March 12, 2019
What are BCAAs and should I take a BCAA supplement?
BCAAs Build and Protect Your Muscles
If you spend much time in a gym or around bodybuilders, you’ve probably heard the term BCAAs, which is short for branched-chain amino acids. Before we delve into the benefits of BCAAs for athletes and bodybuilders, it helps to understand a little bit about amino acids first.
Amino Acids — What Are They and Why Are They Important?
We can think of amino acids like LEGOs — they are the blocks our bodies use to build protein in every cell. Here’s why amino acids are essential to our bodies:
Twenty percent of your body is made up of protein, and amino acids are what our bodies use to make protein.
- Amino acids get center stage for their role in transporting and storing nutrients.
- Your organs, glands, tendons, and arteries all rely on amino acids for proper function.
- Amino acids help heal wounds and repair tissues, including in our skin, muscles, and bones.
- Amino acids help “take out the trash” created in our bodies from metabolic processes.
An average adult male body contains around 120 to 130 grams of amino acids, which is called an acid pool. Our amino acid pool is “exchanged” three to four times per day as we ingest protein. Our bodies break down the protein into individual amino acids, reorders and refolds them and then converts them into whatever our bodies need at that moment — they can end up as muscles, bones, hair, nails, enzymes, nutrient and signal transporters, antibodies and more.
Essential Amino Acids
Our bodies require 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential acids: methionine, histidine, tryptophan, threonine, histidine, phenylalanine, isoleucine, leucine and valine. Our bodies can’t make these nine, so it is essential we get them from our diet.
Our amino acid pools must be complete and balanced for optimum health. If our bodies are lacking vitamins, amino acids, minerals and trace elements, we risk developing metabolic disorders and debilities. Even if we are eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, our environment and food supply chain continually assault our bodies. From pollution to fertilizers to hormones fed to cattle to food processing, our amino acid pools are never immune to threats. Our bodies’ ability to produce protein is weakened if one or more amino acids are missing, which impacts our metabolism. Some researchers believe this less-than-perfect environment and food supply chain causes metabolic imbalances which result in many of the diseases that are most common today.
What Are Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)?
Now that we understand how and why amino acids are crucial to protein production, let’s explore the role branched-chain amino acids play. Three of the nine essential amino acids are called BCAAs:
Remember that amino acids are like LEGO blocks joined together in “chains.” These three differ from the other essential amino acids because they have a chain that branches off to the side. This branch simplifies the process of converting each amino acid into energy during intense exertion.
Together, isoleucine, leucine and valine make up about 35 to 40 percent of all essential amino acids in our bodies and about 14 percent of the total in our skeletal muscles, according to a study in “The Journal of Nutrition.”
We get BCAAs by eating protein, with the highest concentrations in grass-fed beef, wild salmon, chicken, eggs and whey protein. We can also get BCAAs into our bodies by taking supplements.
What Are the Benefits of BCAAs?
Plenty! BCAAs are workhorses and provide a wide variety of physical and psychological benefits:
#1 — Improve Muscle Growth
The BCAA leucine activates a path in the body that stimulates muscle protein synthesis, even when you’re not exercising. BCAAs help build muscle mass, AKA gains, and help maintain lean muscle mass during periods of rest or injury recovery.
#2 – Enhance Fat Loss
Studies have found that people who consume high levels of BCAAs are leaner and have less body fat. Since BCAAs enhance athletic performance, you burn more fat because you’re able to work out longer and harder. BCAAs can help your body protect muscle glycogen stores and burn fat instead.
#3 – Increase Endurance and Reduce Fatigue During Exercise
Quite a few studies have found that BCAAs improve athletic performance and reduce fatigue. Our bodies can burn BCAAs as energy to maintain ATP energy levels during glycogen-depleting exercises such as sprints. BCAAs also prevent tryptophan from entering the brain, which you might remember is the amino acid in turkey that makes us drowsy after Thanksgiving. Tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which is thought to tell your brain “you’re done” when you’re pushing yourself. By slowing tryptophan uptake, your brain doesn’t get the message as soon and you can power through another set of reps or do another lap.
#4 – Faster Recovery
Your muscles take a beating during intense exercise, so BCAAs not only build new muscle mass because they speed up protein production, they repair damaged muscle tissue via the same mechanism. You recover faster, enabling you to hit the gym, road or pool sooner and reach your strength and size potential.
# 5 — Prevent Muscle Loss
Let’s face it, sometimes our intense sweat sessions damage our muscles, especially during ultra-endurance exercise. Our bodies will break down muscle proteins for fuel when it runs out of other fuel sources during prolonged, extreme physical activity — or when we work out in a fasted state. You lose BCAAs during intense exercise. Because BCAAs are necessary for protein synthesis, training in a fasted state or not eating after exercise will cause you to lose more protein than you rebuild.
#6 — Decrease Muscle Soreness
In addition to preventing proteins from being broken down in our muscles, BCAAs decrease lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase levels, which are enzymes. When muscle cells are injured or overworked, their membranes release creatine kinase into the bloodstream. BCAAs can’t prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), but they can help reduce the severity so you recover faster.
#7 — Maintain Healthier Blood Sugar Levels
BCAAs may assist with blood sugar production during exertion. The liver and other internal organs continually release BCAAs to skeletal muscles, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. Isoleucine improves glucose tolerance and combined with the two other BCAAs, they may help prevent diabetes.
# 8 — Contribute to Longevity and Fight Disease
BCAAS have been found to help combat complications in liver diseases such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. BCAAs can help prevent muscle loss due to aging and improve cognition. They also support your immune system because they are the building blocks for immune-boosting proteins and antibodies. BCAAs help you overcome infections and illnesses faster and may even help you live longer.
What About BCAA Supplements?
BCAAs improve your overall athletic performance because of all the physical and psychological benefits they provide. You can get BCAAs by eating protein, but sometimes it’s difficult to get the optimum amount from diet alone, especially if you’re restricting calories. If you’re a serious athlete or even just want to up your game, a high-quality BCAA supplement can give you the extra boost you need to reach or succeed your health and fitness goals.