It has become popular to bash BCAA supplements. The argument against BCAAs is that if you are eating enough protein, BCAAs won’t have an additive effect. However, there are many populations that have a hard time achieving the baseline dosage of protein and BCAA intake: The elderly, vegetarians, people on restrictive diets, people who don’t have the time to track macros of every meal, dialysis patients, people recovering from heart attacks, people practicing intermittent fasting, anyone recovering from an injury, and the list goes on.
This article will help you understand why BCAAs are such an important part of nutrition and give you situations when supplementation is warranted.
What Are BCAAs?
The acronym BCAAs stands for branched-chain amino acids. As their name suggests, BCAAs have a branched side chain that simplifies the body’s job of converting each amino acid into energy. There are three BCAAs: Leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are essential amino acids because the body is unable to make them out of other amino acids, meaning they must be ingested through food or supplements. In contrast, non-essential amino acids can be synthesized in the body out of other amino acids and don’t have to be ingested through food. One example is arginine, which is made from glutamine.
The BCAAs make up 35 percent of all muscle tissue. They stimulate protein synthesis, which is the mechanism by which your body builds muscle, repairs damaged tissue, and maintains tendons and ligaments.
BCAAs can also be used for energy in the muscle, which slows the breakdown of muscle cells, preventing catabolism or muscle loss. As you can imagine, this is a game changer for populations at risk of losing muscle: The elderly, people who are injured, individuals with a chronic disease, dieters, and endurance athletes to name a few.
BCAAs are found in the diet in foods containing protein. The highest concentrations are in chicken, beef, salmon, eggs, and whey protein. They are also available in supplement form, which can be useful because free form BCAAs bypass the liver and gut tissue and go directly to the blood stream to be used by muscle tissue.
Who Can Benefit From BCAAs?
We know that in order to maximize protein synthesis, young people need to train with weights and consume a threshold dose of at least 20 grams of high-quality protein about every 3 hours (including overnight) for a total baseline intake of at least 1.6 g/kg of body weight. It’s possible that a higher single dose or total intake are necessary, however the current evidence points to those numbers.
High-quality protein sources include the BCAA-rich ones listed above (chicken, beef, salmon, eggs, whey protein) as well as turkey and other forms of poultry, most seafood, all other meat, and many dairy products.
Interestingly, the population that probably will get the least benefit from BCAAs—male body builders who are consuming more than the necessary amount of protein to maximize protein synthesis—is the one that is using them the most. In contrast, surveys show that all of the following groups could benefit from upping their intake of BCAA containing foods and/or supplementing with BCAAs:
Older Adults: As you age, protein synthesis rates decline, both in response to consuming protein foods and to strength training. Creating a muscle building environment can help prevent muscle loss as the years go by. Studies haven’t nailed down the exact formula necessary for maximal protein synthesis in older adults, but the evidence suggests that a minimum of 15 grams of essential amino acids could be sufficient to maximally stimulate protein synthesis. This translates to 35 grams of high-quality protein per meal. A daily intake of up to 1.8 g/kg is recommended for healthy adults, with servings spaced out evenly over the course of the day. Higher intakes may be useful for athletes or older adults with a heavy training volume.
Vegetarians: Plant-based protein sources are less efficient than animal-derived protein because they lack certain essential amino acids (EAAs). Vegetarians will be hard pressed to get optimal levels of the BCAA leucine, which is a powerful stimulator of protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables like watercress do contain leucine but the concentration pales in comparison to whey protein or eggs. Simply put, vegetarians need to bump up their total daily protein intake, and if maintaining lean mass is a goal, find a supplemental source of leucine. Vegetarian-sourced BCAAs are available to meet this need.
When Intermittent Fasting: The last thing you want when intermittent fasting is for your body to start breaking down muscle to create glucose. This is exactly what happens when you haven’t eating for a while. The effect appears to be greatest during exercise when your body is starving for glucose, whereas at rest, you’re able to derive more energy from fat burning. BCAA supplementation can solve this problem: One study found that supplementing with BCAAs can prevent muscle breakdown during intense strength training. By the same vein, BCAA supplements can help prevent muscle loss during long duration exercise when you can’t stop to eat a real meal.
Recovering From An Injury: When you’re laid up due to an injury, you might think that because you’re not thrashing your muscles, you don’t need as much protein. Wrong! The fact that you’re not stimulating the muscle with regular training means you’ll automatically be in a catabolic state with your body actively breaking down tissue.
Increasing your intake of amino acids will minimize muscle loss, while supplying the body with the building blocks necessary to repair damaged tissue. Supplementing with BCAAs is one way to do this: A rodent study found that giving BCAAs to rats that had their hind-limbs immobilized for six days helped preserve protein synthesis and reduce muscle atrophy. The BCAA-fed rats also had lower body fat levels compared to a control group following mobilization.
Endurance Athletes: Using BCAAs will preserve muscle mass during long-duration exercise but they are also an effective way to test your performance limits by helping your body burn fuel more efficiently. Studies show BCAAs can be used to maintain levels of ATP (the energy currency in the body) during exhaustive exercise that depletes glycogen (carb stores in the muscle). BCAAs also prevent central fatigue of the nervous system to avoid that point in a killer exercise trial when the brain tells you “I’m done.”
Anyone Who Wants To Reduce Muscle Soreness: We can all agree that serious muscle soreness is a big ol’ pain in the gluteus maximus and BCAAs are one way to reduce the severe DOMS that comes from heavy training. Supplementing with BCAAs during training may lead to less muscle breakdown, while stimulating protein synthesis in the post-workout recovery period. Studies show that BCAAs can reduce soreness in both untrained (who suffer the most severe soreness) and trained subjects, while reducing the strength loss that comes from muscle damaging training.
Women: Surveys show that women are at greater risk of consuming insufficient protein than men. Female athletes, who have higher protein needs than sedentary women, may be particularly at risk. It’s commonly believed that female athletes don’t require as much protein as male athletes. In fact, women have decreased protein synthesis rates after exercise, which suggests they may need more protein after muscle-damaging training. BCAAs are one way to bump up the available amino acid pool for better body composition and recovery.
Chronic Disease Patients: BCAAs are used in medicine to treat liver disease, reduce mortality risk with cancer, protect heart failure patients, and improve the outcome for dialysis patients with kidney disease. The mechanism appears to be two-fold: BCAAs improve energy metabolism while also preserving muscle mass—a primary indicator of survival from disease. When suffering from disease, the body is in a catabolic state, and supplementing with BCAAS can slow the loss of lean tissue that keeps us alive.
Final Words: BCAAs are a valuable tool, not a panacea to solve all your problems. Use them when you need them, focusing the rest of your nutrition on the tastiest food from the highest quality sources.