If your fitness goals are to build muscle and improve your performance, BCAA supplements may be on your radar. BCAAs, or “Branched Chain Amino Acids”, are one of the most popular nutritional supplements in the sports world due to their claimed benefits. Athletes, especially bodybuilders and strength trainers, usually pay close attention to their amino acid consumption. Some athletes take BCAA supplements specifically to maintain muscle protein balance. Understanding the facts about amino acids and BCAA and their effects on your body can help you organize your nutrition. Read on for the most popular questions such as What is BCAA? and What does BCAA do?
What is BCAA?
BCAA (Branched-chain amino acid) is an abbreviated form of BCAA and stands for “Branched Chain Amino Acid”. Branched-chain amino acids are a special group of three amino acids.
BCAAs make up approximately 35-40% of the body’s protein stores. Amino acids, the building blocks of life, are molecules that come together to form proteins. Proteins provide the basic structural components of the brain, nervous system, blood, skin, hair, and especially muscles. They are also essential for acid-base and fluid balance in the body. The human body needs amino acids to perform various tasks. Breaking down food, promoting muscle growth, and repairing muscles are the main functions of amino acids.
Of the 20 amino acids needed by the human body, 11 are produced in the body. The remaining nine must be taken from external sources through food. These amino acids are called essential amino acids because they are taken through food. This group includes “leucine, isoleucine, and valine It is called BCAA.
- Leucine: Used in protein synthesis and tissue regeneration in the body.
- Isoleucine: Isoleucine helps wound healing, supports the immune system, and is involved in the production of many hormones.
- Valine: It has a special role in muscle protein synthesis, repairing tissues, and supporting energy levels.
All essential amino acids play a vital role in the process of protein production and muscle building. However, BCAAs have a unique molecular structure that makes them more beneficial for the body’s muscular system. Approximately 50% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein are composed of BCAAs. Most amino acid catabolism (breakdown) occurs in the liver. However, the situation is different for BCAA. The catabolism of leucine, isoleucine, and valine takes place in skeletal muscles. This allows for a more targeted effect on the muscles. Unlike other essential amino acids, it serves as an excellent source of energy for muscles during exercise.
What does BCAA do?
Thanks to its amino acids, mainly leucine, but also valine and isoleucine, BCAA can reduce muscle breakdown and accelerate muscle recovery, thus indirectly contributing to muscle growth; it can also reduce muscle fatigue and prepare athletes for the next physical activity faster. In addition to the effects on muscle growth, some studies have shown that BCAA use also has positive effects on the liver.
BCAA supplements are available as ready-to-use protein powders and pills. The standard formulation for products is two or three grams of leucine for every gram of isoleucine and valine (2:1:1). Although some products contain many times more leucine, there is no conclusive evidence that this works better than the “standard” ratios. Although pills are not as easily digested as their powdered counterparts mixed in water, they are a preferred form of BCAA consumption.
There are numerous BCAA supplements with customized formulas for different purposes. From pills containing only high doses of BCAAs to enriched alternatives formulated for those who don’t want to add other supplements or more calories to their diet, the BCAA market offers endless product options. In addition to BCAA, many products may contain ergogenic aids or ingredients linked to improved performance, such as citrulline (related to increased circulation), beta-alanine (endurance), and caffeine (explosive power). Some products are formulated with ingredients that may have lipolytic or fat-burning effects. Although you don’t need to use BCAA supplements if you consume enough protein, they can be used in addition to daily consumption to increase muscle protein synthesis between meals, support performance when hungry, and protect muscles.
When to Use BCAA?
BCAA supplements can be consumed before, during, or after exercise.
It is common among athletes to consume BCAAs before and immediately after training. During intense workouts, especially strength training that lasts for more than an hour, you can see athletes consuming BCAAs even on the go. Another popular use of BCAA supplements is when an athlete is exercising on an empty stomach or when they don’t get quality protein with their meals. It’s also common for some athletes who want to build muscle quickly to take supplements in the morning and before going to bed.
What are the Benefits and Harms of BCAA?
While supplement brands claim that BCAAs help improve athletic performance, contribute to muscle growth, and generally facilitate recovery after activity, there is research to the contrary. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, which provides up-to-date scientific information on nutritional supplements unfortunately, there is little evidence to support the brands’ claims.
BCAAs are often consumed to build muscle. While it is well known that proteins are essential for building muscle, it is not clear whether BCAAs provide more benefits than other essential amino acids. According to a study published in Frontiers in Physiology taking BCAAs after resistance training helps to increase muscle growth. On the other hand, since this study was conducted with only 11 healthy young male volunteers, the results are not far-reaching.
Muscle soreness is a common side effect after an intense workout. In many cases, pain can be a sign that your muscles are responding to your training. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur within 24 to 48 hours after a strenuous workout. It can hinder performance, especially when it is severe. BCAA supplements can be useful to enhance muscle recovery and reduce DOMS after strenuous workouts. There is some evidence to suggest that BCAA supplements are better than passive rest after tough workouts. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics taking BCAA supplements before exercise helps to increase endurance by reducing serotonin levels in the blood. Serotonin is a chemical believed to play a role in the fatigue that occurs during long aerobic workouts. Also, according to another review published in 2017, while BCAA benefits muscle growth, the effect is limited when it comes to damage.
When it comes to the harms of BCAA, the risks are usually assessed based on the amount consumed and current health conditions. According to the ODS, you can take up to 20 grams of BCAA supplements per day. However, BCAA supplements can be extremely harmful to some people. For example, those suffering from Maple Syrup urine disease, a rare metabolic disorder, are not recommended to take BCAA supplements as they can be inconvenient. People with MSUD may not produce enough of the enzymes needed to break down BCAA. Lacking the enzymes needed for protein metabolism can lead to serious problems with toxic levels of amino acids accumulating in the blood. BCAA can also cause increased blood sugar levels during and after surgery. Cancer patients, alcohol drinkers, pregnant women, and nursing mothers are advised to be careful with BCAA supplements.
What Foods Are High in BCAA?
Although most adults consume adequate amounts of protein, they may not be able to choose food sources that provide all the necessary amino acids. In such a situation, supplements may come to mind. But do you really need to take BCAA supplements? According to experts, the answer is no, as long as you consume the right foods in the right amounts. When you consume foods with amino acids, you can also benefit from the other components that the food provides. You can also have the confidence of knowing exactly what you’re consuming. Here are the main foods that naturally increase your BCAA intake:
- Meat, poultry, fish, eggs
- Beans, lentils, quinoa, brown rice, chickpeas
- Cheese, yogurt, milk
- Whey protein
- Tofu and tempeh
- Nuts and other oilseeds
Although most protein-containing foods contain BCAAs, some foods are richer in BCAAs than others. Some of the foods with the highest BCAA content are beef, lamb, cheese, milk, and yogurt. You can also enjoy BCAA benefits by adding complete proteins such as whey protein to your healthy and balanced diet.
While nutritionists agree that natural foods are the best way to consume BCAAs, it’s important to remember that you need all essential amino acids to build muscle, not just BCAAs. Most complete proteins come from animal products. If you follow a vegetarian diet, you can also find plant-based proteins. They contain BCAAs, such as beans, lentils, nuts, and soy products. However, plant foods contain fewer BCAAs than animal products.
Building and maintaining muscle requires a positive muscle/protein balance. According to experts, getting 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein for every pound of body weight can help you achieve the ideal balance. On the other hand, strength trainers may need more protein. Most athletes consume at least 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for muscle/protein balance. Adding protein to your daily meals is easier than you think. For example, you can make oatmeal with milk. Or you can add chicken, beans, nuts, boiled eggs, or low-fat yogurt to your salad.
Rest and recovery are very important parts of the training routine for athletes of all levels, whether amateur or professional. Resting between workouts gives the metabolism the time it needs to repair and strengthen muscles. The secret to being in tune with your body, both mentally and physically, is quite simple: Proper nutrition, rehydration, and adequate sleep.
When it comes to popular supplements such as BCAAs, whose benefits have not been conclusively demonstrated by scientific research, it is advisable to be aware and cautious. While BCAA supplements may have some benefits, their efficacy in light of scientific data is very limited. There is inconsistent evidence on the effectiveness of branched-chain amino acids for athletic performance. Many studies suggest that BCAA supplements do not improve exercise or athletic performance. According to some studies, regular consumption can reduce exercise-related fatigue and muscle soreness.
Although BCAA supplementation is widely recognized as an effective method to achieve optimal muscle growth, simply consuming supplements won’t make your muscles grow stronger and gain size. You need to follow a comprehensive plan for training and nutrition. Adding BCAA supplements to a comprehensive strength training and nutrition program is one method that can help improve the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle growth. If you are considering supplementing your diet with BCAAs, it is recommended that you consult with your nutritionist to decide which product and dose amount is right for you.
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