Even with the most basic understanding of nutrition and physiology of the body, most of us are aware that protein is made up of amino acids. In fact, there are 20 different amino acids that make up the thousands of proteins in your body. Nine of those 20 amino acids are considered essential amino acids. Our body cannot produce them on our own and as such, they should be consumed from our diet. Of those nine amino acids, three of them are branched-chain amino acids, or BCAA’s.
Branched-chain refers to the chemical structure of branched-chain amino acids, which are found in protein-rich foods like eggs, meat, and dairy. They’re also a very popular dietary supplement that is also typically sold in powder form.
But do BCAA’s really work and what are they sold for
1. Increase Muscle Growth
Increased muscle growth is considered one of the most popular reasons for using branch-chain amino acids. In particular, one amino acid called leucine is responsible for activating certain pathways in the body that promotes muscle protein synthesis, or the building of new muscle.
Think of your body as a building that has two processes going on at the same time, building up and tearing down. If you want to maintain the building you will need to keep these two processes in balance. If you don’t do as much building up compared to tearing down, the building will get smaller causing your muscles to shrink.
On the other hand, if you do more building up than normal, the building or your muscles gets bigger over time. This building-up process is called muscle-protein synthesis, and the tearing down process is called muscle protein breakdown. Both these processes happen simultaneously in our bodies. However, there are a couple of things we can do to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
The first is exercise, especially resistance exercise. This is the most important signal to start muscle protein synthesis. Think of this as opening the gate to the construction site. Without the signal from exercise, muscle growth does not really happen. The other way we can increase muscle protein synthesis is by eating protein, specifically the BCAA leucine. Think of leucine as the foreman that calls all the other amino acids to the construction area and as such is a key trigger for starting the muscle-building process.
In one study, people who consumed a drink with 5.6 grams of branched-chain amino acids high in leucine, after their resistance workout, had a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis, compared to those who consumed a placebo drink. That being said, this increase in muscle protein synthesis is approximately 50% less than what was observed in other studies where people consumed a whey protein shake containing a similar amount of branched-chain amino acids.
While BCAA’s help to signal the start of muscle protein synthesis you still need all the additional amino acids to keep the muscle-building process going. Whey protein contains all of these essential amino acids needed to build muscle. Think of the foreman mentioned earlier, on a building site without any bricks.
Not a lot of building is going to get done. Those bricks are all the additional bricks you require to build muscle. Therefore, while branched-chain amino acids can help with muscle protein synthesis, they can’t do so to maximum effect without the other essential amino acids, which is what you would get when consuming a whey protein supplement or other types of complete protein.
2. Prevents muscle breakdown or wasting
Muscle proteins are constantly being broken down and then rebuilt, this process being muscle protein synthesis mentioned above. Muscle breakdown or wasting occurs when that breakdown is greater than the rebuilding, or muscle protein synthesis. This explains why muscle wasting is a by-product and sign of malnutrition, and also occurs with chronic infections, cancer, periods of fasting, and as a result of the natural aging process. In humans, branched-chain amino acids account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins.
BCAA’s also count for 40% of the total amino acids required by your body. Therefore, it is important that branched-chain amino acids and other amino acids are replaced during times of muscle wasting, to halt it or at the very least slow it’s progression.
Several studies support the use of branched-chain amino acids supplements for inhibiting muscle protein breakdown. This can improve the quality of living in certain populations such as the elderly and those with wasting diseases like cancer. This leaves enormous potential for future research and gives new hope to chronic patients such as those fighting cancer.
3. Decrease Muscle Soreness
It’s not uncommon to feel sore for a couple of days following an intense workout, especially if it is a new workout. This soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS as the acronym. DOMS develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise and can last up to 72 hours.
While the exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood, researchers believe it’s a result of tiny tears in the muscle fibers after exercise. BCAA’s have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which could then decrease the length and severity of DOMS.
In one study, people who supplemented with BCAA’s , branched-chain amino acids, before a squat exercise experienced reduced DOMS and muscle fatigue compared to the placebo group. As a consequence, if you are supplementing with branched-chain amino acids, especially before exercise you may speed up recovery time.
4. Reduced Exercise Fatigue
Just as BCAA’s or branched-chain amino acids might help with reducing muscle soreness, it may help with reducing exercise-induced fatigue. Your muscles use branched-chain amino acids during exercise, causing levels in your blood to decrease. When blood levels of these branched-chain amino acids decline the levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increase.
In your brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, a brain chemical known to contribute to the development of fatigue during exercise. In two studies, participants who supplemented with branched-chain amino acids improved their mental focus during exercise, which is thought to result from the fatigue-reducing effects of BCAA’s. The decrease in fatigue is unlikely to translate to improvements in exercise performance.
Do I need BCAA’s?
Branched-chain amino acids have a definite function in your diet and BCAA supplements are a great way to supplement a diet lacking in protein or containing a low protein quality. This being said, branched-chain amino acids can help give protein such as your healthy plant-based proteins that little extra kick that it might need for optimal muscle protein synthesis. Branched-chain amino acids is also proven to improve recovery and reduce soreness giving you the ability to train harder and more frequently to help you achieve your desired results faster and more efficiently.