There are 20 different amino acids that make up the thousands of proteins in your body. Now nine of those 20 are considered essential amino acids, meaning that your body cannot produce them, we have to get them from our diet. Now of those nine essential amino acids, three of them are branched-chain amino acids, or BCAA, and in this article we’re looking at some of their health benefits of BCAA.
So branched-chain refers to the chemical structure of branched-chain amino acids, which are found in protein-rich foods like eggs, meat, and dairy. They’re also a very popular dietary supplement typically sold in powder form. So what are they good for? Well, number one is increased muscle growth.
Increased Muscle Growth.
This is one of the most popular uses of branched-chain amino acids. Now, in particular, there’s one amino acid called leucine, which activates certain pathways in the body that promote muscle protein synthesis, or the building of new muscle.
In one study, people who consumed a drink with 5.6 grams of branched-chain amino acids, after their resistance workout, had a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis, compared to those who consumed a placebo drink. That being said, this increase in muscle protein synthesis is approximately 50% less than what was observed in other studies where people consumed a whey protein shake containing a similar amount of branched-chain amino acids.
So whey protein contains all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle. Therefore while branched-chain amino acids can help with muscle protein synthesis, they can’t do so to maximum effect without the other essential amino acids, which is what you get when you’re having a whey protein supplement or another type of complete protein.
Prevent Muscle Wasting.
So muscle proteins are constantly being broken down and then rebuilt, and rebuilding is called muscle protein synthesis. So muscle breakdown or wasting occurs when that breakdown is greater than the rebuilding, or synthesis of the muscle protein. So that’s why muscle wasting is a sign of malnutrition and occurs with chronic infections, cancer, periods of fasting, and as a natural part of the aging process.
Now in humans, branched-chain amino acids account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins. They account for 40% of the total amino acids required by your body. Therefore it’s important that branched-chain amino acids and the other amino acids are replaced during times of muscle wasting, to halt it or at least slow its progression. Several studies support the use of branched-chain amino acid supplements for inhibiting muscle protein breakdown. This may improve health outcomes and quality of living in certain populations such as the elderly and those with wasting diseases like cancer.
Decreased Muscle Soreness.
It’s not uncommon to feel sore a day or two or three after a workout, especially if it’s a new workout. This soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness. Or DOMS is the acronym. Which develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise, and can last up to 72 hours. While the exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood, researchers believe it’s a result of tiny tears in the muscles after exercise. Branched-chain amino acids have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which could then decrease the length and severity of DOMS. In one study, people who supplemented with branched-chain amino acids before a squat exercise experienced reduced DOMS and muscle fatigue compared to the placebo group. If you’re supplementing with branched-chain amino acids, especially before exercise, may speed up recovery time.
Reduce Exercise Fatigue.
Now just as it might help with reducing muscle soreness, branched-chain amino acids may help with reducing exercise-induced fatigue. Your muscles use branched-chain amino acids during exercise, causing levels in your blood to decrease. When blood levels of these branched-chain amino acids decline, levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increase. Now, in your brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, a brain chemical that is thought to contribute to the development of fatigue during exercise.
In two studies, participants who supplemented with branched-chain amino acids improved their mental focus during exercise, which is thought to result from the fatigue-reducing effects of branched-chain amino acids. However, this decrease in fatigue is unlikely to translate to improvements in exercise performance.
Foods are high in branched-chain amino acids. Branched-chain amino acids are abundantly found in food and whole protein supplements. Honestly, this makes branched-chain amino acid supplements unnecessary for people who consume adequate protein in their diet. And for the record, the best food sources of branched-chain amino acids in descending order are beef, then chicken breasts, whey, and soy protein powders, canned tuna, salmon, and turkey breast.