Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and they serve critical roles within the body. Many individuals are under the impression that muscle growth and repair are the only purposes of amino acids. While aiding muscle development is indeed a critical function of amino acids, it is by no means the only role in the human body.
They are responsible for developing cellular structure, transporting vital nutrients throughout the body, tissue repair, protection of the hearth, produce neurotransmitters, and as a potential source of energy if necessary. We cannot function without these building blocks to much needed protein.
For a run down on the amino acids found within the body, there are 20 found inside the body that serve as the foundation for thousands of proteins. Of the 20 amino acids, some are essential amino acids and some are non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are not produced within the body and the must be obtained through dietary means. Non-essential amino acids are made naturally within the body and acquiring them through the diet is not needed.
We are going to focus on the nine essential amino acids that you have to obtain through your diet somehow. We will narrow that focus onto three of these essential amino acids which are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three BCAAs and they can be consumed in the diet through foods like eggs and meat.
Despite the critical need for BCAAs, there are many people who do not reach their Recommended Daily Intake of these amino acids. That is why dietary supplements of BCAAs have swept the market. BCAA supplements have shown to be effective for those who do not consume enough BCAAs through their natural diet or need an extra boost to relieve a deficiency.
There are many fantastic benefits of BCAA supplements, but they are not without a few side effects when compared with consuming them naturally. Let’s take a look at the top seven benefits!
Stimulate Muscle Growth
This one is a gimme, but BCAAs can provide wonderful support to improve muscle growth. They activate the process of protein synthesis to help you build additional muscle after you complete a workout. According to one study, leucine is the specific BCAA that can increase the rate of protein synthesis. This limits the amount of wear and tear of the muscle when performing exercise. The study suggested that this is likely due to activating the specific pathways that control the process of protein synthesis.
Another study analyzed the effects of ingesting BCAAs on the process of protein synthesis following resistance exercise. The researchers did this by performing an experiment with men completing a bout of resistance exercise. The men would either consume a placebo or a drink containing 5.6g of BCAAs right after completing their workout. The researchers found that all levels of all three BCAAs spiked not long after consuming the amino acid infused drink. Therefore, they concluded that consuming BCAAs right after resistance exercise does an effective job stimulating protein synthesis.
While BCAAs, leucine specifically, play an important role in protein synthesis, their effectiveness is amplified when consumed with all nine essential amino acids. Nevertheless, those looking for increased muscle will be served well by adding a supplement including BCAAs.
Decrease Exercise Fatigue
Not only can BCAAs stimulate muscle gain by targeting protein synthesis, they can limit the fatigue induced by exercise. Granted, it is more difficult for some to recover from exercise fatigue. Individuals who are not accustomed to an exercise regimen that feel particularly tired after an individual workout would benefit from a BCAA supplement. BCAA levels in the body are depleted during exercise and a supplement to elevate their levels back to normal can relieve symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion after working out.
This is highlighted in one study which reviewed the effects of exercise on BCAA oxidation. Due to the effects of exercise on BCAAs, the researchers suggested a BCAA supplement before and after a round of exercise can limit the damage to the muscles caused by exercise.
In regard to fatigue, it is all tied back to the brain. To make up for the depleting levels of BCAAs during exercise, tryptophan levels increase within the brain. As tryptophan is converted to serotonin inside the brain, this makes someone exercising more susceptible to fatigue. A BCAA supplement will prevent the increase in serotonin production improve mental sharpness during exercise.
Limit the effect of Liver Disease
An added supplement of BCAAs in addition to standard treatment can limit the damaging effects of chronic liver disease. One of the primary roles of the liver is to remove toxins from the body, but it is unable to do its job efficiently once conditions such as cirrhosis develop. BCAAs come into play when cirrhosis persists into more debilitating diseases.
For instance, it has been shown that cirrhosis can develop into hepatic encephalopathy which can cause horrendous effects on the brain. It is believed that BCAA supplements can be useful to limit the effects of the disease. One study included an analysis of 16 clinical trials of hundreds of patients that suffered from hepatic encephalopathy. It was found that many of the symptoms associated with the disease could be relieved by a BCAA supplement. However, more trials need to be conducted to determine how beneficial BCAA supplements were to the overall prognosis of the disease.
The benefits of BCAA supplements are not limited to hepatic encephalopathy. They have shown to be helpful with treatment of numerous conditions related to the liver, including liver cancer.
Increase Energy Levels
Glucose is the primary source of energy in the human body and amino acids can be utilized for energy when glucose levels are depleted. Isoleucine and valine can both be effectively used for energy. A BCAA supplement can give you a boost of energy since excess BCAAs within the body will be used for energy as opposed to glucose.
In addition to serving as a replacement to glucose for energy, BCAAs can improve glucose metabolism for better efficiency. One study looked at the effects of isoleucine on glucose uptake in rats. In the study, researchers saw a 71% increase in muscle glucose uptake and a hypoglycemic effect.
In a study that looked at humans instead of rats, it was found that amino acids could be used in replace of glucose for energy in a state of hyperinsulinaemia. Glucose was needed at 36% lower levels in this state.
Since glucose is the primary molecule utilized for energy within the body, the extra kick from the added amino acids can provide a greater stretch of energy. This comes in handy for those who need that extra push to get through the entirety of a workout.
Reduce Muscle Soreness After Exercise
The average exerciser often feels intense muscle soreness after a workout when first starting a new exercise regimen. When exercising, especially resistance exercise, slight tears within muscle fibers cause this soreness felt in the targeted muscle group(s) for upwards of several days. The soreness usually takes upwards of one full day to develop and it is named delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
BCAA supplements have shown to be beneficial at limiting the pain and longevity of DOMS for those entering a new exercise program. The extra amino acids can limit the amount of damage you do to the targeted muscle group when performing a specific exercise.
One study researched this more closely by analyzing participants performing a squat exercise. The participants in the study were split up into two groups with one receiving a BCAA supplement and the other receiving a placebo before they started to perform a squat. The researchers found that those in the BCAA group experienced DOMS to a lesser degree than the placebo group.
A BCAA supplement is recommended for athletes and regular individuals in a consistent exercise routine since it can allow you to bounce back quicker after a workout. The debilitating effects of muscle soreness will not be as severe and progress can be achieved quicker in the program.
Promote Weight Loss
In addition to stimulating growth of lean muscle mass, BCAA supplements can increase your ability to lose fat and reach your weight goals more effectively. There other factors that come into play that enable your body to burn fat at a higher rate as opposed to not taking a BCAA supplement.
Leucine in particular has shown the ability to curb your appetite and this leads to fewer calories consumed during the day. Overeating leads to excess calories being stored inside the body and these unused calories eventually turn into adipose tissue, leading to fat gain. A more stable balance of net calories, or a deficit of calories, leads to more efficient control of weight management.
This study looked at the role of BCAAs in weight management more closely among Western and East Asian populations. The researchers studied the diets of health, middle-aged adults in various countries and the amount of BCAAs they consumed daily. Then, they examined the body weight of the participants to determine how many were classified as overweight or obese. The researchers concluded that those who consumed a higher amount of BCAAs in their diet were less likely to be overweight or obese.
The ability of BCAAs to enable you to gain lean muscle mass and burn fat at the same time is an added benefit for those with specific goals in mind. It is important to note that this will lead to a subsequent transformation in body composition. In the beginning stages of an exercise program, an individual may notice a sudden sharp decline in overall weight. This initial decline will be water weight and not fat loss. Once the body starts building lean muscle mass, weight will begin to slightly increase due to the change in body composition. By burning fat in coordination, BCAAs can help stabilize body weight to aid in your specific goals.
The last BCAA benefit we will tackle is the ability of the supplement to produce more efficient sleep cycles when you go to bed at night. Conditions such as sleep apnea can reduce your ability to gain quality sleep. Improved quality of sleep can further intensify the other benefits of BCAAs since adequate sleep is what the body needs to recover.
One study featured participants suffering from sleep related conditions due to renal failure. It was noticed that individuals taking a BCAA supplement had a greater amount of rapid eye movement sleep. A lack of REM sleep can negatively affect mental health and potentially lead to other severe health concerns.
It is always recommended to consult with your medical doctor to analyze specific medical needs, but those suffering from sleep apnea and similar conditions could potentially limit their side effects with a BCAA supplement.
Potential Side Effects of BCAA Supplements
BCAA supplements come with a plethora of benefits for your health, but there are some possible side effects to be conscious of when considering them.
Supplementing BCAAs increases ammonia in the blood and this can make you vulnerable to feeling exhausted and suffering from brain-related conditions down the road.
It may sound hard to believe but supplementing BCAAs can lead to a lack of absorption of other important amino acids in the body. If the body is actively absorbing the three BCAAs, then there is less room for other amino acids to reach their intended areas in the body. For example, an increased amount of BCAAs in the body can potentially reduce dopamine levels in the brain.
BCAAs have shown to be extremely beneficial in limiting the effects of fatigue and soreness brought on by the introduction of a new exercise routine. Whether you are an athlete or new to fitness, it is worth checking with your doctor to see if a healthy level of the supplement is right for you. If you have targeted weight gain or loss goals, then a recommended dosage of BCAAs could be of great value.
Josh is a fitness enthusiast and part-time blogger. He has a passion for functional fitness and nutrition. In his spare time Josh loves to catch a wave at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach.