BCAA is the acronym for branched-chain amino acids. The “branched-chain” refers to the molecular structure of the three BCAA amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are unique in several ways; most notably because they are broken down primarily in muscle. Most other amino acids are broken down in the liver.
Athletes take BCAA supplements because there’s evidence they can help reduce exercise fatigue, accelerate recovery and diminish muscle soreness after intense activity, sharpen focus, and decrease muscle breakdown and activate muscle protein synthesis during workouts. There’s even evidence BCAA amino acids can help balance blood sugar levels and optimize blood sugar metabolism.
What Does Science Say?
Several studies point to promising BCAA benefits.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (JSSM) showed that when endurance runners took a BCAA supplement their performance significantly improved. Researchers attribute this effect to the impact BCAAs have on serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that promotes fatigue during exercise. BCAAs inhibit the production of serotonin during exercise, thereby helping to reduce fatigue so endurance athletes can run faster and go longer.
Scientists agree that BCAA supplementation can help increase protein synthesis and decrease muscle protein breakdown, but a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) also showed that BCAA supplements can reduce muscle damage and accelerate recovery when taken before and after resistance exercise.
“The present study has shown that BCAA administered before and following damaging resistance exercise reduces indices of muscle damage and accelerates recovery in resistance-trained males. It seems likely that BCAA provided greater bioavailablity of substrate to improve protein synthesis and thereby the extent of secondary muscle damage associated with strenuous resistance exercise.”
BCAAs are able to reduce the markers of muscle damage by decreasing levels of two prominent enzymes that contribute to muscle breakdown—creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase.
BCAA amino acids’ influence on muscle soreness was demonstrated by a study from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. When women took a BCAA supplement prior to performing squat exercises they experienced significantly lower levels of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
BCAA Benefits in Medicine
Branched-chain amino acids are used to treat:
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Brain conditions from liver disease (chronic hepatic encephalopathy, latent hepatic encephalopathy)
- A genetic disease called McArdle’s disease
- A movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia
- Spinocerebellar degeneration
- Poor appetite in cancer and kidney failure patients
- Slow muscle wasting in bedridden individuals
Supplementing with BCAAs
One of the most popular supplements in the fitness community, BCAAs are also some of the most misused. Without a doubt BCAA amino acids help build muscle and boost performance, but when taken in and of themselves these coveted benefits are dampened at best and entirely defunct at worst.
Taking a BCAA supplement that only contains the BCAA amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) has minimal effect on protein synthesis. In order for your body to build complete proteins it needs all the essential amino acids available in their appropriate concentrations. The BCAAs alone disrupt the balance of the amino acid pool, and their benefits are lost if not taken as part of a complete amino acid complex. Click here to learn how to get the most from your BCAA supplement.