Go on any health or body-building site and you'll read about “branched chain amino acids" (BCAAs). They're a sports supplement used by many and touted as a required supplement in your "stack”.
But what are BCAAs? Do they work? Should you buy them?
Before we get into BCAAs specifically, it's important to understand what amino acids (AA) are. They are the building blocks for basically everything in our bodies. If you think that sounds a lot like protein, you’d be right. That's because amino acids are protein - protein is just a bunch of AA attached to each other. In general there are two types of amino acids, non-essential and essential. Our bodies make non-essential amino acids on its own, whereas essential amino acids are required in our diets. Of the essential amino acids, there are 3 that have a branched structure - these are the BCAAs.
BCAAs have received a lot of attention in the medical, health, and fitness industries over the years.
It started with the observation that the three BCAAs are mainly metabolized in the muscle tissue, not the liver like the other AA. This got researchers interested in determining what role they play in muscle function. Eventually, the BCAA leucine was found to have a stimulating effect on muscle protein synthesis, or in other words, it is a direct signal for your muscle to grow.
Of course this mechanism is of huge interest to the health and fitness industry, but is there any evidence to back it up?
Unfortunately, not much.
When you compare BCAA to placebo use after exercise, you do see a benefit in terms of muscle soreness, recovery time, and muscle performance [1, 2]. This does make sense, since its compared to doing nothing. Once you compare them to doing something else, like a carbohydrate or protein for example, you see there is actually no difference [3,  . Which also makes sense.
The lack of strong scientific support for an additive effect of BCAA to a regular healthy exercise routine is not surprising. You get all the amino acids you need (branched and other essentials) from a healthy diet and supplementing with a protein if you choose.
The biggest claim to fame for BCAA is that they stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). The secret to MPS is keeping yourself fed so you have the substrates for building. Leucine signalling alone is not enough to build muscle, you need all of the other amino acids along with the signal. Again, a real food source of protein is better.
If you have ever tried an unflavoured BCAA you’ll know it's unpalatably bitter. That's why most of the BCAA supplements on the market are heavily flavoured, coloured, and sweetened.
Overall, BCAA's are not as an important for your exercise, fitness, or health routine as many people think. You'd be better off putting the money you spend on BCAAs into high quality food or protein powder.
If you have any questions about how to reach your full potential, don't hesitate to contact me, book an appointment, or stop by the clinic.
Thanks for reading,