BCAAs – It’s All About The Amino Acids!
Other than protein powders, BCAAs supplements are actually the supplement I get asked about the most, especially when people come from bodybuilding circles.
We always think MORE IS BETTER…so more amino acids, especially when we are trying to build muscle may be better, right?
So what are BCAAs supplements and do you need them, especially if you’re an average jane or joe?
(Hope you enjoy this article from my Macro Academy!)
What Are BCAAs?
BCAAs are branched-chain amino acids. They are made up of 3 essential amino acids – isoleucine, leucine and valine. (And as discussed early, essential amino acids can’t be made by the body but must instead be gotten through the foods we consume.)
These BCAAs make up about 40% of the daily requirement of all 9 essential amino acids, which shows you how important these 3 are.
BCAAs can be found in all sources of protein with the highest concentrations in chicken, beef, salmon, eggs and whey.
In all of these sources though, the BCAAs are peptide-bound to other amino acids.
So in order to raise BCAA levels in your body, they must first be liberated through digestion and then absorbed into the bloodstream.
Even with say a whey protein, which is relatively fast digesting, it can still take hours for the amino acids to be broken down and absorbed.
However in supplements, BCAAs are free form and require no digestion, meaning they can bypass the liver and gut tissue and go straight for the bloodstream.
This means they are more rapidly absorbed and may spike blood amino acid levels more quickly and to a greater extent even than the aminos in proteins.
The two main reasons BCAA supplementation usually comes up are for gaining muscle and improving recovery, both of which they are touted to do.
BCAAs trigger protein synthesis with exercise or even without.
When combined with exercise they can be a great way to help you build muscle while they can help you retain lean muscle mass when you aren’t working out.
Say for instance, if you are injured and taking time off. Supplementing with BCAAs may help you minimize muscle loss.
Not only is that good in and of itself, but the retention of more lean muscle mass can also help keep your metabolism up to prevent you from gaining fat even while you’re inactive.
If you are using intermittent fasting, you may actually choose to supplement with a flavorless BCAA powder in your water during your fasts, and during your workouts for extra energy, to help you gain and retain lean muscle mass.
Because it can help prevent muscle catabolism, it will only benefit you if you fast for longer periods OR even do an endurance cardiovascular sport, say long distance runs or rides that may be more catabolic to muscle tissue.
BCAA supplementation may also benefit us more as we age because it becomes more difficult to create a muscle-building environment and activate protein synthesis as we get older.
And, partly due to the fact that BCAAs can help us build and retain lean muscle, but also due to the fact that isoleucine and leucine help improve glucose tolerance and increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation, they may also help you increase fat burning and fat loss.
BCAAs may also aid in recovery, which can not only help you feel better for your next training session, but can actually help you get in a better training session by decreasing fatigue.
This is actually probably the BIGGEST benefit of BCAA supplementation over just consuming other sources of protein.
BCAAs can be burned as energy. This can help maintain ATP energy levels during glycogen-depleting exercise. Because BCAAs can also enhance the body’s ability to burn fat, they can then increase your energy pool that way.
BCAAs can also help prevent central nervous system fatigue by inhibiting the uptake of tryptophan into the brain (tryptophan is used to make serotonin in the brain, increasing tiredness and fatigue).
Basically what BCAAs do is prevent our brain from telling us “You’re done,” which is most often why our performance suffers. Let’s face it…If you’re brain tells you that you’re tired, your going to feel tired and slow down!
BCAAs can also help reduce muscle soreness, both after a strength OR a cardio endurance workout. Note I said REDUCE, not prevent.
So if you were looking into BCAAs as a recovery aid, they may well be worth the money! (However, it may mean taking them CONSISTENTLY and not just the day of a hard training session.)
The biggest question is really…Are they worth the extra cost?
The downside is you can easily get plenty of the amino acids you need from whole, natural foods and often without the sweeteners or flavoring added to make BCAAs taste better. (Although yes you can get unflavored options.)
And with proper nutrition and SLEEP, you can also usually help your body recover properly without added supplementation.
Also, B vitamins can become depleted, especially if you megadose BCAAs as they are critical for amino acid metabolism. This can cause serious issues since B vitamins are essential for everything from energy metabolism, preventing cravings to managing anxiety and cognition.
If you do supplement with BCAAs or are taking huge doses in preparation for an event, just make sure to get plenty of vitamin B rich foods (spinach, broccoli, beets, bell peppers, oranges).
Also, as I mentioned, BCAAs can help prevent serotonin from being created which can help during your workout to prevent your brain from telling your body it is fatigued.
HOWEVER, low serotonin levels can lead to depression, poor moods and even affect your sleep.
This is important to note if your diet is already high in protein AND low in carbs. You may not want to add a BCAA supplement to the mix.
This problem can be avoided though even simply by timing more carbs before bed, but it is something to watch for if considering adding BCAAs to your diet.
And just remember BCAAs DO NOT replace protein.
So…Should YOU Use It?
I think if muscle building and maintenance is your main goal, they are worth a shot, especially if you are a hard gainer or training intensely while in a deficit. So when you’re working to lose those last few pounds, this could be the extra push you need, especially if you’ve hit a plateau.
They may also be helpful if you plan to compete in a physique show and are having trouble getting down to very low levels of body fat.
BCAAs may also be something to look into for your distance runners and cyclists. If you are a runner upping your miles that wants to prevent muscle loss with the increase in steady-state cardio, they could be a good way to prevent muscle catabolism.
They can also aid recovery and help prevent fatigue which may help you improve your training for a specific event.
They can also be great if you are doing fasted weight training, and not first thing in the morning, and want to make sure to protect your lean muscle and even increase your gains. The key with this though is to get UNFLAVORED BCAAs to maybe add to your water or coffee.
If you plan to supplement with BCAAs, you will probably want to consume them right prior to and DURING your training.
If you are just starting your weight loss journey though, they aren’t necessary as you can meet your needs with your protein intake from whole, natural foods and even maybe a protein supplement alone.
(The only caveat to this is if you haven’t been training AT ALL, and are jumping back in, they have been shown to be helpful for reducing muscle soreness and speeding recovery in untrained individuals.)
We always want to first focus on meeting your needs with dialing in our overall diet.
BCAAs may just help us reach that next level if we’ve had everything dialed in for awhile!
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Further reading on BCAA supplementation: