight than those consuming less. This clearly shows that consuming more food rich in protein (thus BCAAs) can be enough to maintain a healthy glucose level.

BCAAs Speed Up Recovery & Reduce Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) usually develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise, can last up to 3 days, and is a result of tiny tears in the muscles after exercise. BCAAs may decrease muscle soreness by reducing the damage in muscle tissue,[8] helping reduce the length and severity of DOMS. One way they do this is by preventing the level of muscle tearing in the first place, and also decreasing the amount of lactic acid in the muscles. 

BCAA intake reduces muscle damage, whether you are doing resistance or endurance training. That means you can recover a lot faster, get more sets in, and have less muscle soreness between workouts.

The other way is by lowering blood levels of the enzyme creatine kinase, a product of muscle damage, and lactate dehydrogenase, which is responsible for the feeling of soreness.

BCAA Protects Your Muscles

During and after working out, muscle tissue is broken down and rebuilt, with the balance between breakdown and synthesis determining the amount of protein in the muscle. When protein breakdown exceeds muscle synthesis, muscle wasting occurs. In your body, BCAAs account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins. Replacing BCAAs during muscle wasting is a great way to stop or slow its progression, thus protecting the muscles.

BCAAs are particularly known to preserve muscle mass under extremely catabolic conditions. For example, if you plan to run ultra-marathons, do high altitude mountaineering, or any other type of extreme sport, it's a good idea to use BCAAs for an endurance boost. 

By providing supplemental BCAAs, your body will be less likely to consume its own amino acid storage.

BCAA and energy

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As you go through your workout program, your energy levels will deplete. How quickly this happens depends on several factors, such as the intensity and duration of the workout, environmental conditions, and your nutrition and fitness level.

As your muscles use BCAAs during exercise, their levels in your blood will decrease, while the level of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increases. Tryptophan is then converted to serotonin, a brain chemical that contributes to physical and mental fatigue during exercise. 

BCAAs can improve your mental focus during exercise, which is an outcome of the fatigue-reducing effect of BCAAs

Other benefits of BCAAs

Besides maintaining your glucose levels, protecting and building muscles, BCAAs can have other beneficial effects on your body as well. 

For example, intense physical training over the course of weeks and months can lead to fatigue and immune suppression. This not only causes the inability to train adequately but failure to fight off infections as well. 

Long-term supplementation with 12 grams of BCAA daily while doing intense training is shown to improve the immune response.

Researchers have found that BCAAs can also be used as a fuel source for the immune system to regenerate itself more efficiently and protect against harmful pathogens. The stronger your immune system is, the more likely will it aid in your recovery, making you less likely to get sick.

Possible side effects of BCAAs

Following the manufacturer's instructions, there should be little to no side effects of BCAAs or any amino acids. Some side effects that occurred when BCAAs were consumed in excess were fatigue, loss of coordination, and stomach problems. They won't make you overweight, but they may affect your blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes and take BCAA supplements, you need to watch your blood sugar more carefully. You shouldn't take any BCAA supplements if you have kidney disease, ALS, or are preparing for surgery.

Major, long-term side effects[9] of BCAAs can be high blood pressure, headache, or type II diabetes. These side effects are all linked to an interaction between BCAAs and other dietary supplements, often taken in unregulated and excessive form - so be sure to stay safe and don’t overdo it. Remember to do everything in moderation, and you can be on your way to bigger gains with BCAA supplementation. 

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References

  1. Berry, J.; Olsen, N. RD LD ACSM EP-C (January 2019). “What to know about essential amino acids”. Medical News Today.
  1. Norton, L. PhD (November 2020). “BCAAs: The Many Benefits of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplements”. BodyBuilding Online Publication.
  1. Bloomstrand, E.; Eliasson, J.; Karlsson, H.; Kohnke, R. (January 2006). “Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise”. The Journal of Nutrition
  1. Roquetto, A.; Moura, C.; Santos-Junior, V.; Oliviera, P.; Machado, K.; Carvalho, G.; Risso, E.; Amaya-Farfan, J. (January 2020). “Moderate intake of BCAA-rich protein improves glucose homeostasis in high-fat-fed mice”. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. v.80, 108332.
  1. Petre, A. MS RD (NL) (November 2016). “BCAA Benefits: A Review of Branched-Chain Amino Acids”. Healthline Online Publication.
  1. Kassel, G. (August 2019). “The Best Time To Work Out Is Actually In The Morning—Here’s Why”. Health Online Publication.
  1. Li, Y.; Liu, L.; Chen, Y.; Zi, T.; Du, S.; Jiang, Y.; Feng, R.; Sun, C. (November 2015). “The Ratio of Dietary Branched-Chain Amino Acids is Associated with a Lower Prevalence of Obesity in Young Northern Chinese Adults: An Internet-Based Cross-Sectional Study”. Nutrients. v.7(11) PMC4663614 doi: 10.3390/nu7115486 PMID: 26593945
  1. Brennan, D. MD (November 2020). “BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids): Are There Health Benefits?”. Nourish, WebMD Online Publication
  1. Bennett, C. BSc; Cooke, M. PhD (March 2020). “Health Dangers of BCAA in Protein Supplements”. News-Medical Online Publication.