If you’re interested in sports nutrition, you’ve probably heard of BCAAs. But you might not have all the info you need as to BCAA benefits, uses, and potential side effects. You may even be asking, “What are BCAAs, anyway?” Let’s dig in and learn what BCAAs are all about.
What Are BCAAs?
BCAAs is an acronym for branched-chain amino acids, a group of essential amino acids that includes valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which is critical for your body’s structure, strength, and function. BCAAs differ from other amino acids in their branched molecular structure. They also differ in the way they benefit athletes—which is considered to be significant.
BCAA Benefits to Athletes
Athletes primarily use BCAAs to reduce muscle breakdown and enhance recovery. Studies like this one and this one show that BCAAs help promote muscle protein synthesis (aka muscle building) and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness (aka DOMS), when taken before and after intense training. Basically, BCAAs help you recovery faster and more fully so that you can push your body all over again.
Unlike most amino acids, which are processed in the liver, BCAAs are primarily metabolized within muscle tissue. This means they are quickly absorbed, plus they provide an additional fuel source for working muscle. BCAAs have been shown to help retain muscle mass and maximize fat loss while on a calorie restricted diet–which is especially appealing to bodybuilders looking to lean down while staying ripped.
Another interesting BCAA benefit is delayed fatigue during prolonged exercise, allowing you to work harder, longer. This study shows that BCAAs may help keep you focused and alert by blocking tryptophan from crossing the blood-brain barrier—a process that normally increases during extended exercise, and is followed by serotonin production, which causes fatigue. In addition to the recovery benefits, that improved mental edge—which is critical during strategic, grueling, long-distance events—is why BCAAs are widely used among endurance athletes like ultrarunners and Ironman triathletes.
BCAAs are also sometimes attributed with an increase in athletic performance. Research results in this area are inconsistent, however, and more evidence is needed to determine whether or not BCAAs have a direct performance benefit. But direct effect or not, the prospect of improved recovery and reduced muscle soreness is certainly beneficial to anyone wanting to workout on back-to-back days.
BCAAs for Women
There are no gender-specific characteristics to BCAAs, which means they are equally beneficial to both women and men. Use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding is generally discouraged, though, simply because not enough studies have been performed to determine conclusively whether or not BCAAs are safe in these instances, or in what volumes.
Other BCAA Uses
This recent report shows that BCAAs can boost the immune system, and potentially have a positive impact on gut health, both of which are beneficial to athletes and non-athletes alike. Some people (not just athletes) use BCAAs as a supplement to prevent fatigue and enhance concentration.
Additionally, BCAAs are used in medical treatments for numerous disorders such as brain conditions due to liver disease, various movement disorders, a genetic disease called McArdle's disease, and anorexia. BCAAs are also used to help slow muscle wasting in people who are confined to bed, and to treat poor appetite in patients with kidney failure and cancer.
BCAA Side Effects
For the most part, BCAAs are harmless, and most experts suggest that habitual (daily) supplementation increases their effectiveness. However, as with anything, excess use can have potential negative side effects. Plus, BCAAs are contraindicated for people with certain conditions.
Side effects of extreme BCAA consumption can include fatigue, loss of coordination, nausea, headaches, and increased insulin resistance (which can lead to Type 2 diabetes).
BCAAs may affect blood sugar levels, so anyone having surgery should avoid them for a period of time before and after surgery.
Although BCAAs were once thought to be helpful in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), they are now considered problematic for people with this disease. People with a condition called branched-chain keto-aciduria (or Maple Syrup Urine Disease), kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, and people who drink alcohol in excess should also avoid BCAA supplementation.
Where to Find BCAAs & When to Take Them
As ‘essential’ amino acids, our bodies do not produce BCAAs naturally. Therefore, we need to get BCAAs from our diets. Most people get plenty of these essential amino acids from eating protein-rich foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, and a variety of nuts. But for those on restrictive diets who don’t get enough protein, and subsequently enough BCAAs, from natural whole food sources, supplementation is important. Supplementation is also common among athletes, for the numerous reasons outlined above.
The volume of BCAAs you consume and when you take them will vary depending on your dietary protein intake, body size, health factors, exercise regimen, and goals. Most people who supplement take anywhere from 4-20g throughout the day, in the form of powders, capsules, or pills. BCAAs can be taken at any time—before, during, or after exercise, as well as throughout the day.
Ultimately, when considering any supplementation or significant dietary changes, we think it’s wise to consult a doctor or a registered dietician to determine what makes sense for your personal health and wellness.
We hope you found this rundown of BCAA benefits, uses, and side effects helpful. What are some other health and nutrition topics you’d like to learn about here?