More research has been emerging on the many benefits of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and most of the news is good. BCAAs are important amino acids and are the main drivers for promoting protein synthesis. There are several BCAAs, but of particular interest are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are also three of the essential amino acids (EAAs), meaning we need to get them from our food, as we don’t manufacture them ourselves. And using them appropriately will give you the advantage you need, especially if you plan on stepping onto the physique stage.
One issue that most competitors, or anyone trying to get lean for that matter, face is that as you lean out, you lose muscle mass. And unfortunately, it’s much more muscle mass than you think. In fact, some research has shown that for every pound of weight you lose, up to 55 percent of that weight can be from muscle. This leaves you depleted and flat, which spells disaster for a competition. When it comes to improving body composition, this is the biggest challenge to overcome. But it can be done, and this is where BCAAs can help.
BCAAs are like superfriends to your muscles. They constantly come to the rescue of your lean tissue. One way they work is through gluconeogenesis, which is the formation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. It typically doesn’t occur until you’re low on glucose, which is pretty common when you’re cutting carbs in an effort to get lean. Gluconeogenesis uses quite a bit of protein and a little fat to create glucose to fuel your muscles. And guess where it usually gets the protein? By cannibalizing your muscles. The good news is, adding BCAAs to your daily routine can attenuate those low-carb losses. BCAAs have the ability to donate their amine group to pyruvate to form alanine, which is the most important gluconeogenic amino acid and can freely travel to the liver to aid in gluconeogenesis; this saves your muscle from being broken down for the same process to occur. Pyruvate tends to accumulate in the muscle because of reduced oxidative metabolism, which can be a consequence of carb depletion.
BCAAs also promote muscle growth by stimulating protein synthesis. It’s been shown that consuming the three BCAAs can stimulate protein synthesis to the same degree as consuming all nine EAAs. Further research has shown that leucine is the main player in directly stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Now, before you simply take a bunch of leucine, you should know that the other two BCAAs play important supporting roles. For instance, taking leucine without valine and isoleucine can reduce the duration of protein synthesis. Scientists are still exploring the complex relationship between the three BCAAs, but all information points to the superiority of taking all three rather than just leucine. A slew of studies point to the potency of BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio for leucine, isoleucine, and valine, respectively, with a dose of at least two to three grams of leucine.
Fortunately, there are numerous times when you can ingest BCAAs. Before and during fasted cardio is a good time to consume BCAAs. They appear rapidly in the bloodstream after ingestion, so they can help protect that muscle tissue. Even after vigorous exercise, consumption of BCAAs is recommended. Intense exercise, both endurance and resistance, can lead to a negative protein balance. Consuming protein with sufficient leucine can shift you to a positive protein balance after intense exercise. One underutilized use of BCAAs is between meals. When ingested between meals, BCAAs extend protein synthesis. Currently, it is recommended to alternate meals of 25 to 35 grams of whole-food protein sources with snacks that contain BCAAs and carbs due to improvement in protein balance in a 24-hour period. The amounts of carbs you add will depend on your energy needs, as some of you may need fewer carbs if you’re trying to lose body fat.
BCAAs Versus Protein
Whey protein is loaded with BCAAs, but sometimes it’s more beneficial to take a BCAA supplement instead of protein and vice versa. So when is that the case? If you’re trying to keep your plasma insulin concentrations low—such as during fasted cardio—then your best bet is to go the BCAA route. (BCAA formulations are typically non-caloric, another reason why they are so useful while cutting.) Protein, especially hydrolyzed whey protein, can instigate a surprisingly robust insulin response, leading to greater glycogen replenishment. But when you’re already carb depleted, you don’t really have any glycogen to spare, so it’s better to keep those insulin levels low.
Also, as I indicated earlier, BCAAs are absorbed quickly. However, when you’re consuming protein, the BCAAs are bound to other amino acids causing slower digestion and absorption of them. Therefore, if you’re trying to benefit from BCAAs intra-workout, post-workout, or during fasted cardio (another instance when you might want to keep insulin levels low by choosing BCAAs over protein), it’s better to simply consume BCAAs in the free-form rather than trying to get them from protein.
BCAAs And Your Immune System
It’s well known that intense exercise leads to a depressed immune system for several hours after after the workout and that repeated bouts in a single day can be even more detrimental. The depression leads to an increased risk of infection (getting sick), which can wreak havoc with stepping onstage or competing in that event you’ve had your eye on (not to mention family and work obligations). However, supplementation with BCAAs has been shown to prevent the suppression of the immune system following intense exercise by increasing glutamine concentrations and improving immune system function. In fact, BCAAs have been used as a supplement with many different clinical patients, as they have an added benefit while trying to recover from different disease states.
BCAAs And Fatigue
Fatigue, both genuine and perceived, can slow you down and prevent those gains you’re chasing. We usually get our boost through caffeine or a pre-workout that leaves us feeling invincible. However, BCAAs are also capable of doing the same thing without the jittery feeling or increasing caffeine insensitivity. Researchers have determined that BCAAs reduce mental fatigue during exercise and improve physical performance. It’s thought that BCAAs actually compete with tryptophan when entering the brain. Tryptophan is believed to increase serotonin and lead to the feeling of tiredness. However, because BCAAs compete for receptors with tryptophan, they can lead to lower serotonin levels in the brain and decreased feelings of fatigue. This is still somewhat debated, but the mechanism is plausible.
Bottom line, a solid BCAA formula is one supplement you want to have on your side—and in your water bottle. The benefits of BCAAs extend past muscle protein synthesis and can help combat adverse side effects of intense exercise, such as muscle soreness, inflammation, and even reduced testosterone production. Their rapid entry into the blood-stream makes them a key player in preventing muscle breakdown during fasted cardio, and their ability to help prevent the depression of the immune system can keep you in the gym on a consistent basis, which is the very foundation of progress. Keep them handy. You’ll thank me later.
By Jenevieve Roper, PhD (ABD)