According to MedlinePlus, amino acids are the organic compounds constituting the “building blocks” from which the different proteins that make up your body are produced. There are twenty altogether, eleven of which are non – essential in that they can be made by your body and nine of which are essential in that you can only obtain them from the food you eat. Your body uses amino acids to produce proteins which serve a variety of functions like the digestion of food, the growth of your body, the repair of damaged tissues and providing fuel to energize your body.
We have three types of amino acids, namely essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids and conditional amino acids. When we experience extreme illness or stress, there are non-essential amino acids that become essential or indispensable to our bodies because their demand exceeds the ability of our bodies to produce them independently. This, according to WoundSource, is why they are called conditional amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids are namely, leucine, isoleucine, valine, methionine, histidine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and lysine. The best sources of the essential amino acids in your diet are animal proteins like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and plant proteins like soy, quinoa, tofu and buckwheat.
The non-essential amino acids are glutamic acid, alanine, proline, asparagine, glutamine, cysteine, arginine, tyrosine, glycine, serine, and aspartic acid. While your body can produce them on its own, dietary sources of non-essential amino acids include animal proteins like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy products and plant proteins like nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
The conditional amino acids include the non-essential amino acids arginine, serine, tyrosine, glycine, proline, glutamine, cysteine. In addition to these amino acids is ornithine, which can be obtained from dietary sources like meat, dairy products, fish and eggs.
This review explores the benefits of BCAA supplements, a very popular subject among health and fitness enthusiasts. Given the buzz around these supplements among gym zealots, supplement store clients and athletes, we deem them worthy of our consideration for discussion. we explore five different aspects of the subject. We start by discussing BCAAs, with regards to what they are. We then proceed to dissect the matter of what benefits they deliver to you. Thereafter, we tackle the question regarding whether they are effective in that they actually make a difference or not. Next we address the issue of their relevance to you, the reader, to assist you in deciding as to whether you need them or not. We end by looking at various aspects of the use of BCAAs and things that you need to know about them to help you decide on whether they are for you or not.
What are BCAAs?
If you are a zealot in fitness or working out at the gym, you must be familiar with the acronym BCAA according to GNC. It is used to refer to the branched-chain amino acids and you will encounter it at your local supplement shop or hear body builders and athletes talk about it. This is due to its popularity in this community of people for its properties in enhancing muscle growth and performance during their work out sessions.
From among the essential amino acids, we have three that are the BCAAs, namely leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are called so because their chemical structure has a “branched-chain” appearance and are responsible for about 35% of the amino acids that make up your muscles. BCAAs play a vital role in enhancing protein synthesis, preventing fatigue, and maintain bulk and strength in your muscles during physical stress
They are metabolized in the muscle as opposed to the liver, meaning that they are directly taken up into the muscle tissues for expedited benefit. It is this property that has made them very popular among bodybuilders and athletes, who use them to boost their muscle growth and performance. The National Center for Biotechnology Information ( NCBI) states that BCAAs have also gained popularity with the pharmaceutical industry, where they are valued as vital ingredients in the production of nutrient supplements for humans, and the livestock feed industry, where their relevance in the supplementation of livestock nutrition has been recognized.
Men’s Health discusses BCAA-specific food sources for your consideration in the regular diet. These include animal sourced foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish (for example tinned tuna and wild salmon) and dairy products (for example cottage cheese and whey protein) and plant sourced foods such as nuts (for example peanuts, almonds, brazil nuts and cashews), legumes (for example chickpeas, lentils and beans), tofu, tempeh, quinoa and whole grains (for example whole wheat and brown rice). If you are a gym enthusiast or an athlete, you will find the BCAA supplements (tablets, capsules and powder) more convenient for your work out sessions since they are easy to carry with you, easy to ingest and easy to digest, while delivering instant benefits to your muscles.
BCAA supplements are rivaled by Whey protein and other protein powders in the supplement market. Whey protein is considered to be more complete than BCAAs because it has all the essential amino acids along with additional nutrients. In the broad selection of protein powders, there are some that are well processed, incorporating all the essential amino acids in addition to vitamins and minerals. These two alternatives to BCAAs are more affordable, causing some fitness experts to recommend their use instead.
Benefits of BCAAs
Several experts in BCAAs discuss their usefulness to health and fitness. We hereby consider some of the touted benefits.
BCAAs play a critical role in the synthesis of proteins for the building of your muscles, especially if you are looking to “bulk up”. They also have an anti-catabolic effect in that they prevent the breakdown of proteins, thereby preventing muscle loss or muscle wasting while helping you maintain a lean body mass. Adam Bible (Muscle & Fitness) reports that BCAAS when complemented with whey protein supplement have been shown to enhance muscle growth with training for athletes more than when used alone.
Muscle soreness resulting from a workout session, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), can be alleviated by BCAA supplementation prior to exercising. It is a symptom of damage sustained by your muscles during exercise which occurs later on, after you have concluded your work out session. DOMS usually peaks one to four days after exercise, especially if you are not used to exercising or if you are trying out a new exercise routine.
BCAA supplements are known to benefit exercise by reducing fatigue and muscle damage while enhancing endurance. We all experience fatigue and tiredness during exercise and our blood levels of substances related to fatigue and muscle damage increases with the duration of exercise. In a 2013 study involving college-aged males, Kim Dong-Hee and colleagues found that those who initially took BCAAs supplements had lower levels of fatigue and muscle damage related substances than those who did not at the end of endurance exercise.
BCAAs are useful in reducing protein loss, aiding protein production and improving the nutrition of people diagnosed with liver disease, whereby the liver function is compromised. Jung Gil Park and colleagues (2017) studied a group of patients with advanced liver cirrhosis and observed that the recipients of BCAA supplements showed improvement in their signs and symptoms for the disease while the non-recipients did not. BCAAs have also been shown to improve hepatic encephalopathy (HE) – a condition whereby the diseased liver, due to its reduced function, cannot remove toxins from the blood resulting in the loss of brain function.
BCAAs are useful in the synthesis of protein in the brain including proteins for the production of neurotransmitters essential to brain function such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine. Increased BCAA intake in the diet or through the ingestion of supplements is known to increase brain BCAA concentration by enhancing its transportation into the brain across the blood–brain barrier. According to GU Energy Labs, BCAAs are useful in delaying the onset of central fatigue (when your brain tires) during exercise by inhibiting the production of serotonin, the chemical responsible for central fatigue.
Do BCAAs Really Work?
When you review the literature on the effectiveness of BCAAs regarding whether they really work or not, you will encounter differing opinions on the subject among authors. On the one hand, some suggest that they do not work and are a waste while on the other hand, there are those who suggest that they actually do. We hereby discuss some of the opinions that we uncovered.
Rosie Fitzmaurice (Business Insider) reached out to Max Lowery, who is a personal trainer and also a former competitive sprinter, to get his opinion on BCAAs and this is what he had to say. He stated that he tried BCAAs during his sprints and reported that he did not observe any effect on his performance, let alone his recovery, contrary to the claim of several fitness influencers promoting the product prominently on social media. Max added that it is misleading to suggest that BCAAs are critical for building muscles on their own and claims that there is research evidence to back him up, while concluding by recommending in their place complete proteins incorporating them – “real food” so to say.
In their study, Blomstrand and colleagues (2006) offer a conflicting report on the effect of BCAAs on muscle building. They conducted an investigation on the effect of the supplements on the quadriceps muscles of a group of study subjects in the course of and at the end of a session of resistance exercise. They report in the findings of their study that the BCAA supplements activated enzymes that are critical in the production of muscle protein – a prerequisite for muscle building during the period of recovery at the end of the exercise session.
Likewise, a study by David Dudgeon and colleagues (2016) suggests that BCAAs have effect in causing the loss of body fat, leading to weight loss by enhancing the production of the fat-burning hormone testosterone while maintaining lean muscle mass. They recruited seventeen resistance-trained males on a low-calorie diet and observed that the recipients of BCAA supplements lost their body fat and maintained their muscle mass while the recipients of carbohydrate supplements lost their muscle mass. The BCAA leucine in particular is said to play a vital role in stimulating the burning of body fat for energy, leading to weight loss.
On a similar note, Zhang and colleagues (2017) report that BCAAs have been shown to provide energy for immune cells within the digestive system and in the process enhance the efficiency of the immune system in dealing with harmful disease causing microbes. By boosting your immunity, BCAAs have the effect of boosting the process of recovery from prolonged physical stress and exertion while also reducing the likelihood of succumbing to illness.
Are BCAAs Really Necessary?
When you review the literature on the necessity of BCAAs, the experts have conflicting positions. For the most part, authors acknowledge its benefits in the building and preservation of muscles during and after exercise in combination with the rest of the essential amino acids as a well-balanced diet or a well processed protein powder for effectiveness.
Aman Duggal – an expert in nutrition and exercise (Food For Fitness) points out that the protein rich foods in your diet sufficiently meet your BCAA requirements and adds that they are already incorporated into the complete protein foods such as whey protein, eggs and seafoods anyways. He states that taken alone, BCAAs have limited benefit and adds that the supplements tend to be tainted with weight gaining calories while costing more than complete protein foods.
According to Monkey Nutrition, BCAAs alone are ineffective in aiding the recovery or growth of muscle and are a waste unless combined with a protein shake. They argue that a healthy diet is crucial to begin with to benefit from supplementation with any protein or BCAA powder such that the supplement merely complement the diet instead of replacing it.
Dr Kevin Tipton questions the necessity of BCAAs when discussing their usefulness in muscle production following exercise. He challenges the claim of their benefits in building and retaining muscle, arguing that taking BCAAs on their own results in only limited muscle building and says that evidence to their benefit in preserving muscles after exercise is lacking. Dr Kevin also expresses his doubts about the objective of using them in preserving muscle protein after exercise.
Sarah Jackman and colleagues (2017) in their study found that BCAAs on their own stimulated 50% less muscle protein production after resistance exercise compared to when combined with whey protein. They recommend the use of all the nine essential amino acids in order to realize 100% muscle protein production. They point out that people looking for nutrient supplements for muscle building or muscle mass preservation during ageing or disease should not rely on BCAAs alone.
On a rather worrisome note, Maria Cohut (Medical News Today) reports that the highly touted protein shakes for muscle building may actually be harmful to your health. She cites a study in mice by University of Sydney (Australia) investigators, suggesting that a protein diet rich in BCAAs but deficient in the other essential amino acids could be detrimental to your long-term health and longevity, thereby bringing its necessity into question. She states that the findings in this study show that the consumption of BCAA supplements more than is necessary may have a negative effect on your mood, enhance your appetite and cause you to gain weight while shortening your lifespan.
Should I Take BCAAs?
It is safe for you to take BCAA supplements in general and besides, some experts recommend using them daily to realize its maximum benefits. Some reports indicate that ingesting the supplements is harmless for up to 2 years, but you should observe to stick with the recommended dosage. When shopping, you will find BCAA supplements in three main forms, namely powders (the form most recommended for use), capsules and tablets with the recommended daily use for athletes prior to, during or at the end of exercise ranging from 5 to 15 grams.
There is a proverb that says “Too much of a good thing is bad for you!” This would apply to the excessive use of BCAAs, which can have some unpleasant effects on you. Some of the side effects that have been reported include nausea, fatigue, headaches, vomiting, loss of coordination, diarrhea, enhanced insulin resistance and high blood pressure among others.
According to WebMD, you should not use BCAAs if you have been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as it causes lung failure and increased cases of death. They also suggest that pregnant women should avoid them and breast-feeding mothers should not use them. Other conditions in which they discourage the use of BCAAs include Branched-chain ketoaciduria (in which can cause seizures and mental retardation), chronic alcoholism (in which it can cause liver disease resulting in brain damage) and surgery (in which it can interfere with the control of blood sugar).
According to the Canadian Academy of Sports Nutrition (CAASN), you should avoid BCAAs if you have Maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) – a genetic condition due to the lack of an enzyme required for their breakdown resulting in their raised blood levels and disruption of central nervous system functions. You are also not to use them if you have Sickle cell anemia. CAASN discourages taking BCAAs with medications such as Levodopa and Diabetic medications (which they render ineffective) as well as medications such as Diazoxide, Thyroid hormones and Corticosteroids (which in turn render them ineffective).
On a different note, Adrienne Stinson (Medical News Today) reports that some researchers have found that certain medical conditions are linked with the use of BCAAs. She elaborates that raised BCAA levels may be an indicator of type 2 diabetes and may also be associated with liver disease not related to alcohol use and injury to the liver. Adrienne also mentions that some researchers have linked BCAAs with cancer in that they provide nutrition for the growth of cancer cells while also providing energy for cancerous tumor growth. She also reports that research has determined elevated BCAA levels to be an indicator of heart disease.
This YouTube video concisely summarizes what you need to know about BCAAs, the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine that your get from the diet or supplements.
Leucine has been shown to be the most important and you will be well advised to opt for the leucine-rich supplements when shopping. Research has shown that BCAAs are beneficial to your fitness and body building goals in functions such as muscle building, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, reducing muscle fatigue and burning body fat while boosting your performance.
The prevailing view is that BCAAs do really work when complemented with the rest of the essential amino acids as opposed to when consumed alone. Whey protein powder or a well processed protein powder with bioavailable nutrients incorporating vitamins and minerals is recommended to complement your BCAA supplement for maximum benefit. Furthermore, you diet must be well-balanced for your BCAA supplementation to be effective.
BCAAs come as powders, capsules or tablets and the recommended amount for athletes is 5 – 15 grams daily before, during and after exercise. Generally, the supplements are safe when used following the manufacturer’s instructions within the stated dosage. However, if you experience any adverse effects such as fatigue, nausea, loss of coordination, headache, skin whitening or insulin resistance, you should stop use and see your doctor.
That being said, you should now have a good appreciation of what BCAA supplements are all about and what they offer to your fitness plans. You can even engage others in the BCAA discussion with confidence and show off your knowledge. And Now that you have a good grasp of what they are all about, you are all set! Go ahead and grab some BCAA powder, capsules or tablets at your nearest supplement retailer. Take your fitness program to the next level!