What Are BCAAs’ Benefits for Your Health?

bcaa food sources

Story at-a-glance -

  • Amino acids have been renowned for the positive impacts that they deliver to the body. Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, have been constantly promoted to be beneficial for your health
  • Learn more about what BCAAs are and the best food sources of these amino acids

Amino acids are essential nutrients that are “left behind” once your body breaks down or digests proteins. Essential amino acids are typically obtained from your diet, since these nutrients aren’t produced by the body at all. Out of the nine essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a special subgroup that may have health benefits. But what exactly do BCAAs do for your body?  If you’re curious to know how BCAAs help improve your well-being, continue reading this article.

What Are BCAAs?

BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine and valine) can be derived from proteins in foods, and are broken down in your muscle, unlike other amino acids that are broken down in the liver.

What sets BCAAs apart is their branched molecular structure, and this may contribute to their ability to be readily converted into glucose. This occurs once you exert too much effort and place unusual demands on the body, since protein can be broken down and burned as fuel, unlike in normal circumstances when carbohydrates are being burned. Nearly 10 percent of energy that drives your workouts comes from BCAAs.1

Food Sources of BCAAs

BCAAs can be found in protein-rich foods such as:2

Organic grass fed beef

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon

Pastured egg yolks

Raw grass fed cheese

Quinoa

Pumpkin seeds

Nuts

Whey and milk proteins

BCAAs are available in supplement form, which manufacturers recommend for both men and women. However, I don’t advise taking these because of their possible side effects (more on this to come later). Instead, I recommend whey protein concentrate (WPC), because it has a very high leucine concentration.

However, not all WPC is created equal, so if you want a high-quality product that’s GMO-, pesticide- and hormone-free, make sure that the whey protein comes from organically raised, grass fed cows’ milk. WPC must be cold-processed too, because heat can destroy whey’s fragile molecular structure.

Avoid taking leucine as a free form amino acid supplement too, as this particular amino acid may result in insulin resistance and severe hyperglycemic reactions. Obtaining BCAAs from food sources is the only way to go if you want to increase your body’s levels of these amino acids and reap health benefits.

BCAAs’ Benefits and Uses

These health benefits of BCAAs can target certain concerns, since they may have the potential to:3

Assist with intensifying workouts — BCAAs help prevent tryptophan from being converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin inside the brain.

This can be helpful since working out can raise serotonin levels and increase perception of fatigue, which can lead to a less intense workout.4

Other workout-related benefits of BCAAs include helping decrease fatigue during exercise and reducing muscle soreness after a workout.

BCAAs are essential for bodybuilding, too, since these may promote muscle growth.5

Help raise protein synthesis and reduce muscle protein breakdown — BCAAs may be used for reducing levels of enzymes linked to muscle damage, namely creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase.

Eventually, BCAAs can lower muscle damage triggered by endurance exercise.6

Serve as regulators of some cell signaling pathways and play a role in various metabolic pathways — BCAAs may help influence the outcomes of diseases like diabetes, although their exact roles are still being examined.

BCAAs may assist in regulating blood sugar levels and improving blood sugar metabolism.

Some research has also proven that BCAAs can both decrease and increase blood sugar levels depending on the circumstances.

Stimulate protein synthesis — BCAAs, particularly leucine, can promote protein synthesis, possibly even to a better extent than a normal protein.

BCAAs were also shown to boost synthesis of the cells responsible for facilitating protein synthesis itself, raising the cell’s capacity for this all-important process.

Lower rate of protein breakdown — BCAAs reduce the activity of components in the protein breakdown pathway, and the expression of the complexes that play a role in protein breakdown.

Assist people with liver-related diseases — BCAAs may be helpful in preserving and restoring muscle mass, and may potentially improve symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy, a complication of liver disease that may lead to confusion, loss of consciousness and coma.7

Moreover, BCAAs can help enhance nutritional status, prognosis and quality of life among people with chronic liver disease.8

Prevent disrupted brain signals in people with certain conditions — Research has discovered that BCAAs can help inhibit faulty message transmission in the brain cells of people diagnosed with advanced liver disease, mania, tardive dyskinesia and anorexia.9


BCAAs can be used to help slow down muscle wasting in bedridden patients, aid in preventing fatigue and boost concentration too.10

Studies on BCAAs

Research has shown the potential health impacts of BCAAs. These amino acids were proven to be helpful in decreasing a person’s risk for becoming overweight and obese, as seen in a February 2011 Journal of Nutrition study.11 A November 2015 Nutrients article also highlighted that increased amounts of dietary BCAAs were inversely associated with abdominal obesity.12

Other studies also supported BCAAs’ role in exercise performance. According to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in November 2008, a high-protein diet combined with BCAAs reduced fatigue among sailors who participated in a 32-hour offshore sailing race.13

Meanwhile, a September 2016 animal study published in the journal Amino Acids found that BCAAs, particularly leucine, helped speed up recovery from muscle damage by inhibiting excess inflammation.14 An October 2013 Metabolites article also recorded a significant correlation between an increase in BCAAs and insulin resistance, and potential development of diabetes.15 This research may give clues on the possible benefits of BCAAs for diabetics.

When’s the Best Time to Take BCAAs?

Numerous research have yielded different suggestions on the best time to take BCAA supplements. The book “Natural Bodybuilding” recommends taking them before and after workouts, as they will help keep the muscles saturated and prevent them from breaking down.16 However, a 2003 study found that taking BCAA at night helped improve protein synthesis, as opposed to taking them during the day.17

Take note, however, that these suggestions are for BCAA supplements, which aren't really the most ideal BCAA sources. As mentioned earlier, getting these amino acids from dietary sources or from high-quality whey protein is more ideal.  

Take Note of BCAA Supplements’ Side Effects

If taken in excessive amounts, BCAA supplements may increase plasma ammonia in the body, leading to side effects like fatigue and loss of coordination, as highlighted by “The Health Professional’s Guide to Popular Dietary Supplements.”18

There isn’t enough information regarding the safety of BCAA supplements for pregnant and breastfeeding women, so supplementation is not recommended if you fall into either or both of these groups.19 Avoiding BCAA supplements also applies to branched-chain ketoaciduria patients, as they can trigger seizures and severe adverse mental and physical side effects like lethargy, ketoacidosis and failure to thrive.20

This disease, which is also called maple syrup urine disease, occurs when there are deficiencies in the branched-chain α-keto acid dehydrogenase complex that’s responsible for BCAA breakdown.21 People with this disease tend to have high BCAA levels,  which may build up in their body and cause severe damage in the tissues if left untreated.22

Leucine intake was also reported to trigger low blood sugar levels in infants diagnosed with a condition called idiopathic hypoglycemia.23 Some research has suggested that leucine prompts the pancreas to release insulin, resulting in low blood sugar levels.24

BCAA Supplements May Affect the MTOR Pathway Too

Another major side effect that can develop because of BCAA supplements, alongside consumption of excess protein, is the stimulation of the mTOR pathway. This is an important metabolic signaling pathway that can be useful if you want to build muscle tissue, but should not be stimulated every day or in instances when you don’t plan to build muscle.

Increased mTOR levels are similar to elevated insulin levels, because of the involvement of the same metabolic players like IFG-1, AMPK and PGC 1 alpha. Elevated mTOR signaling may lead to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and other conditions because of the suppression of autophagy and mitophagy, or the breakdown and recycling of faulty cells and mitochondria.

Another negative side effect of stimulating the mTOR pathway is the prevention of mitochondrial biogenesis or the ability of the body to reproduce mitochondria, or the powerhouse of the cells.

While BCAAs May Benefit You, It’s Best to Obtain Them From Foods

Amino acids have been renowned for the positive impacts that they deliver to the body. In the case of BCAAs, the numerous studies surrounding their capabilities for improving workouts, reducing and even eliminating exercise-caused pain, prompting metabolic pathways and addressing certain diseases indicate they are essential for your well-being.

However, it’s  crucial that you obtain these amino acids from dietary sources alone, or from a high-quality whey protein powder. BCAA supplements may not work effectively and may even lead to unpleasant adverse effects. Consult your doctor first before increasing your intake of BCAAs not just to know how much of these amino acids you should be taking, but prevent side effects from developing too.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About BCAA

Q: How do BCAAs work?

A: BCAAs work differently because of their branched molecular structure that enables them to be readily converted into glucose by the body. Unlike normal instances when the body utilizes carbohydrates to be burned as fuel, in some cases, protein can be broken down, burned as fuel and lead to health benefits.

Q: Are BCAAs good for you?

A: Yes. BCAAs can be good for you because they promote certain health benefits, such as:

Raising workout intensity

Reducing fatigue during exercise and soreness after a workout

Increasing protein synthesis

Decreasing muscle protein breakdown

Stimulating protein synthesis

Q: How should you use BCAAs?

A: As much as possible, BCAAs must be obtained from dietary sources like grass fed whey protein, grass fed beef, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, pastured egg yolks, raw grass fed cheese, quinoa, pumpkin seeds and nuts. BCAA powders, capsules and supplements must be avoided, because they can promote the stimulation of the mTOR pathway and lead to negative effects to the body.

Q: Are BCAA supplements safe?

A: While BCAA supplements are generally considered safe, side effects like fatigue and loss of coordination may develop if these are taken excessively.

However, there are groups of people who should avoid BCAA supplements entirely because they can trigger complications. These include pregnant and breastfeeding women, chronic drinkers of alcohol beverages, people diagnosed with ALS and branched-chain ketoaciduria, and those who will be undergoing a surgical procedure.

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