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Are BCAAs actually worth the effort?

Our review of branch-chain amino acids, and whether you should be drinking them regularly

While not necessary, BCAAs may benefit women
While not necessary, BCAAs may benefit women (Pexels)

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Every time I go to the gym, I take my gym buddy, a big sloshing container of water mixed with bright orange, made up of BCAA (branch chain amino acids). I drink half a litre about thirty minutes before exercising and consume the remainder throughout my session. To get the very last drop of BCAA out of the bottle and into my system, I refill the same bottle with a litre of water and sip it the entire way home.

Do I love the flavour? Not really. It reminds me of the fluorescent orange Tang beverage of my youth. But do I feel it working? Surprisingly, yes. Whether a psychosomatic response to drinking it or the punch of orange synthetic flavour shakes me awake, I feel noticeably more awake for my workout.

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My reaction to BCAAs is genuinely surprising, given the recent less-than-impressive reviews plaguing BCAA supplementation. For years, BCAA supplementation was a bodybuilder' and athletes' gold standard to maximize muscle growth, busting through endurance plateaus, and minimizing post-exercise muscle soreness. However, lately, as researchers dive into BCAAs and try and ascertain their benefits, BCAAs have fallen out of favour, at least with the researchers themselves.

Reading these negative scientific reports was enough to send me on a downward spiral, researching BCAAs to determine whether there was anyone who would benefit from taking them.

Before I lead you down this path, we have to back up and talk about what a branch chain amino acid is. Otherwise, my conclusions won't make any sense.

Amino acids are the Lego pieces that make up the protein you eat. There are about twenty amino acids, categorised into essential amino acids, non-essential, and conditional. There are nine essential amino acids; we classify them as essential because our bodies can't produce enough of them fast enough to do what our bodies need to do. Our only option is to ingest them from our food. A branch-chain amino acid (we are starting to further sub-categorize) is an essential amino acid with a different structural makeup. It is vital for muscle synthesis and critical for anyone active in sports for fun or profession. There are three branch-chain amino acids: isoleucine, leucine, and valine. When shopping for your BCAA, these will be the amino acids in higher concentrations found inside.

If I drill down into the chemical specifics and how it works in your body, I may lose your attention, so let's focus on what's important. According to the paper titled All About BCAA, published by Precision Nutrition, BCAAs lower lactate levels after resistance training and improve muscular oxidation, increase the growth hormone (GH) related to muscle anabolism (growth), and improve muscle recovery, therefore, taking them before, in the middle or after your training session will maximize your training adaptions/mad gains.

Interestingly, Precision Nutrition also published The Benefits of BCAA- are they right for you? that took a slightly less positive stance. The research supporting this article was based on leucine, the more critical amino acid concerning muscle synthesis. Apparently—and this is the beauty of science continually evolving—it was later determined that while leucine is the most important amino acid, it isn't enough to build muscle; you need all amino acids from leucine to work effectively. 

The second vital finding was that leucine, although it may work at building muscle, has a threshold. You know that adage that if a little does you some good, then a lot will do better? This doesn't work in the case of leucine. Researchers found that 0.5 mg of leucine can switch on muscle synthesis, but above around 3 mg, there was no discernable difference. To put this into context, 0.5mg of leucine is what you'd find in one cooked egg. 

And finally, BCAAs take a detour around the body before haphazardly landing in your muscles, so the final amount contributing to muscle growth is a little nebulous at best. As the author, Hellen Kollias, PhD, says, "If you flood your GI tract with single amino acids from a BCAA supplement, the doors reserved for single amino acids will get backed up. Instead of your bloodstream, they end up in your toilet."

I dug further and found multiple studies backing up BCAA's fizzling promises, which are irritatingly counter-culture to what's believed and marketed about BCAA and athletic performance. What was even more interesting was that I found studies and references to women and elderly folks enjoying the benefits of BCAA, not at all for whom this product is generally marketed.

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Dr Stacy Sims, a leading expert in female physiology and nutrient science, says there may be a place for BCAA consumption during a woman's luteal phase (the last two weeks of her cycle). The reason is progesterone, the dominant hormone found at that time during the cycle has a catabolic characteristic which can limit our muscular growth. Dr Sims also tells us that the female post-exercise recovery window, which allows the uptake of carbohydrates to rebuild our muscles and amino acid utilization, is much shorter than a man's (3 hours compared to a meagre 30 minutes), making BCAAs a little convenient an option and more valuable for women, then perhaps men. 

Additionally, as we age, our protein requirements increase while our appetite decreases. Also, we will lose a small percentage of our muscle mass every decade over 30. That natural decline in muscle can lower our metabolic burn and reduce our mobility. A study published by the Human Kinetics Journal says, "due to the effects of age-related anabolic resistance, higher doses of leucine are required in older adults to maximize the MPS (muscle protein synthesis) response" The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also emphasizes that leucine requirements for folks over the age of 65 at double the younger population. 

Unfortunately, for young, active men, it sadly doesn't look like the muscular firestarter we once thought. However, these findings indicate that women, and those over 65, including BCAAs, can be a positive addition to their exercise nutrition.

Even though BCAA may not be what it's all cracked up to be, you still need to focus on your dietary protein. As the Journal of Human Kinetics indicates, there is a hierarchy of amino acid consumption: protein derived from whole foods first, protein supplements second, BCAA, and then EAA (essential amino acid) supplementation at the very end. This means everyone must put the quality of their diet first, and supplementation second.

When coaching my clients, I use the hand-sized portion method, which teaches people to "eyeball" their portion sizes and make informed decisions at mealtime. For women, I start their consumption at 1 "palm" at every meal (outstretch your palm and eliminate the fingers.) For men, I suggest two palms at every meal. You can increase your protein consumption from this baseline, depending on your activity level or fitness goals.

The type of protein also matters. You'll often hear about certain foods called "complete" proteins, which contain all nine essential amino acids. Meat is a complete protein, but also dairy, soy, quinoa, and buckwheat. "Incomplete proteins" have some, but not all, of the essential amino acids. They are nuts, seeds, and legumes. To get the most out of incomplete proteins, eat a broad mix of each type throughout your day, particularly legumes with high leucine content.

With all this in mind, I'm not giving up my BCAA anytime soon. But it's a good reminder to keep on top of my overall protein intake.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach

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