03/05/2017 - 21:10

Branched-Chain Amino Acids

Proteins consist of twenty amino acids, eight of which are essential amino acids. These have to be obtained from your diet or supplements. Three out of the eight fall under the BCAA category, or Branched-Chain Amino Acids. Read why they are important for you here.

What are BCAAs?

BCAAs are Branched-Chain Amino Acids. All kinds of enzymes can use these amino acids more easily than others because of this 'branched-chain', which makes it relatively simple to convert them into energy. BCAAs are the first amino acids to be used as energy by your body. Your body will only go in search of other energy sources, which can result in the breakdown of muscle mass, if BCAAs are in short supply. They also ensure acidification in the muscles occurs more slowly, promote tissue vitality and combat tissue ageing.

Moreover, BCAAs support your performance as they play a role in the way insulin functions. Among diabetics they ensure improved glycaemic control. A higher intake of BCAA also reduces the chance of diabetes developing. In addition they combat muscle degradation during the aging process and support the cardiac and renal function. As BCAAs increase the basic metabolism and promote the uptake and oxidisation of glucose in the muscles, they also have a positive effect on excess weight and obesity. 

Different BCAAs

The essential amino acids we classify as BCAAs are Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. 

Leucine, or HO2CCH(NH2)CH2CH(CH3)2, is an essential amino acid that has a positive effect on muscle growth. Adequate training and a protein-rich diet results in an increase in muscle mass and can combat muscle loss in the case of a strict diet. If you consume it with your meal after training it provides up to 16 percent more muscle growth. A protein shake is more effective if you also consume Leucine. The most suitable form for the body is L-Leucine, as well as L-Isoleucine and L-Valine.

  • Isoleucine

The formula for Isoleucine is R-CH(NH2)-COOH (of which R=-CH-(CH3)-CH2CH3). It was first isolated from fibrin in 1904. Isoleucine can boost protein synthesis just like Leucine. Not nearly as much as Leucine, but more than Valine. Isoleucine can significantly increase glucose uptake and the use of glucose during exercise. It also promotes muscle recovery after training and is needed to regulate blood sugar levels.

Valine (R-CH(NH2)-COOH (whereby R=-CH-(CH3)2 is)) was first isolated from casein by the German chemist Emil Fischer in 1901. It aids the growth and recovery of muscle tissue and is necessary for the nervous system to function properly. It can help overcome addictions and can aid weight loss due to its hunger-inhibiting effect. Valine also promotes the uptake of, for example tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine.


What does Leucine do?

Leucine is simply the most important amino acid of them all. The main property of leucine is to stimulate protein synthesis and it does so to a far greater extent than the other amino acids. It also has a regulating effect on protein synthesis; it ensures, along with insulin, that protein synthesis is initiated.

Leucine only works if used in combination with proteins or other amino acids. It is therefore recommended that it be taken together with the other two BCAAs. Isoleucine and valine cannot trigger protein synthesis alone, but they do supply the necessary building blocks. This is why the proportion of leucine, isoleucine and valine is usually 2:1:1, but there are also supplements that contain a proportion of 6:1:1 or 8:1:1, such as BCAA & Glutamine.

Leucine also maintains muscle mass if you haven't been able to work out for a little while. It also slightly increases the muscle mass of people aged 65 and over, without them having to work out.

BCAAs in food

BCAAs also naturally occur in foodstuffs, in the same products you eat because of their protein (which is logical because protein consists of amino acids). Examples include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts and seeds. A shortage of BCAAs will result in reduced muscle mass and muscle strength, less energy and a worse condition, and you may become confused and depressed. It could also disturb your glucose, fat and protein metabolism.

Research into BCAAs

  • A study by Mero in 1997 showed that the level of leucine in the blood, among athletes that take in 1.26 g/kg body weight of protein a day, decreases by 20 percent during a power training session. A supplement of 50 mg/kg body weight a day will prevent this reduction in leucine levels.
  • A study by Karlsson in 2004, reveals that people who take BCAAs after a workout have an anabolic response 3.5 times higher than people that do not.
  • A study by Ganzit in 1997, shows that the daily intake of 0.2 g/kg body weight of BCAA powder (taken partially before and after the workout), has a positive effect on muscle strength, fat burning and muscle mass.

Fact Check

A great deal has been written about the benefits, or lack of benefits, of taking BCAAs. A common counter argument is that if someone eats enough protein, he or she will automatically take in enough amino acids. In principle there is something in this argument but firstly, not everyone eats sufficient amounts of protein. Secondly, it mainly concerns the three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine, the BCAAs. These are the ones you want to consume in higher quantities. You also need the others but not per se in these higher quantities. 

Four facts about BCAAs

  • BCAAs do not need to first pass through the liver (as other amino acids do), but are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
  • BCAAs are known for their ability to reduce muscle pain and speed up muscle recovery after an intensive workout. Leucine, one of the main promoters of muscle growth, is especially important with regard to this effect because this substance initiates protein synthesis, provided at least 2.5 g are consumed. Some scientists call this the 'trigger effect' of leucine.
  • In practice recent research has shown that 5 grams of leucine added to 6.25 grams of whey isolate, develops just as much muscle mass as 25 grams of isolate alone. For bodybuilders on a diet, adding leucine to whey isolate could help keep the total amount of calories lower and retain the dry matter.
  • The best (most logical) proportion of BCAAs is 2:1:1, in the order of: leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAA.


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