By Dr Joe
There is a lot to be said about BCAAs in modern life. There is some debate on-going regarding the use of BCAAs.
Are BCAAs good for you? Are BCAAs bad for you? What are the pros and cons of using bcaas.
What I’d like to do here is talk about bcaas in general and what they can and cannot do for you.
Pros and Cons of BCAAs
First of all, you’d like to know what bcaas are, don’t you?
What are bcaas?
The term bcaas stands for branched-chain amino acids. That term refers to the chemical structure of these amino acids. We won’t get geeky here and start blabbing about the actual chemical structure of these amino acids because it is not an absolute necessity. Leave that to the food biochemists.
What you need to know however is that there are 3 amino acids that make up the branched-chain amino acids group.
These amino acids are isoleucine, valine and leucine. Of the 3 amino acids, leucine is the most important metabolically. Isoleucine and valine sort of play a supportive role functionally.
Something else you need to know is that the 3 amino acids are actually essential amino acids. This means you need to take these amino acids either through your diet or through supplementation to have them.
This is because your body just doesn’t make these amino acids. Failure to provide these amino acids through food or via supplementation would lead to deficiency. And deficiency state is a No No…far from ideal.
How to use bcaa
How you use bcaa is fairly simple. Most bcaa supplements come either in the pill format or powder form.
Take the pill with water as you would any other supplement. If it is the powder, simply dissolve it in water, smoothie, oatmeal, sports drink etc and sip it. It is a good idea to drink plenty of water with it.
An advisable dose of bcaa daily will be between 5gm and 20 gm. It is also not a bad idea to split up your daily dose of bcaa into two.
When to take your bcaas
The issue of when to take bcaa tends to be bothersome to some people. It needn’t be. There are no hard rules regarding the timing of bcaa use.
Take your bcaa anytime you feel like it. However, for the folk who is a physical activity enthusiast, I will advise using your bcaa supplementation around your workout time. There are obvious advantages at taking bcaas around workout time. Take it just before workout and soon after.
The main reason being bcaas will provide energy support during your workout and good for muscle metabolism during and after your workout session.
This is even more important if you are involved in intermittent fasting. I have a suggested approach to bcaa use, especially with intermittent fasting here. Go read it.
What are health benefits of using bcaas
Do BCAAs have any health benefits? Let me talk about these as the pros of using bcaas. Why would you want to use bcaas? Are bcaas worth your while?
Okay, here are the pros of using bcaas.
BCAAs good for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
Ever experienced delayed-onset muscle soreness after a workout session, also known as DOMS? Well, if you are a keen workout individual, you would have gone through that phase of having intense muscle soreness after a good bout of exercise. Post-exercise muscle soreness comes with the territory.
One of the pros of using bcaas is, bcaas do reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. Prove it?
Well, if you take 12 untrained female participants and make them do 7 sets of 20 squats with 3 minutes intervals between sets, will these participants develop muscle soreness? Of course, they will.
Can you reduce the intensity of this soreness? Well, this study says, you can. Do a cross-over double-blind study with BCAA supplements and a dummy pill and you will have proof. They did and they found that bcaa supplemented group had significantly reduced muscle soreness on Day 2 & Day 3 post-exercise.
Nosaka and his colleagues seem to provide further proof here that bcaa supplementation does provide a health benefit of attenuating delayed-onset muscle soreness following a workout, as suggested by their study.
BCAAs protect muscles from exercise-induced damage
One of the pros of bcaa use is the muscle protection it provides. It is an inevitable fact that muscles subjected to intense workout do get damaged by way of micro-tears.
Is it possible to reduce this muscle damage effect by using bcaas?
Well, this small study took 16 participants and subjected them to 2 hours of cycling and measured markers for muscle damage in their blood. In particular the markers for muscle damage in this experiment were Lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase.
The bcaa researchers found the bcaa supplemented group to have very low levels of muscle damage parameters.
This previous study also measured myoglobin level as part of the study. Myoglobin is one other biological marker that can be used to assess muscle damage.
They too, found lower myoglobin levels in the bcaa supplemented group leading the researchers to conclude that muscle damage can be suppressed by bcaa use.
BCAAs are good for muscle synthesis
One pro of bcaa is its role in muscle synthesis.
Quite apart from protecting muscle from excessive damage especially during exercise or physical activity, bcaas also promote muscle synthesis.
You need amino acids to build muscle because muscle is made up of proteins hugely in part. Proteins are made from amino acids. In fact, amino acids are the sub-units of proteins.
For the wear and tear that occurs in everyday life and during exercise routines, you need to synthesize proteins from amino acids to fix these muscle wear and tear issues.
As explained earlier, bcaas are essential amino acids. You need both essential and non-essential amino acids to synthesize muscle.
Of the 3 amino acids in the bcaa group, leucine is the most important when it comes to protein synthesis.
Leucine works in tandem with glutamine to signal muscle tissue synthesis. In fact, it is thought that glutamine will lose its muscle synthesis functionality in the absence of leucine.
Leucine has a direct effect on protein synthesis stimulation because it activates insulin to spring into action. Insulin in turn does stimulate the clearance of amino acids (essential and non-essential) from the bloodstream driving the amino acids into the cells where they are needed for muscle tissue synthesis.
Using bcaas will solve that problem. This complex enzyme-mediated process was exemplified in this rat experiment.
The findings from that experiment led the researchers to conclude that bcaa supplementation is beneficial in sports and exercise in general.
This health benefit of bcaa is particularly important in folks who undertake intense exercise routines, especially resistance training like weight-lifting.
BCAAs are good for exercise endurance
Another pro of bcaa is the beneficial effect on exercise endurance. Some Nutraceutical companies have included BCAAs in their energy drink for this purpose as discussed here.
BCAAs being a nutritional supplement actually means they have calorific value. BCAAs are catabolised during exercise. When something is catabolised, it releases energy as a result of that catabolic event.
BCAAs are no exception. BCAA catabolism results in release of energy which the individual can harness to do more during exercise. The health benefit of bcaa here is that you can utilize the bcaa energy release to increase both the volume and intensity of your exercise routine.
There are 6 amino acids that the muscle likes to utilize for energy production. They are isoleucine, leucine, valine (the BCAAs); along with alanine, glutamate and aspartate.
Of the 6 amino acids above, the muscle cell seems to have a preference for the branched-chain amino acids because the myocyte (muscle cell) has the necessary enzymes needed for bcaa oxidation process readily available inside it.
Some would argue that the muscle cell is designed to burn bcaas for energy supply.
Besides, the branched-chain amino acids are a great source of new glucose production inside the muscle cell. The 3 bcaas can be converted to glucose very quickly although they have to be converted to alanine and glutamate first.
In the liver the alanine and glutamate are then converted into glucose.
What does this mean?
It means the bcaas are a ready source of fuel during exercise workouts. A fuel pipeline, if you like. This ‘fuel pipeline’ can become very important when stored glucose (glycogen) tank is running low or completely empty.
Something else that is talked about is the fact that bcaas actually reduce the feeling of muscle fatigue as bcaas lower the level of serotonin during exercise. Serotonin contributes to fatigue during exercise, so lowering the levels at the time can only be a good thing.
The net result being; you can exercise for longer.
BCAAs make these essential amino acids readily available
When you administer a supplement either by mouth or by injection, you are essentially providing the active ingredients in that supplement to your body in a kind of ready-to-use format. Not always but most times, it is.
BCAA supplements are no different.
Taking BCAas means you are providing your body with isoleucine, leucine and valine amino acids on demand, if you like.
Your body wants these amino acids because it cannot manufacture them and by taking the supplement, voilla, here they are.
And something that has been proven so far is that these essential amino acids in the bcaa totally by-pass the liver. These amino acids in the bcaa head straight up into the bloodstream avoiding the 1st-pass metabolism.
This is good because if you are one of those active people busy in the gym or exercising at home, your protein turn-over is going to be high.
The reason is; muscles involved in physical activity undergo more wear and tear.
The more intense the activity, the more the wear and tear and the more protein you are going to need.
You will be needing the protein to fix these wear and tear events. Amino acids make up protein. Hence you will be needing these essential amino acids in BCAA and of course the non-essential ones as well.
The use of bcaas before and after workout sessions is known to provide a muscle-sparing effect for the exercise enthusiast.
Having these amino acids readily available especially around the time of intense physical activity like a workout session is quite beneficial. This is one of the pros of bcaa supplements. Having these amino acids available on demand.
This brings us nicely to the question:
Should you take BCAAs on an empty stomach or not?
First of all, it does you no harm to take your bcaa supplement on an empty stomach.
Your bcaa supplement should not cause stomach irritation. If it does, then you either change your current brand or stop using them altogether. Okay, you may then consider using it with food then as another option but that sort of defeats the purpose of using it in the first place.
I have said it before that one of the problems of weight loss enthusiasts is muscle loss. It’s almost inevitable even when you embark on a fat loss journey.
In fact, one of the problems of working out on am empty stomach, especially with intermittent fasting is that, you risk burning protein before you get into the fat-burning zone. Therein lies the problem.
One nice solution to avoid muscle breakdown from protein loss is to take your bcaa supplement about 30 minutes before your workout. An empty stomach makes for quick absorption of the amino acids in the BCAA supplement.
Quick absorption means these branched-chain amino acids head straight up the bloodstream targeting sites where these amino acids are readily needed – the muscle.
Should you take bcaa in the morning?
Well, of course you can take your bcaa in the morning before having your breakfast. If you are considering taking bcaa in the morning, I would suggest you take your bcaa in place of your breakfast.
Probably best you skip breakfast altogether. Take the bcaa 30 minutes before your workout on an empty stomach, do your workout and if you insist on having your breakfast, then have your breakfast after the workout session.
Any clinical uses of bcaas
In general medicine, bcaas do come in handy for certain clinical conditions. Don’t forget, a bcaa prep is an essential amino acid concentrate.
So, it is no surprise that bcaas have other health benefits and can be used clinically for:
- Feeding the frail elderly who may be malnourished.
- Feeding anorexic patient.
- Feeding the chronic kidney disease patient with a poor appetite.
- Supplementing the cancer patient whose feeding pattern may be compromised.
- Treating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis patients. Another name for Lou Gehrig’s disease.
- Treating involuntary jerky movements of the face and body called Tardive Dyskinesia.
- Treat liver disease that’s made the brain to soften up called hepatic encephalopathy.
- Treat some neuro-degenerative conditions of the spinal cord.
Some more medical uses of BCAAs include:
- Overwhelming generalised infection of the body called severe sepsis.
- Treat extensive burns patients.
- Supplement patients confined to beds for a long period.
- Treat people who may be recovering from hunger strike.
- Treat malnutrition in people affected by war and famine.
- There is a suggestion that BCAAs might stimulate insulin sensitivity in diabetics.
- Treat psychiatric patients with mania.
- May help with concentration.
BCAA sources from food
If you have read my other articles on bcaa, I have always said it and I will say it again, you don’t have to use bcaa supplements. BCAA supplements are not mandatory in any way, shape or form.
Why…because you can get the essential branched-chain amino acids in bcaa from food sources. Yes, you can get these amino acids in bcaa supplements through regular diet. Food sources of bcaa are just as good as your supplements, if not better.
I needed to say the above in the interest of balance.
It should be said however that there are some people like your good self, reading this article who prefer to have their dietary supply of bcaa supplemented with bcaa pills or powder.
For them, supplements are a concentrated source of bcaa and the convenience of popping a pill or adding water to a powder and drinking it straightaway is unbeatable.
So, what foods can you get bcaas from?
Well, bcaas are available in a lot of foods even including some carbohydrate foods. Below I share food sources of bcaa. If you look at the list, you may deduce some vegan sources of bcaa from it. The list is a mixture of both animal sources and vegan sources of bcaas.
List of foods high in bcaa:
Red Kidney beans
Below is a diagrammatic display of bcaa content in some everyday foods.
As you can see, there is some variation of how much bcaa you get from different dietary sources. The key here is, a varied diet will get you a ready supply of these branched-chain amino acids without the need for supplementation, if you don’t wish to.
To put it bluntly, bcaa supplements are a short-cut. Period.
Are there any cons to using bcaa supplements?
Well, generally speaking, BCAAs are fairly safe to take. After all, they are amino acids that your body actually needs.
That said, we do not advise the use of bcaas during pregnancy because there has been no research to back the safety of their use in pregnancy and indeed during breast feeding.
So, if you are pregnant or are breastfeeding, please get your branched-chain amino acids from the list of bcaa foods above.
Even though, bcaas are used in treating Lou Gehrig’s syndrome, this use should be confined to doctor’s supervision because fatalities have been reported in the past.
In theory, bcaas can be used to delay fatigue during exercise and this is backed by anec dotal and scientific bcaa research. Paradoxically however, some bcaa users have reported fatigue and problems with co-ordination which is a weird con of bcaa use. I separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ regarding the health risks of BCAAs here.
Another con of bcaa use is its effect on blood sugar. If you followed this article, you will notice I mentioned how one of the bcaa amino acid, leucine, signals insulin activity.
This insulin signalling is one of the reasons branched-chain amino acids are useful for muscle growth and muscle building because insulin is an anabolic hormone.
Well, in some individuals, this insulin response may go over the top. This means blood sugar levels may plummet because of insulin’s ability to clear glucose from the blood.
The point being; bcaa may provoke an episode of low blood sugar which is not ideal.
For this reason, it might make sense to stay off bcaas a couple of weeks before surgery. And if you find yourself in an emergency situation where you have to undergo surgery, please do let your anaesthetist know that you have been using bcaa supplements lately.
Pros and Cons of BCAAs
Here’s a list of some of the pros and cons of taking BCAA supplements for whatever reason you may have in mind.
- BCAAs reduce Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
- BCAAs protect muscles from exercise-induced damage.
- BCAAs promote muscle synthesis.
- BCAAs are good for exercise endurance.
- BCAAs provide energy release when catabolized.
- BCAAs are a great source of new glucose production when needed.
- BCAAs make essential amino acids readily available at target sites.
- BCAAs help with muscle repair when it happens.
- BCAAs may be beneficial for insulin sensitivity.
- BCAAs have a wide range of clinical applications in medical care.
Cons of BCAAs
- Not suitable for pregnancy.
- Not suitable for breast feeding women.
- Paradoxically BCAAs may cause fatigue issues.
- BCAAs may cause problems with co-ordination.
- BCAAs may have a negative effect on blood sugar metabolism.
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