Should You Be Taking BCAAs?

Clients always ask me if they should take BCAAs. Then they want to know what kind to take. Do you know why you might want to take BCAAs? I am going to explain what BCAAs are and a brief explanation of protein metabolism. Then I will give you some food for thought on why you may or may not want to take BCAAs along with a suggestion on administration if you decide to take them.


What Are BCAAs?

BCAAs are branched chain amino acids. The three amino acids we are talking about are valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Branched chain describes their molecular structure. Amino acids are what protein molecules are made up of. Amino acids are smaller molecules and link together to form a peptide or protein.


Peptides can be 2 amino acids together up to approximately 50 amino acids linked together. Polypeptides are long peptides with many amino acid molecules. A protein is one or more polypeptides linked together. Some specialists will refer to a polypeptide as a protein and some proteins will be considered polypeptides.


The word essential when referring to nutrition means you have to take it in by diet and/or your body won’t produce it when it’s needed. Your body will produce non-essential amino acids when they are needed. The non-essential amino acids are glycine, alanine, serine, asparagine, aspartic acid, glutamine, glutamic acid, proline, cysteine, tyrosine, and arginine. The above amino acids can be created by the body through a process called transamination where one amino acid converts to another.


The essential amino acids are valine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, methionine, threonine, lysine, and histidine. Valine, leucine, and isoleucine are the BCAAs and make up 40% of the essential amino acids we need to take in with food. Arginine, phenylalanine, and methionine are special cases because although the body can produce these amino acids the body doesn’t produce them in the quantity we need.


Basic Protein Metabolism

When you ingest protein, the protein will get broken down into amino acids. The amino acids will be used as needed in the body and for us that work out hopefully a lot will be used to build muscle. Some proteins are complete proteins meaning they have all 20 of the above amino acids. As I mentioned in last weeks article about whey protein, we don’t just need a complete protein, we need the right percentages of the different amino acids.


Sometimes the amino acids will be broken down further and used as energy. This is fine if the amino acids are coming from proteins in our diet but if the amino acids are coming from the break down of muscle tissue… Hold it right there! We don’t want to see muscle break down of this kind. During heavy lifting, we create micro tears in our muscle tissue and when we rest our body uses amino acids to repair these micro tears and build up the muscles a little stronger so the tearing doesn’t happen again. This is the whole point of weight lifting. This is the kind of breakdown we want to see.


Also during exercise, we burn off our glycogen stores. Glycogen is the form of sugar stored in muscle cells. Once the glycogen is gone, we start breaking down fats and muscle proteins for their amino acids. This kind of muscle breakdown is called catabolism and we never want to see it. The amino acids in turn get broken down further. The amino group breaks off leaving alpha-keto acid. The amino group is called ammonia and it is toxic. The liver will convert it to urea and it enters the blood to be peed out. The alpha-keto acid can be converted to energy. Each amino acid has their own unique way of conversion but the result is ATP (adenosine triphosphate which is what the body uses for energy).


Why Take BCAAs?

The number one reason people take BCAAs is to reduce the amount of protein breakdown from the muscle tissue to produce energy for their body during exercise. Most amino acids are primarily broken down in the liver, however, BCAAs are primarily broken down in muscle cells. If they are ingested, they bypass the liver and are absorbed very quickly into the blood so people will take them during a workout as glycogen takes about 45 minutes to burn off.


Another reason to take BCAAs is it will reduce fatigue during exercise. Serotonin production increases during exercise and serotonin will cause fatigue or tiredness. I have taken a nap after a workout many times. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and BCAAs compete for absorption with tryptophan reducing the amount of serotonin that gets produced. This decreases exercise induced fatigue.


A few more reasons to take BCAAs are they are said to increase fat loss, they comprise 40% of the essential amino acids our bodies need, they decrease DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), they increase muscle growth, and they increase recovery. I don’t know who did any of the studies to come up with the above conclusions but I am aware supplement manufacturers do a lot of studies to help market their products. There are a few other things you need to know if you decide to take BCAAs.


What You Need To Know

Some experts believe supplemental BCAAs increase your chances of cancer and diabetes. Some experts believe it decreases your chances of diabetes and cancer. Another thing is Dr. Longo did about 30 years of research on longevity and in his new book “The Longevity Diet” he talks about how we need the right amount of protein (amino acids) and too much is actually bad for us.


Dr. Rapheal Kellman mentioned that too much protein will cause ammonia toxicity. I mentioned earlier the amino group (nitrogen group) that breaks off to leave the alpha-keto acid. That nitrogen group needs carbon dioxide and an enzyme to form urea in the liver. Too much protein will catch up with us and may cause problems. Only take as much as needed.


Another thing is experts say you should get your BCAAs from a food source instead of a supplement. Undenatured whey protein has BCAAs in it and is absorbed relatively quickly. I think I’m going to personally go with undenatured whey protein for all the other health benefits it has along with all the essential amino acids. I will add a little bit of BCAAs because we need a little extra considering they are 40% (almost half) of the essential amino acids we need.  That will go with my solid regiment of bone broth which is loaded with amino acids we normally lack in our diets; even with whey and BCAA supplementation. Bone broth has a ton of other nutrients we lack in our average North American diets like collagen as well by the way.


What Kind Of BCAAs Should You Take?

Firstly, get your supplements from a reputable source. Most supplements aren’t produced with care to reduce toxins like heavy metals in the supplement. That would cost money and time. The other thing is get the cleanest supplements you can find. BCAAs taste awful so most companies will put in all kinds of toxic sweeteners, flavorings and coloring. Who knows what other junk they are putting in it.


Most of the sources I use don’t sell BCAAs because they believe it may cause cancer and diabetes. The source I use for my BCAAs is Pure Encapsulations. They have a hypoallergenic line of BCAAs which tells me they are likely to take more precautions and care when producing their BCAAs to make sure they are clean and completely toxin free. That’s the one I go with in way less dose than they recommend.


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