Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) have received a lot of hype lately as a superstar sports supplement that can bump up muscle building and promote quicker recovery between workouts. However, the potential benefits of BCAAs extend way beyond the gym, with new studies showing that supplementing with these essential nutrients could also improve liver function and keep you looking trim. Those aren’t the only BCAA benefits either.
Ready to learn more about how upping your intake can help enhance your health? Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids? Role of BCAAs and How They Work
Branched chain amino acids are a common supplement that are often marketed as a quick way to enhance athletic performance. So what are BCAA supplements, and what does BCAA do?
The official BCAA definition includes any type of amino acid that has a chain that branches off to one side. This includes three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. All three are considered essential amino acids, which means that your body is unable to produce them on its own, and they need to be obtained from food sources instead.
Unlike most other amino acids, BCAAs are broken down in the muscle instead of the liver and play a key role in the production of energy during exercise. They are also absolutely vital to many other aspects of health, including maintaining normal blood sugar levels and building muscle.
BCAAs have been heavily researched in recent years, and a slew of new studies has unearthed a long list of benefits of BCAA supplementation. Studies show that adding BCAAs to your daily diet could help boost muscle growth, ease post-workout recovery, improve liver health, prevent muscle loss, enhance athletic performance and even increase weight loss.
Top 6 BCAA Benefits
- Enhances Muscle Growth
- Speeds Up Recovery Time
- Promotes Liver Health
- Prevents Muscle Loss
- Improves Athletic Performance
- Increases Weight Loss
1. Enhances Muscle Growth
One of the most impressive benefits of BCAA for women and men alike is its ability to enhance muscle growth. In fact, check out any of the BCAA reviews online and you’re almost certain to read about the beneficial effects on gaining muscle for bodybuilders, athletes and even casual gym-goers.
For instance, one study published in Frontiers Physiology found that people who consumed a BCAA supplement after resistance training experienced 22 percent more muscle protein synthesis than a control group. (1) However, keep in mind that getting a good mix of all nine of the essential amino acids in your diet rather than just branched chain amino acids is key to maximizing muscle growth. (2)
2. Speeds Up Recovery Time
If you find that you’re constantly feeling sore after hitting the gym, BCAAs may be able to help. Studies show that BCAAs could reduce the breakdown of protein during exercise and reduce muscle damage to sidestep soreness and speed up muscle recovery. (3, 4) Plus, one study out of Japan even found that taking a BCAA supplement before working out led to reduced soreness and muscle fatigue. (5) For this reason, it should come as no surprise that a review of eight studies published in Nutrition concluded that BCAA supplementation is a more effective strategy to speed up recovery than rest following periods of intense exercise. (6)
3. Promotes Liver Health
Some research suggests that branched chain amino acids may be beneficial for people with certain liver conditions, such as cirrhosis, hepatic encephalopathy and liver cancer. For example, one review of 11 studies found that taking BCAAs was able to improve liver function in patients undergoing liver surgery, reducing the risk of complications, the duration of hospital stays and the potential financial burden on the patient. (7) Other research has also found that taking branched chain amino acids may offer protection against liver cancer and could benefit hepatic encephalopathy. (8, 9)
4. Prevents Muscle Loss
Losing muscle mass is a normal part of the aging process and often occurs as we start to get older, a condition known as sarcopenia. Muscle loss is also commonly experienced as a side effect of chronic conditions like cancer. Fortunately, getting plenty of BCAAs in your diet is an easy and effective way to start to slow muscle wasting and optimize your body composition.
According to a study published in the journal Clinical Science, the infusion of branched chain amino acids was effective at reducing the breakdown of muscle in the body in humans. (10) Other animal studies have confirmed these results, reporting that BCAAs could block the degradation of skeletal muscle in rats. (11, 12)
5. Improves Athletic Performance
Supplementing with BCAAs may help improve your athletic performance on the field or in the gym. Not only can it increase muscle growth and reduce soreness, but it may also enhance strength and performance as well. For example, one study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K. showed that supplementing with leucine daily for 12 weeks during a resistance training program resulted in significant improvements in strength performance. (13)
6. Increases Weight Loss
More and more emerging research has found a concrete link between supplementing with BCAA and weight loss. In one study, taking a branched chain amino acid supplement was found to increase lean body mass and decrease body fat more effectively than whey protein when combined with resistance training in 36 men. (14) Similarly, an animal study showed that long-term supplementation with leucine helped reduce body fat without affecting protein status in rats. (15)
Best BCAA Options
So what is the best BCAA powder option if you’re looking to boost muscle building and take your workout to the next level? There are plenty of BCAA capsules, powders and pills available on the market for a quick and convenient dose of extra protein. However, opting for a protein powder instead may be a better option, as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs and includes all three branched chain amino acids as well.
Some of the best amino acid supplements include whey protein and protein powder made from bone broth, both of which contain a wider range of the important amino acids that you need as well as BCAAs. Brown rice protein powder is another option and is actually a vegan BCAA source that boasts a complete set of all 20 amino acids.
BCAA vs. EAA
Branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids (EAAs) are some of the biggest buzzwords in nutrition nowadays, with a steady stream of new studies constantly emerging showing just how vital these nutrients are to health. But what are amino acids, and what is the difference between branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids?
There are 20 different amino acids required by the body to grow, develop and function properly, including glycine, tyrosine, cysteine and more. Eleven of these amino acids fall under the non-essential amino acid definition, meaning that they can actually be produced by your body. Essential amino acids, on the other hand, cannot be synthesized by your body and are required to obtain from food sources.
Branched chain amino acids are types of amino acids with a specific chemical structure that are set apart from other amino acids by their side chain. All three BCAAs, including leucine, isoleucine and valine, are considered essential amino acids, which means that it’s important to get them from foods or supplements to ensure you’re getting what you need.
BCAA vs. Protein vs. Creatine
Branched chain amino acids, protein powders and creatine monohydrate are three common supplements used by those looking to enhance their physical performance and build up strength and muscle mass. Each comes with unique health benefits and can sometimes even be used in conjunction to really amplify results.
Protein powders typically contain a wide range of amino acids and are often formulated with a good chunk of branched chain amino acids like leucine, isoleucine and valine. For this reason, a high-quality protein supplement is often effective on its own and can supply the same BCAAs without the need for a separate supplement.
Creatine, on the other hand, is a substance that is found naturally within the body and is especially concentrated in the muscles and brain. Although you can get a small amount of creatine from food sources, supplementation provides a higher amount and can be even more beneficial. In particular, creatine is often used to increase strength, build muscle mass and improve athletic performance, with studies showing that it can be incredibly effective and beneficial for athletes. (16)
Some people often combine protein powders and creatine as an effective post-workout snack to get even more results from their workouts. Mixing the two after exercise can be a useful strategy to help speed up recovery, increase muscle synthesis and give your performance an upgrade.
Where to Find and How to Use BCAAs
You can easily find plenty of options for BCAA supplements at pharmacies, health food stores and online shops. Many recommend looking for supplements that supply twice as much leucine as valine or isoleucine, which is usually considered the best BCAA ratio for health.
Wondering when to take BCAA to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to health? In general, experts typically suggest taking BCAA before or after workout regimens for best results. While many people prefer using it as a BCAA pre-workout supplement, others enjoy adding BCAAs into their post-workout meals or snacks instead. However, there’s not much evidence on the best time to take BCAA or whether taking it before or after working out is more effective, so it’s best to just find what works for you and stick to it.
BCAA Supplements and Dosage
BCAAs are available in many different forms, including BCAA pills, powders, tablets and capsules. You can also get your fill of BCAAs through other protein powders, including protein powder made from bone broth, whey protein or brown rice protein. Regardless of which form you decide to take, keep in mind that the best BCAA supplement products should come from reputable retailers and should be free of fillers and additives.
The BCAA dosage can vary, but it’s typically recommended to aim for about 91 milligrams per pound of body weight. For example, if you weight 150 pounds, you would need to take about 13,650 milligrams — or 13.7 grams — of BCAAs daily. Ideally, this dose should be split into a few smaller doses throughout the day, such as before and after working out.
Just as important as how much you take is being sure to take it consistently. For best results, BCAAs should be taken over a longer period of time, which means that it’s important to take it on days that you exercise as well as days that you don’t.
By opting for a BCAA powder over capsules or tablets, you can easily add it to your favorite recipes for a tasty treat or blend it into a BCAA drink before hitting the gym. Here are a few delicious and nutritious recipes rich in branched chain amino acids that you can try adding to your weekly rotation:
The history of branched chain amino acids can be traced back to the 1800s, starting with the discovery of leucine by chemist Joseph L. Proust in 1818. Valine was discovered nearly a century later in 1901, and isoleucine was discovered just a few years later in 1903.
In 2002, the U.S. Institute of Medicine established the first official recommended daily allowances for all three branched chain amino acids to determine the approximate amount that is needed by the body. Soon after, a host of studies began solidifying the link between BCAAs and athletic performance.
Today, BCAAs are often used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including burns, trauma and sepsis, which is a complication that can arise as a result of infection. New research also suggests that BCAA supplementation could be beneficial for other conditions as well, such as diabetes and liver disease.
BCAA Side Effects and Precautions
BCAAs are generally considered safe and can be consumed with minimal risk of adverse side effects when used in doses up to 35 grams per day. (17) However, there are some BCAA negatives to consider as well and supplementation may not be right for everyone.
For example, those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are advised not to supplement with BCAAs as it may impact cells in the nervous system. (18) Additionally, people with a condition known as maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) are unable to properly break down branched chain amino acids and should limit consumption to avoid any potential BCAAs side effects. Weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, coma and even death are all potential symptoms that can occur as a result of this genetic condition. (19)
- What is BCAA powder? Branched chain amino acids, also called BCAA, are a type of essential amino acid characterized by a side chain that branches off.
- Because BCAAs are broken down in the muscles and not the liver, they are believed to have a powerful effect on protein metabolism and energy production during exercise.
- Potential BCAA benefits include increased muscle mass, reduced soreness, improved liver health, decreased muscle loss, enhanced athletic performance and increased weight loss.
- BCAA can be found in many food sources or supplements. It can also be obtained through whole protein supplements like whey protein or protein powder made from bone broth.
- For best results, take supplements consistently, use before and/or after workouts, and stick to the recommended dosage.
- Combining the use of BCAAs with a healthy diet and regular exercise has the potential to make a major impact on health and performance.
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