Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplements
In the world of amino acids, the structural “building blocks” of proteins, there are several classes and types of aminos. For example, we have the essential amino acids, the non-essential amino acids, the conditionally essential amino acids and the branch chain amino acids (BCAA).
The essential amino acids are deemed as such because the body cannot manufacture them and they must be supplied by the diet. The non-essential amino acids can be made from the essential amino acids, and thus don’t have to be supplied by the diet for survival, though many non-essential amino acids play essential roles in health and metabolism in their own right.The conditionally essential amino acids, so named because during certain periods, such as infancy or certain metabolic states, can be considered essential for that period of time.
The branch chain amino acids (so named because they branch off another chain of atoms rather than form a straight line as other amino acids do) are leucine, valine and isoleucine.
The BCAA’s are the amino acids that are primarily used (oxidized) during exercise and make up to one third of the amino acids in muscle tissue. It has been known for a long time that BCAA’s play a critical role in the turn over of lean body tissues (muscle) and is muscle sparing (i.e. anti-catabolic) in a variety of muscles wasting states. Of the three BCAA, L-leucine appears to be the most important to preserving hard earned muscle mass; intense exercise and certain disease states have been shown to eat up a great deal of L-leucine.
On the research front, some studies have found the consumption of BCAA before endurance exercise may decrease the rate of protein degradation and may have a sparing effect on muscle glycogen degradation and depletion of muscle glycogen stores. However, leucine supplementation at 200 mg per kg of bodyweight prior to anaerobic running exercise (sprinting) did not improve performance.
Truth is, research to date with BCAA’s and performance has been contradictory at best. One of the major drawbacks of the BCAA’s as a supplement is dosage. It takes very high doses to see any ergogenic effect, assuming there are any ergogenic effects to be had, as studies are still limited and or contradictory.
Although BCAA’s supplementation may or may not be effective, it is cost prohibitive when one factors in the amounts needed. The good news however is that proteins, in particular whey protein, is very high in BCAA’s and this may be yet another reason whey is the so popular with athletes and so impressive in the research. As amino acids relating to the functions they play in the body, they get a thumb’s up from me, but as a supplement they get a thumb’s down at this time. It’s far more cost effective to use a high BCAA content protein supplement than take BCAA’s supplements in capsule form due to the high doses needed.