What Are BCAAs and Should You Be Taking Them?
If you’ve ever walked through a supplement store, you’ve likely seen supplements on the shelf that contain branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs for short). Have you ever wondered what these products do or how effective they are?
Before you pull the trigger and add them to your cart, let us answer some frequently asked questions. Outlined below is everything you need to know about BCAAs.
What Are BCAAs?
Before we can talk about BCAAs, we need to talk about EAAs (short for essential amino acids). EAAs are amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own. You need to get them from food or supplements (or both).
There are 9 essential amino acids:
Of these 9 essential amino acids, 3 (Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine) are considered branched-chain amino acids. These amino acids have a unique, branched structure (hence the name). They also play important roles in muscle repair and recovery.
Benefits of BCAAs
There are plenty of reasons to include BCAAs in your supplement regimen. The following are some of the greatest benefits they have to offer:
Faster Muscle Growth
One of the most common reasons why people use BCAAs is to support muscle growth. If you’re looking to maximize your gains, supplementing with BCAAs (in addition to eating an adequate amount of protein and following a well-designed strength training program) can make a big difference.
Some research shows that BCAAs (leucine, in particular) activate the pathways that stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is the process the body uses to make muscle. By supplementing with BCAAs after a workout, you can make this process more efficient, which can help you to see results from your training sooner.
Reduced Muscle Loss While Dieting
If you want to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit (i.e., your body is burning more calories than you’re taking in).
While a calorie deficit is needed to lose fat, eating fewer calories and nutrients can also cause you to lose muscle mass. In other words, the number on the scale will be going down, but it might be because you’re losing muscle, rather than body fat.
When you lose muscle mass, you end up with a less “toned” physique. Losing muscle also slows down your metabolism and makes it harder for you to burn calories (and lose weight).
By adding BCAAs to your supplement routine, you can reduce muscle loss and maintain your strength while also losing fat. This is a great way to preserve the muscle you worked so hard for during the bulking stage and ensure you look shredded rather than “skinny fat.”
Reduced Muscle Soreness
Many people find that supplementing with BCAAs helps to reduce their muscle soreness after a tough workout.
If you regularly feel stiff and sore after your workouts, to the point that it’s hard to get pumped up for your next training session, adding in some BCAAs can help to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and speed up the recovery process. BCAAs can also prevent the muscle damage that contributes to muscle soreness in the first place.
BCAA supplementation can be especially effective for those who exercise multiple times per day.
If you’re an athlete getting ready for a big game or competition, you can’t afford to let soreness get in the way of your training. BCAAs can provide you with extra amino acids and energy to push through your next session and get the most out of it.
Reduced Fatigue While Exercising
Some BCAA supplements contain caffeine, which provides an extra energy boost. Even those that don’t contain caffeine can still be energizing, though.
BCAAs help to reduce fatigue and improve your focus while exercising. This is because they keep levels of another essential amino acid, tryptophan, low.
When levels of BCAAs in your bloodstream drop while exercising, tryptophan levels increase. Tryptophan is converted to serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, in turn, can contribute to fatigue.
If you supplement with additional BCAAs before or during your workout, you can prevent your tryptophan levels from rising and make sure you stay energized.
Improved Blood Sugar Balance
BCAAs don’t only benefit athletes and gym-goers who are looking to build muscle or stay focused while training. They may also help to improve blood sugar balance.
Leucine and isoleucine, specifically, increase the secretion of insulin. Insulin is responsible for moving sugar out of the bloodstream and into the muscle cells.
Why does blood sugar balance matter for your health and fitness goals? If you have trouble maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, you may have a harder time losing weight, especially in stubborn areas.
Poor blood sugar balance could impact your ability to build muscle, too. This is because high blood sugar increases protein breakdown and also reduces protein synthesis.
Improved Immune System Function
BCAA supplementation can help to improve your immune system function as well.
People who train intensely for extended periods of time may be more prone to sickness than others. By including BCAAs in your regimen, though, you may be able to prevent this from happening.
Research shows that the immune cells in your gut use BCAAs as a source of fuel. Supplementing with BCAAs can help your immune system to regenerate faster and protect you against pathogens more easily.
When to Take BCAAs
The great thing about BCAA supplements is that you can take them at any time. There are also benefits to each timing option:
Some people like to add them to their pre-workout drink, for example. This provides them with the benefits of caffeine plus the benefits of BCAAs. Those who exercise in a fasted state, in particular, like to use this approach because it also helps them to avoid muscle breakdown.
If you don’t want to drink BCAAs before your workout, you can also sip on them while training. Drinking them while exercising can help to increase your energy and focus. It can also help you to stay hydrated, which is especially important during long or high-intensity workouts.
You can also enjoy BCAAs post-workout, especially if your main priorities are bulking and building muscle. This option helps you to experience more muscle repair and recovery-supporting benefits.
It’s worth noting, though, that if you drink a protein shake after training, you likely don’t need a BCAA supplement, too. As long as your proteins hake is a complete protein source (such as whey or pea protein), you’ll get a healthy dose of BCAAs and other essential amino acids in every scoop.
What seems to matter more than the timing of your BCAA supplement is the consistency with which you take it. To see the best results, you need to make sure you’re taking BCAAs and meeting your amino acid needs regularly.
Make an effort to take your BCAAs whenever you workout, whether you choose to take them before, during, or after hitting the gym. This is an easy way to form a habit and avoid missing too many days in a row.
Can’t I Get BCAAs from Food?
You can get BCAAs from your diet. In fact, if you eat a lot of protein-rich animal products (meat, fish, eggs, whey protein, etc.), you may not need to worry about BCAA supplementation.
On the other hand, if you don’t eat a lot of animal products, or if you follow a vegan diet and don’t eat any at all, you can definitely benefit from BCAA supplementation.
Some plant foods do contain BCAAs, but most people find that it’s easier to simply get them from a supplement instead. Supplementation also helps you ensure you’re getting an adequate amount in an easily digestible form.
Are There Risks Associated with BCAA Supplementation?
In general, BCAAs are considered to be safe and effective, as long as they’re not taken in large amounts.
The safe upper limit for BCAAs is around 35 grams per day. As long as you’re under this amount (and it would be hard for most people to exceed it), you shouldn’t experience any side effects.
Of course, everyone is different, and some people react to new supplements in unique ways. Because of this, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor before adding BCAAs to your routine, especially if you have been diagnosed with any health conditions.
Your doctor can let you know whether or not they think it’s a good idea for you to start using BCAAs. They can also provide additional recommendations for proper dosing.
How to Choose a BCAA Supplement
For those who want to enjoy the benefits of BCAAs, it’s important to choose a high-quality supplement. Here are some factors to consider when shopping to ensure you’re getting the right one for your needs:
Consider the Dosage
In general, experts recommend that adults consume a minimum of 15 milligrams of BCAAs per pound of body weight each day. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, you should aim for at least 2,250 milligrams (or 2.25 grams) of BCAAs per day.
Some researchers recommend consuming more than this, though, especially for active people. Athletes and gym-goers may want to aim for a larger amount of BCAAs per day, closer to 65 milligrams per pound of body weight (that’s 9,750 or 9.75 grams).
Consider BCAA Ratio
The optimal BCAA ratio is 2:1:1 of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. In other words, the best BCAA supplements will contain twice as much leucine as they do isoleucine and valine. If your supplement contained 3.5 grams of leucine, it should contain 1.75 grams of isoleucine and valine.
Some supplements contain a higher amount of leucine relative to the other BCAAs. However, it’s unclear if exceeding the 2:1:1 ratio is actually beneficial or not. For most people, this amount works just fine and helps them to see great results.
Look at Additional Ingredients
Beyond BCAAs, you should consider the other ingredients and nutrients included in your BCAA supplement.
Does it contain other essential amino acids? What about electrolytes to support hydration? Does it contain caffeine to help you get energized and motivated for your next cardio or lifting session?
Consider ingredients like dyes, fillers, and artificial sweeteners, too. If you’re sensitive or allergic to any particular ingredients, verify that your BCAA supplement doesn’t include them. That would be a recipe for disaster, wouldn’t it?
Check for Third-Party Testing
It’s best to use supplements that are tested by third-party labs. Third-party testing helps to verify that a supplement contains the ingredients it says it contains and provides the kinds of effects it claims to provide.
The supplement industry is not very thoroughly regulated. Because of this, supplement makers can essentially claim that a product does anything, regardless of whether or not it’s proven to be true.
Third-party testing helps you to avoid being taken advantage of by clever marketing, and it allows you to feel confident that you’re taking a safe and effective product.
Finally, read reviews from others who have already tried the BCAAs you’re thinking about buying.
What do they have to say about the product? Is it effective? Do they like the taste? Is it worth the price?
Consider the answers to these questions so you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to go with a particular brand of BCAAs.
Try BCAAs Today
Are you ready to start incorporating BCAAs into your supplement routine? Whether you mix them with your pre-workout drink, sip on them throughout your workout for extra energy and hydration, or enjoy them after training is over, there are tons of ways to use this product.
Do you want to learn about other supplements you can use to gain muscle, burn fat, and achieve your other health and fitness goals? If so, check out this blog post today for more advice.