So, what’s so great about BCAAs? Picture yourself as one of the millions of sports nutrition consumers who have walked into a Vitamin Shoppe store or who has shopped on Amazon.com and been overwhelmed by the endless number of products intended to help you reach their fitness goals. From energy drinks and pre-workouts, to diet and keto supplements, to vitamins and beyond, there’s literally hundreds of thousands of pills and powders available that it can often be overwhelming. In this sea of vitamins and supplements, you’ll see that amino acids, specifically branched-chain amino acids (also known as BCAAs), is one of the largest categories available.
UNDERSTANDING WHERE AMINO ACIDS FIT IN THE FOOD CHAIN
Before we jump down the BCAA wormhole, it is important to put context to the broader amino acid category, all the way from complete proteins down to individual amino acids. At the simplest level, anyone who can remember high school science class (or use Google) will be able to provide the default definition that amino acids “are the building blocks of proteins.”
While that sounds great and is 100% correct, what does it mean? I look at the definition like this, there are three major “macronutrient” categories: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Within these macronutrient categories there are plenty of levels to drill down into. For example, people generally understand that carbs can be simple sugars or complex carbohydrates; the same is true for protein. You can look at protein as a whole or as individual amino acids, hence “the building blocks of protein” definition.
In published research found on thoughtco.com, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., offers a typical technical definition of amino acids:
An organic compound characterized by having a carboxyl group, amino group, and side-chain attached to a central carbon atom. Amino acids are used as precursors for other molecules in the body. Linking amino acids together forms polypeptides, which may become proteins.
For those of us who aren’t Ph.Ds, I would translate that to mean that aminos are the smallest and most basic compounds found in all living things, from microbes to humans; therefore, amino acids are found in the foods that we eat.
I also want to mention that outside of the food/dietary contest on which this blog focuses, amino acids are used to build a variety of molecules essential for life; for instance, amino acids are used as neurotransmitters and lipid transports. Amino acids are so abundant and important to the human body that they only come second to water but you will have to read about that in a blog from someone else because I’m not capable of understanding the technical chemistry stuff.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE AMINOS?
Now that we have some context on what amino acids are, things get a lot easier to understand. Remembering that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, it is important to understand that the difference between essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. In total, there are twenty amino acids; we typically get all of them in our diet and some are even made by the body, but a few are not…
• 11 of the 20 amino acids are known as “non-essential” because they can be synthesized by the body (as in made from stuff already floating around in our bellies). These aminos include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
• The other nine of the 20 amino acids cannot be synthesized in our bodies and we need to make sure to consume them through our diets; accordingly, this set of aminos are called “essential.” These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
For the most part, if you are following a specific or limited nutrition plan, you will get all the essential aminos you need from the protein in the food you eat. It is important to note, however, that some foods are known as having “incomplete proteins” because they do not contain all 20 amino acids. This is a particular challenge for vegetarians since most vegetable proteins often fall into this category. This issue can be easily managed and evaded by combining two different protein sources together; for instance, you could combine beans with rice. This combo would give you all the 20 aminos your body needs to function.
Now I will drill down a level deeper and speak to you about branched-chain aminos specifically. The three aminos that are known as branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Back in the day, when I first started getting into supplements and nutrition, my first question was what the heck does “branched-chain” even mean? The clearest technical definition I found was on PubMed, stating that a BCAA is “an amino acid having an aliphatic side-chain with a branch (a central carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms).” Basically, the phrase “branched-chain” refers to the chimerical structure of these three aminos. This is good to know but it does not really shed much light on the performance benefits of this special group of amino acids.
BOOST PERFORMANCE, LEAN MUSCLE BUILDING, & RECOVERY
As said above, the first and most obvious reason why athletes love BCAAs goes back to the fact that they are part of the essential amino group and cannot be formed in our bodies. When you really get into it, BCAAs’ real superpowers are the ability to dominate in the metabolic process of muscle protein synthesis.
I am going to try to explain muscle protein synthesis in my own words so please pardon some broad strokes. Through the stress of exercise, muscles are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. The breaking down part comes from your body pulling the amino acids out of the muscle protein and using (or synthesizing) them for energy or some other metabolic function. The process of synthesizing proteins back into the muscle for repair and rebuilding is where athletes make gains because theoretically, the muscles are going to build back a little stronger each time, and BCAAs play a crucial role in all this.
After a long run, hard WOD, or killer workout, you are probably going to be sore. Sometimes people refer to this as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is that feeling you get in the days after your workout, where your muscles are fatigued and in recovery mode. Whatever you call it, you know you need to recover from the workout, rebuild the muscles, and if all goes according to plan, come back better! Numerous studies have shown that BCAAs, particularly leucine, are the most important dietary requirement in sparking repair. There are dozens of studies proving this, including the Front Physiol study from 2017 where participants who consumed a BCAA drink with ~5g of BCAAs saw a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis (meaning faster and stronger recovery).
Complementing this, several other studies, including one by Am J Physiol in 1994, have shown that supplementing with BCAAs may also help reduce the amount of protein breaking down during exercise. Studies from Alexandre Fouré and David Bendahan, along with a 2013 international study in the Journal J Exerc Nutrition Bioche, led to the conclusion that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise may speed up recovery times.
In sifting through a wealth of studies and articles online, I found endless articles showing that BCAAs may have performance boosting benefits for runners, soccer players, football players, cyclists, cross-fitters, bodybuilders, and powerlifters. All of this research really showed that BCAAs brought value to athletes from all parts of the fitness spectrum; I must say, I was really blown away by the amount of research available on branched-chain amino acids.
Another interesting thing about BCAAs that I noticed when doing my research for this blog is the amount of research regarding BCAAs and weight loss. To sum up all the stuff I read, there’s general support that BCAAs aid in weight loss. Most articles attribute this to the fact that supplementing with BCAAs helped curb hunger for people on a calorie restricted diet. There were also articles showing that BCAAs helped women lose weight, but those were often “in conjunction with an exercise program.” It seems to me that since BCAAs deliver a negligible amount of calories while also helping with physical performance, muscle function, and gut satiety, that they are a logical inclusion in a weight loss plan for both men and women.
NOW YOU KNOW!
"No pain, no gain" is one of the best fitness clichés ever stated. Yes, strenuous exercise leaves a person feeling sore but science has learned that recovering from that soreness (or the “pain") is what's going to add pounds to your bench press, and/or take a few seconds off your time in a 5K. Protein and the amno acids it contains, specifically the three branched-chain aminos, light the fuse for the recovery part of that equation and get you back in the gym, or on the track, ready to race into the next round of gains.
- CEO Chris Mackenzie