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Why Should You Consider Using A Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplements?
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) have long been viewed as a potent muscle building, performance enhancing supplement but it is only in the last decade or so that we have truly come to realize why BCAAs seem to be so effective.
For years supplement companies would tout the advantages of whey protein or amino acid supplements, the food highest in naturally occurring BCAAs, and some would even market liver tabs as being high in BCAAs. It wasn’t until researchers discovered a nutrient sensing enzyme, mTOR, that we fully began to understand how the branched chain amino acids enhance muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle breakdown.
Backing up for a second, the three BCAAS, leucine, isoleucine and valine are amino acids found in any complete sources of protein including whey protein, chicken, beef and even beans with combined with rice. Specifically leucine seems to have a unique ability to decrease muscle protein by activating mTOR (1). I like to explain mTOR as a light switch that starts a complex cascade of signally that potentially increases muscle hypertrophy.
Now that the science is out of the way, what is the real world practical application?
I like to point to one study (2) that compared three groups all who had done strength training for 45 minutes.
Group A received carbohydrates alone post workout
Group B received carbohydrates plus 30 grams of protein
Group C received carbohydrates plus 30 grams of protein and leucine
Group C experienced less protein breakdown and increased muscle protein synthesis at a greater level than either of the other two groups.
It’s not just bodybuilders that can benefit from leucine or BCAA supplementation. BCAAs are currently being tested in patients with muscle wasting diseases such as cancer or on elderly individuals who often experience health issues due to their loss of body weight. (3)
Why don’t you just eat more protein?
That’s the typical first response that I receive from dietitians and professors, many of whom suffer from the ivory tower effect of waiting on research to fully validate a topic. The branched chain amino acids are responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis not the other amino acids. While I obviously want you to fuel like a high performance athlete, many individuals don’t want to consume a chicken breast immediately post workout (and your gut health temporarily decreases post workout) or don’t have the time to sit down for a full complete meal.
Free form BCAAs also spike blood levels of BCAAs faster than whey protein. During the post workout period, speed is critical. The BCAAs found in whey or a chicken breast need to be broken down and pass through the small intestine and liver before they can reach your muscles. Branched chain amino acids are already broken down.
Above I referenced above, the usage of BCAAs for elderly or sick people and that is because the BCAAs are primarily used by skeletal muscle, think of it as an injection. When you have a chicken breast your intestines and liver need to break up the amino acids then preferentially shuttle them to hair, skin, nails and other daily life functions. Now I’m not telling you to avoid complete proteins, that’s dumb. Eat like an athlete and you’ll have more than enough protein. In the case of sick or elderly folks, digestive discomfort is common so when you by pass the small intestine you prevent the digestive discomfort but can encourage the maintenance of body weight
You can’t just eat protein more frequently either. Research shows that frequent feedings may not maintain muscle protein synthesis as effectively as BCAA dosage in between meals. (4).
To me the research is clear, there is something going on with BCAA supplementation and if you want to perform or look better or both, you should consider supplementing with 2-5 grams of branched chain amino acids in between meals.