Branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs have become immensely popular in the past few years, due to their alleged positive impact on physical performance. And it’s true that they offer a lot of benefits. Let’s delve deeper into their structure and the science behind why they’re deemed a great sports supplement.
First of all, amino acids are what makes up the molecule of a protein. Our bodies break down the protein we ingest into separate amino acids and the chains that connect them together, called peptide bonds.
Amino acids have lots of key roles in our bodies, like creating new tissue, (muscle tissue), strengthen the immune system, improve hormone function and many other processes.
Taking this into consideration, we will take a more in-depth look at amino acids, especially branched-chain amino acids, and how consuming them can help both recreational lifters as well as professional.
Proteinogenic amino acids
As a species, we need to consume 21 proteinogenic amino acids in order to synthesize various specific proteins and hormones which are essential to our bodies’ proper functioning.
Of these 21, 9 amino acids are deemed essential, which means that our bodies can’t produce them on their own and they must be obtained via diet. The other 12 are deemed non-essential or sometimes essential because they can be produced inside our bodies using substrates when necessary.
BCAAs and muscle growth support
From the essential group of amino acids, 3 of them, leucine, valine, and isoleucine are usually known as branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs, because of their molecular structure.
Numerous studies have suggested that L-leucine might be the most effective amino acid in terms of stimulating protein synthesis inside the muscle tissue and preventing catabolism (tissue breakdown).
BCAAs possess many unique physiological properties in that when consumed they are directly taken up by the skeletal muscles instead of being metabolized by the liver first.
They can also be an efficient source of energy for your muscle during training, which means they can increase the capacity to endure longer training sessions. Studies have also shown that consuming BCAAs pre and post-workout has a positive impact on reducing recovery time and improving muscle protein synthesis.
BCAAs can be found in nature, mostly in protein from various foods, especially animal meats, and they appear in 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, iso-leucine, and valine respectively. But, a lot of BCAA supplements change the three amino acid ratio, despite studies repeatedly concluding that the 2:1:1 is the most ideal.
Why getting BCAAs from your diet only isn’t enough
A lot of people make the assumption that BCAA supplementation is pretty much useless since they already eat a diet which has a high amount of protein.
However, food processing tends to diminish the amount of protein usually found in domestic meats and many other rich protein sources, which is why most people fail to meet their daily BCAA needs. Which is why it is advised to take a BCAA supplement even if you think you’re consuming enough protein from your diet.
The top 5 benefits of supplementing with BCAAs
1. BCAAs can speed up your recovery rate from both resistance and endurance training.
As we mentioned previously, studies have shown that supplementing with BCAAs can significantly reduce the time it takes your body to recover from very intense training sessions.
It seems that this happens because BCAAs become a readily used substrate while training, and supplementing with BCAAs prevents your body from using an alternative source of energy.
Additionally, the increased muscle protein synthesis seen when supplementing with BCAAs directly impacts the recovery rate and allows you to train a lot harder and with increased frequency.
2. BCAAs are low in calories
Amino acids have approximately the same number of calories as any other peptide molecule or protein, which is 4 calories per gram. But, BCAAs are still the low-calorie option since the nominal dose is less than 10 grams, while on the other hand, you’d need to ingest a greater amount of protein to reach that BCAA dose.
3. BCAAs are digested easily and are very practical
BCAAs are basically unbound, free-form amino acids, which means that will be absorbed very quickly and increase the plasma amino acid levels once you consume them.
On the other hand, the protein you get from food will need to be digested or hydrolyzed to a certain degree first, before the aforementioned plasma amino acid levels increase.
Drinking a beverage with BCAAs in it, is a lot more practical and refreshing then opening up a Tupperware filled with chicken breast, not to mention doing it between sets or when running on the treadmill. It’s practically impossible.
4. BCAAs can help you maintain muscle tissue during fasting
BCAAs have the potential to act as anti-catabolic substrates while fasting because they’re insulinogenic amino acids, insulin being a hormone which has a strong inhibiting effect on muscle catabolism (breakdown).
So, when you ingest BCAAs, even a small increase in plasma insulin has the potential to suppress gluconeogenesis in the liver by decreasing proteolysis in the muscles and some other tissues.
This basically means that supplementing with BCAAs will prevent the skeletal muscles from using amino acids as a source of energy in prolonged fasting periods, like 8 hours of sleep.
Additionally, insulin is a hormone with high anabolic properties when the necessary substrates are present. Insulin can increase muscle protein synthesis by getting essential amino acids directly from the amino acid pool found between the cells.
That’s why increasing the quantities of BCAAs in your body when insulin levels are increased can speed up muscle protein synthesis.
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5. Complete BCAA supplements are better than L-leucine powder supplements
In a study that examined the effects of supplementing with BCAAs and leucine, Scientists from Baylor University compared the effects of BCAAs against leucine.
The study concluded that although leucine increased muscle protein synthesis significantly compared to placebo, taking BCAA increased protein synthesis even more compared to leucine.