Breaking down the basics of branched-chain amino acids
You may have heard talk in certain fitness circles about branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—praised for their ability to aid in recovery after workouts and enhance athletic performance. But what are they? Should you be adding a BCAA supplement to your routine? Or can you get enough naturally? Before you make any decisions, go back to the BCAA basics; here are 10 things you should know about BCAAs.
Getting their name from their “branched” molecular structure, there are three types of BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. This trio makes up three of your body’s nine essential amino acids—called so because your body needs them to function, but can’t produce them on its own. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, but while most amino acids are broken down in your liver, BCAAs are largely broken down in your muscles.
BCAAs can aid in reducing the muscle soreness you may feel after a workout. Known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), you may know the feeling best two or three days after a particularly hard workout. Research has shown that BCAAs, especially when ingested prior to working out, can help suppress DOMS Check out this pre- and mid-workout nutrition guide for more tips on what to eat—and when—to support your fitness goals.
Evidence suggests BCAAs can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis after strength training. However, findings suggest that in order to do this effectively, a balance of other essential amino acids must also be present. This means that not only is adequate protein intake required for muscle growth, but also a balanced amino acid mix among those sources of protein. These Protein Power Cookies are a great example of a muscle-supporting, protein-packed snack with a diversified amino acid mix.
Studies have found that BCAAs can help enhance athletic performance by reducing exercise fatigue. The reason for this benefit has been linked to BCAAs’ ability to lower serotonin levels and interfere with tryptophan absorption—two chemicals that work to make you feel more tired during your workout. If you’d like to know more about the ins and outs of BCAAs and other supplements that could help to boost your athletic performance, check out these five that could help you conquer new peaks.
Studies have shown that BCAAs help protect the liver of those who eat high-fat diets by providing support to gut flora that prevent fat accumulation in the liver. Further, BCAA supplementation has been shown to provide beneficial effects in those with advanced cirrhosis, a severe liver disease. You can help protect your liver health with these useful tips.
BCAA supplementation in those with low BCAA levels has been shown to help reduce low appetite and significantly improve overall nutrition. However, BCAA levels that are too high have been linked to obesity—so it’s important ensure you’re getting a balance of required amino acids. This can be done by eating a healthy diet that features a variety of protein sources, including complete protein sources like quinoa.
Muscle wasting is the reduction in skeletal muscle, which is brought on by a number of causes including disuse (think about if you’ve ever been injured and were unable to bear weight on certain muscles or perhaps were even put on bedrest). BCAAs can help slow this muscle-wasting process. Separate studies have shown that BCAAs can provide beneficial effects to slow or prevent muscle wasting in a range of cases, including those involving cancer, advanced liver disease, and kidney damage, as well as cases brought on by cigarette smoking.
Adequate intake of BCAAs has been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety and depression, and an improved stress response. In fact, one study showed that subjects with severe depression showed decreased BCAAs in their systems, suggesting that a low level of BCAAs could play a role in depression symptoms and low energy metabolism. All the more reason to eat a balanced diet with a variety of healthy protein sources and talk to your health care practitioner if you think you could benefit from a supplemental BCAA boost.
If your body doesn’t produce BCAAs, then where can you get them? BCAAs are found in protein-rich plant and animal sources. In addition to beef, chicken, fish, eggs, and milk, you can get BCAAs from corn, soy, beans, chickpeas, lentils, whole wheat, brown rice, almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. It’s recommended that adults get about 7 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight each day. Eating a variety of dietary protein sources will provide you with BCAAs, as well as the other essential amino acids.
If you are eating a balanced diet—especially one with adequate protein—you’re likely already getting enough BCAAs. Still, there are reasons that you may want to add a BCAA supplement to your routine. If you and your health care practitioner determine that a BCAA supplement could provide needed support, you’ll find them most commonly in the form of powders, tablets, or capsules, making them easy to include in a morning smoothie or simply take as a pill alongside a meal.