Diet and Nutrition

What Are BCAAs?

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

What are BCAAs?

The term BCAA is short for branched-chain amino acid. The human body is made up of different proteins, which contain amino acids. There are 20 amino acids and nine of them are considered essential amino acids, which you can get through your diet because your body cannot make them. 

Three of these nine essential amino acids are BCAAs, and they are isoleucine, leucine, and valine. The amino acids are found in eggs, dairy products, meat, and other protein-rich food. They can also be taken as dietary supplements in powdered form. These supplements are often taken to enhance exercise performance and boost muscle growth. BCAA supplements may also help minimize fatigue after exercise as well as losing weight. 

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The Role of BCAAs

Approximately 35-40 percent of essential amino acids in the body are BCAAs. Around 14-18 percent of them are found in the muscles. 

Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs are usually broken down in your muscles instead in your liver. For this reason, BCAAs are said to have a role in the production of energy during exercise. Other roles of BCAAs in the body include:

  • Building blocks of muscles and proteins
  • Regulate blood sugar levels
  • Reduce serotonin production in the brain during exercise to minimize fatigue

Isoleucine and valine tend to be more effective when it comes to energy production and regulation of blood sugar levels, while leucine helps in building muscle proteins. 

Excellent Sources of BCAAs

All foods that contain protein have BCAAs. However, the richest sources of BCAAs are dairy products and red meat. Some examples are milk, cheese, yogurt, beef, goat, lamb, and bison. Other great sources of BCAA are eggs, fish, and chicken, including nuts, beans, lentils, and soy protein. 

Females may consume at least 46 grams of protein in their daily diet, while men may consume at least 56 grams of protein every day. 

Supplementation using BCAAs in athletes is also common as these supplements can help improve athletic performance and muscle recovery. Whether you're an athlete or a health enthusiast, make sure to consult your healthcare provider before taking any BCAA supplements. 

The Health Benefits of BCAAs

1. Enhance muscle growth

BCAAs are often popular when it comes to enhancing muscle growth. The essential amino acid called leucine activates a specific pathway in the human body that can trigger the growth of muscles through protein synthesis. For this reason, many people purchase BCAA supplements in the hope of increasing their muscle mass. 

According to research, BCAAs help in the activation of key enzymes that are responsible for muscle growth (1). Other studies have also shown that BCAAs, particularly if they have a higher leucine content than valine and isoleucine, may be effective in building muscle mass (2). However, there is still no proof that getting BCAAs from supplements is better than getting BCAAs from one's diet or other sources, such as soy protein or whey. Whey protein also contains essential amino acids that are needed for muscle growth. 

2. Reduce liver disease complications 

An example of a liver disease complication is hepatic encephalopathy. This syndrome is usually observed in people who have cirrhosis. In hepatic encephalopathy, patients tend to show symptoms of loss of brain function due to the liver's inability to eliminate toxins from the blood. 

A systematic review also suggests that taking BCAA supplements may be better than taking other types of supplements when it comes to reducing the severity of hepatic encephalopathy. However, taking BCAAs may not also guarantee the absence of the risk of other complications, such as gastric bleeding and infections (3). 

Another review also suggests that BCAA supplementation may help improve the liver function of patients who are undergoing hepatic (liver) surgery. Taking BCAAs may also help reduce the length of a patient's stay in the hospital, the risk of developing complications, and the burden of other medical care costs (4). 

3. Prevent the loss or breakdown of muscle tissue (muscle wasting)

Taking BCAAs can help prevent the loss of muscle tissue. When the breakdown of protein is greater than the muscle protein synthesis, muscle wasting occurs. 

Muscle wasting usually happens when there is not enough physical activity, particularly when certain injuries or diseases can make it quite difficult to move. A common symptom in people who have muscle atrophy is the appearance of a smaller arm than the other arm. Muscle wasting can also be a normal part of the aging process, a sign of malnutrition, chronic medical conditions, or cancer. 

Around 35 percent of essential amino acids in human muscle proteins are BCAAs, which also account for 40 percent of the amino acids needed by the body. For this reason, other essential amino acids and BCAAs must be replenished to help slow down the progression of muscle wasting. 

4. Reduce muscle soreness and muscle fatigue

It is normal to feel sore after executing a new exercise or workout routine. Muscle pain or soreness is also referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which usually occur within 12-24 hours after exercising. However, according to some studies, taking BCAAs can help reduce muscle fatigue and the severity of DOMS (5). 

5. Maintain normal levels of blood sugar

Isoleucine and leucine are believed to increase the secretion of insulin, which causes the muscles to take more sugar from the blood and cause the blood sugar levels to decrease (6, 7). However, most studies regarding this benefit were performed on animals. For this reason, the results may not be completely applicable to humans. 

Although more studies are still required to confirm the effects of BCAAs on blood sugar regulation, early research studies suggest that consuming carbohydrates with protein/amino acid mixture may help improve insulin response, especially in people who have diabetes. 

The Bottom Line

People with the desire to have improved muscle growth and physical performance may benefit from taking BCAAs. However, taking BCAAs through supplements may not be necessary, especially if you include foods that are rich in protein in your daily diet.