Everything you need to know about branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)

Everyone and their dogs are taking branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs.

The market is huge. According to a recent report, the market for protein ingredients is projected to reach 58.49 billion dollars by 2022. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 6%. That’s insane.

And we’re talking about a market that is already gigantic.

BCAAs are a big part of this protein market. And in this article, I’m going to tell you why. I’ll tell you what they are, what they do biologically, what the supplements do, why their so effective when you’re dieting, and when it’s best to take them.

What are they?

BCAAs refer to three amino acids in particular – leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. And proteins are what make up the muscles that allow you to easily lift that 50-pound dumbbell at the gym.

Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body can’t make itself. That means we need to ingest them in our diet or get them from a supplement.

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BCAAs are important and have gotten a lot of attention from the men and women in the research world. Maybe more than any other supplement out there. They represent 50% of essential amino acids in food and make up 35% of the total amount of essential amino acids in muscle proteins.

Considering there are 21 amino acids in total and three of them represent this much, you can start to understand the importance they have in your body and why they’ve gotten so much interest.

Their biological function

BCAAS are essential amino acids involved in a myriad of functions within working cells.

They:

  • Contribute to energy production
  • Are important components of muscle proteins
  • Act as signaling molecules promoting protein synthesis
  • Increase antioxidant capacity

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Because they serve so many beneficial functions and are delivered straight to muscles (other essential amino acids are broken down in the liver), BCAAs have long been considered an effective nutritional strategy to prevent exercise-induced muscle damage and its consequences.

The idea is: if you can prevent excessive muscle-protein breakdown and promote repair (both functions BCAAs can do), then you can promote muscle sparing and growth.

What BCAA supplements do

There has been a lot of research done with BCAAs. They have been shown to have positive effects on:

Protein synthesis

BCAAs stimulate protein synthesis as well as the cellular machinery that carries out the process of protein synthesis. This means BCAAs increase the speed of protein synthesis AND the cell’s capacity for protein synthesis. They can produce more protein faster.

Protein breakdown

BCAAs reduce the rate of protein breakdown by decreasing the cellular machinery that breaks down protein.

Workout intensity

The proteins that make up the BCAAs – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – compete with another amino acid, tryptophan, for entry into the brain.

You’ve probably heard of tryptophan before, it’s the amino acid found in turkey that makes you so goddamn tired after eating it.

Once tryptophan makes its way into the brain it is converted into the brain molecule (neurotransmitter), serotonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has many different functions on the brain, one of them being increased perception of fatigue during exercise.

Because BCAAs compete with tryptophan, an increase in one means a decrease in the other. So, when you have more BCAAs present, you get less tryptophan getting into the brain being converted to serotonin and less perceived fatigue.

This all comes together to allow you to work harder, longer.

Aerobic exercise

There is an increased time to exhaustion during prolonged exercise in untrained or lightly trained people. Athletes with advanced training don’t seem to experience the same benefits.

Fatigue

Alongside BCAAs effects on aerobic exercise, there’s also moderate evidence showing BCAAs decrease the mental fatigue associated with working out too.

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Why BCAAs are so effective when you’re dieting

While BCAA supplementation has positive effects on gaining muscle, it really earns its weight in gold by preserving the muscle mass you already have. Especially if you’re dieting.

Dieting is catabolic. When you’re dieting you’re in a state of calorie restriction, which can lead to muscle breakdown.

Basically, your body starts to break down muscle as an energy source. It does this because fat is the most efficient way to store energy.

One gram of fat has more energy than one gram of protein. For that reason your body wants to keep it around. Think of it like storage for a rainy day.

Your body wants to keep it around so bad it will break down muscle instead.

The proteins making up muscle are broken down into amino acids, which are then used as fuel.

What we also have is less muscle being made. Because you’re at a loss for energy, your body is going to slow down energy synthesis to preserve the energy that it has.

So, we have more muscle being broken down and less muscle being made. This can make it really difficult to lean out.

It’s even more difficult when you add exercise into the mix.

Exercise tends to exacerbate the metabolic effects of dieting. Everything I’ve said in this section so far gets kicked up a notch with exercise.

The muscle preserving effects of BCAAs and their ability to promote protein synthesis tips the catabolic scale so you can preserve muscle while you’re dieting.

This means maximizing fat loss with the overall effect of losing a greater percentage of body fat than your friends that aren’t supplementing with BCAAs. It’s a miracle supplement if you’re trying to lean out.

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When is it best to take them?

BCAA supplements are best taken immediately after exercise to support muscle building and recovery.

I recommend something with at least 1800 mg of leucine and at least 800 mg of isoleucine and valine. These amounts of the BCAAs will make sure you enjoy all the benefits I’ve highlighted in this article.

Conclusion

From the research that has been done so far, it seems that supplementing with BCAAs increases muscle retention, maximizes fat loss, increases muscle building, increases aerobic endurance, and decrease mental fatigue while exercising.

You’ll experience the best results when you take BCAAs right after you workout at clinically relevant doses.

Let me know what you think about BCAA supplements in the comments.

If you’d like to know more, please contact me, I’d love to help you out.

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