Performance Enhancing Supplements Series: Branched Chain Amino Acids
Home Base’s Health and Wellness professionals continue to receive questions about popular supplements, so we’re continuing our Performance Enhancing Supplements Series to provide the most up to date information so you can efficiently reach your health goals while knowing what your consuming and how those nutrients work. Home Base’s Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Chris Manzano, interviewed and collaborated with Registered Dietitians, Nicolette Maggiolo and Inna Kagan, for expert advice on how to best approach the most popular performance enhancing supplements.
We want to make it clear that we believe that performance enhancing supplements are exactly what they sound like: supplements. They are designed and manufactured to supplement, or support, your current exercise, nutrition, and sleep plans. They cannot be substituted for proper whole food nutrition, proper exercise and rehabilitation programming, or to make up for lack of adequate and quality sleep.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are the three amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) that are believed to be primarily responsible for muscle protein synthesis (MPS). There are 20 total amino acids and they are considered either “essential,” because the human body cannot naturally produce them and must be consumed through the diet, or “non-essential,” meaning they are naturally produced in the body and are not required through the diet. When these amino acids are formed together, they create the building blocks of protein. BCAAs are just three of the nine essential amino acids, but together with the other 17 amino acids, can play a big role in MPS and subsequently muscle strength and recovery.
BCAAs can be found added to popular brand pre-workouts, to protein powders, to creatine mixes, and as a supplement on their own. BCAAs have gained a lot of popularity in recent years, but why? Lately, companies that sell BCAAs and supplements tend to target the athletic and active populations, especially those interested in high intense training. Claims are made that their BCAAs enhance muscle growth and strength, increase recovery, decrease muscle breakdown, and decrease muscle soreness. These claims are made from the early research done on BCAAs in an isolated state (not in human subjects), which found that BCAAs had significant influence on MPS as well as muscle protein breakdown (MPB). Later, when testing in human subjects, it was found that BCAAs, especially leucine, strongly stimulates the start of MPS. With this research, it is proven that BCAAs can help with MPS and recovery, however it is not proven that BCAAs alone provide these benefits. So, though these results are promising, the research is vague and incomplete when applied to real world applications. Because of this, companies decided to capitalize on this insufficient information to commercialize BCAAs. Further, they have no obligation to uphold evidence-based results and can (and sometimes do) make untrue claims to increase their marketing to consumers.
Why Are BCAAs Popular?
Further research found that BCAAs stimulate the anabolic response when tested post-exercise. When someone is in an anabolic state, their body is in the process of building muscle by forming proteins from amino acids. Oppositely, when someone is in a catabolic state, the body breaks down proteins into amino acids to be used; a basic example of catabolism is resistance focused exercise, where muscles are being used and repetitive micro-tears are occurring. Because of this, the term “anabolic window” has been popularized within the fitness industry when discussing protein and BCAA supplementation. The “anabolic window” refers to the optimal time, about 1 to 2 hours, after physical activity when your body is in an anabolic state when consumption of carbohydrates and proteins is best absorbed to synthesize and recover. However, this window mostly applies to elite level athletes (think professional and Olympic level) and that the general population is more likely to reap the same benefits by simply refueling post-exercise since the body stays in an anabolic state anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. It is important to not stress and focus too much on the thought of the anabolic window and to understand the importance of refueling your body with food after exercise (learn more about pre- and post-exercise fueling here).
Why Extra BCAA Supplementation is Unnecessary
Because of all this extensive, yet inconclusive, research, professionals do not recommend consuming extra BCAAs through supplementation for several reasons. Commercial BCAA supplement only include 3 of the 9 essential and out of 20 total amino acids. Though leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the primary amino acids that contribute to the beginning of MPS, all 20 are necessary for optimal MPS. When lacking the other 6 essential and other 11 non-essential amino acids, your body is not in the best position to build up muscle proteins. Further, some studies have shown that consuming an excess of BCAAs can actually slow MPS and contribute more to MPB and therefore slowing muscle growth, strength, and recovery. Just as with anything else, an excess of anything consumed is not ideal for health; as with BCAAs, nutrients not utilized by the body can be converted and stored as other sources of energy (i.e. as fat) or at worst, negatively affect other functions of the body such as production of neurotransmitters.
How to Incorporate BCAAs in Your Plans
Though extra BCAA supplementation is unnecessary, BCAAs should be included in your nutrition plans through whole foods! Since BCAAs are building blocks for proteins, BCAAs and the other 17 amino acids are found in animal proteins, plant proteins, and protein powders. Without getting into the fine details of protein, animal proteins and protein powders (both animal and plant sourced) can be considered complete proteins since they contain all the essential amino acids; so, they contain the three BCAAs as well as the other 6 essential amino acids and are complemented with other non-essential amino acids. Conversely, most plant proteins are considered incomplete proteins since they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. There is a misconception that a consuming only plant protein leads to lack of sufficient protein, which can certainly be the case when consuming only one plant protein source, such as only eating peanuts and peanut butter. This is why dietitians recommend varying your plant proteins so that you get all your essential amino acids; for example, the BCAA, leucine, as mentioned before, has been proven to “trigger” MPS, can be found in beans, lentils, soy foods, some seeds and tempeh (as well as other animal sources). Combining these types of food with whole grains or other carbohydrates can help provide a balanced meal. Further, there are numerous plant proteins that are complete proteins (such as quinoa and tofu). Regardless of protein source, understand that you receive the same benefits and more with a normal serving of protein, about 20 to 25 grams as you would with any type of BCAA supplementation. It would be fiscally appropriate to forgo additional BCAA supplementation and instead supplement with recommended amounts of protein powder as needed or consume protein sourced from whole foods.
Instead of supplementing your diet with store bought BCAA supplements, consume whole foods with sufficient protein from varied sources, plant and/or animal. There are currently no valid reasons to purchase additional BCAA supplementation. By varying your proteins throughout your day, whether from plant, animal, powder sources, or all three, will undoubtedly provide you all the necessary amino acids with the added benefit of the macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber those whole foods provide. Consuming the right about of protein for you and your goals will contain the right amount of BCAAs for you to reach your muscle growth goals and support recovery.
Make sure you discuss with your doctor about your health and a registered dietitian before buying and taking any supplements. It is important you do your research before buying and trying a new supplement. Make sure to stick to reputable brands that use quality ingredients and that have been vetted by non-biased, third party certifying organizations such as NSF for Sport or Informed Choice. Create goals, understand them, and ask yourself if a supplement will help you reach those goals. Understand that everyone is different and that plans should be individualized. Each supplement will affect you differently so find what works best for you with trial and error. If you have any questions about BCAAs, other supplements, or questions regarding enhancing performance, feel free to reach out to our Registered Dietitians and our Warrior Health and Fitness professionals.
- Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning Third Edition (National Strength and Conditioning Association) by Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle
By Christopher Manzano, MPS, ATC, CSCS, TSAC- F, Nicolette Maggiolo, RDN, LDN, and Inna Kagan, RDN, LDN