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Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are needed for everything from organ formation to muscle development and maintenance, and are necessary for healthy skin, nails, and hair. (Here’s a primer on amino acids and how they work.) Within the category of amino acids are branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, that are particularly important for muscles and the heart, as well as the endocrine and immune systems.
You may have heard BCAAs get mentioned in conversations about exercise, muscle building, and supplementation, and wanted to learn more. To that, we say: Read on.
For an easy way to get the necessary amount of BCAAs try Openfit’s Fuel, a pre-workout formula packed with BCAAs to amp up muscle recovery.
What Are BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids are three of the nine essential amino acids that we need to get from our diets, and are found in many foods including meat, eggs, and dairy products.
These three amino acids — isoleucine, leucine, and valine — are called “branched chain” amino acids because they all have a similar chemical structure that looks like a branching formation.
How Do BCAAs Work?
“Studies suggest BCAAs may help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise,” says Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D., and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. BCAAs promote anabolism, i.e. the synthesis of new tissues, and some research points to this being part of the reason that consuming BCAAs may reduce muscle soreness and damage.
One of the BCAAs — leucine — helps to stimulate protein synthesis (building new muscle) through a pathway called mTOR.
Another way BCAAs might help you recover from a tough workout is by decreasing tryptophan in your brain. Tryptophan can be converted to serotonin, which has been linked to higher levels of fatigue post-workout.
What Are the Benefits of BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids are needed for muscle building and maintenance, but that’s not all.
Appetite and Weight Management
Branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, have been shown to help decrease appetite and thus could potentially help with weight loss.
Protein in general is the nutrient that keeps us feeling fullest the longest, and is a source of BCAAs, so your best bet is to ensure you’re including some source of protein in the majority of your meals.
Muscle Mass Maintenance
BCAAs are needed not just to build but also to preserve muscle mass.
One important note: While BCAAs can increase muscle protein synthesis, they can’t do so optimally without the other essential amino acids, which are found in complete protein sources.
How Many BCAAs Should You Take?
There are no official recommendation for BCAA intake, and the optimal amount for supplementation is not known.
Some studies show that taking supplemental BCAA helps with muscle building and reduces post workout fatigue, while other studies actually indicate that they don’t do much to enhance athletic performance.
“Studies to support supplementation of BCAA to enhance athletic performance have conflicting findings,” confirms Smith.
“As with any supplement,” says Melissa Majumdar, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media Spokesperson, “you should consult a registered dietitian nutritionist to decide if they are a good fit. An RDN can also help you optimize your diet to get appropriate carbohydrates for energy during exercise. Consumption of carbohydrates during exercise can help maintain the tryptophan (another amino acid) and BCAA ratio, thus helping avoid central nervous system fatigue.”
What Foods Contain BCAAs?
The foods that are especially high in BCAAs include chicken, meat, salmon, beans and lentils, cottage cheese, milk, tofu, tempeh, eggs, quinoa, and nuts.
BCAAs are well-absorbed and very bio-available when consumed from whole foods.
What Are the Side Effects of BCAAs?
Majumdar says that any potential side effects “are generally mild.” These can often range from nausea to stomachaches.
The Bottom Line About BCAAs
Getting BCAAs from complete protein sources such as meat, fish, dairy and tofu is doable for most people and even pro athletes, as those sources contain all the essential amino acids.
If you are unable to eat enough protein, or if you have certain medical issues, talk to your doctor or dietitian, who might recommend that BCAA supplementation may be beneficial.