Branched-Chain Amino Acids 101: What are the Benefits of Branched-Chain Amino Acids?

Published May 2nd, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Erik Rivera

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and there are two types, essential and non-essential.

Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAA for short, are a specific type of essential amino acid and have unique benefits that make them an important part of any diet.

In this article, we will discuss the benefits and adverse effects of branched-chain amino acids and we will also cover which food sources contain them.

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What are amino acids?

There are 20 amino acids that are found in nature, and these 20 amino acids can be combined to form thousands of different proteins.

Proteins are important for many functions in the body, including cell structure, metabolism, and enzymes. There are two types of proteins and we will highlight the differences below.

Essential amino acids

Essential amino acids are those that cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from food. There are nine essential amino acids and they include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Non-essential amino acids

Non-essential amino acids are those that can be made by the body from other amino acids. There are 11 non-essential amino acids and they are alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

What are branched-chain amino acids?

Branched-chain amino acids are a specific group of three essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

These three amino acids are important for many functions in the body including muscle growth and metabolism.

They are named branched-chain amino acids because of their structure, which is different from other amino acids, and they are typically found in foods that are high in protein, such as meat and eggs.

What are the benefits of branched-chain amino acids?

There are many potential benefits of branched-chain amino acids, including:

Muscle growth

Branched-chain amino acids help with muscle growth by stimulating muscle protein synthesis and inhibiting muscle protein breakdown whereas protein synthesis is the process of making muscles and protein breakdown is muscle loss.

The branched-chain amino acid leucine is especially important for an increase in muscle protein as it is the most potent amino acid in stimulating protein synthesis.

Boost exercise performance

Branched-chain amino acids may improve exercise performance by reducing fatigue and improving recovery. When you exercise, your body uses branched-chain amino acids for energy expenditure, reducing their levels in your body which causes the levels of tryptophan, another amino acid, to rise.

Tryptophan is then converted into serotonin which is believed to cause fatigue.

The more branched-chain amino acids you have reduces the levels of serotonin and therefore reduces muscle damage and fatigue while also boosting energy metabolism.

Alleviates muscle soreness

Muscle soreness is caused by inflammation and damage to your muscles, which is believed to be many minuscule tears, after exercise.

Branched-chain amino acids may help reduce muscle soreness by reducing the amount of creatine kinase in your body, which is an enzyme that is associated with exercise-induced muscle damage.

Prevent muscle wasting

Muscle wasting is the loss of muscle mass that can occur with aging, inactivity, fasting, or chronic diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS.

Branched-chain amino acids may help prevent muscle wasting by reducing protein breakdown and preserving muscle mass.

Helps with liver diseases

If you have cirrhosis of the liver, there is a good chance that you may also develop hepatic encephalopathy, which is a condition that can lead to brain damage.

Liver cirrhosis, which is a condition that produces scar tissue instead of normal liver tissue, can also lead to hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the most common form of liver cancer.

Branched-chain amino acids have been shown in studies to help people with both hepatic encephalopathy and hepatocellular carcinoma.

Other studies have also suggested that branched-chain amino acids may also help prevent liver cancer too.

Are the benefits of branched-chain amino acids backed by science?

Yes and no as the potential benefits of branched-chain amino acids are backed by science although more studies are necessary to prove all of the benefits of branched-chain amino acids.

There have been many studies conducted on branched-chain amino acids and their potential benefits; however, most of these studies have been done on animals and did not include exposure in humans.

More research is needed to determine the exact effects of branched-chain amino acids, especially in studies with a large dataset of humans.

Also, note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate any dietary supplements although it has approved branched-chain amino acid injections for nitrogen loss.

How can I get branched-chain amino acids in my diet?

There are many ways that you can get branched-chain amino acids in your diet. One way is to eat foods that contain branched-chain amino acids, these include:

  • Dairy products such as milk, whey, cheese, and yogurt
  • Soy protein
  • Certain meats such as beef, chicken, and turkey
  • Fish such as salmon and tuna
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Tofu
  • Some beans and peas such as baked beans, lima beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • Whole wheat
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Certain nuts such as almonds, brazil nuts, and cashews

Another way is to take a supplement that contains branched-chained amino acids.

These supplements are usually in the form of a powder or pill and can be found at most health food stores.

Do branched-chain amino acids have any adverse effects or risks?

There are no known adverse effects of branched-chain amino acids when taken in recommended doses; however, you may experience side effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Headaches

Other risks when taking branched-chain amino acids include:

  • Spiking your blood glucose levels after surgery
  • Interactions with other medications including diabetes medications, Parkinson's disease medications, corticosteroids, thyroid hormones, and Progylcem, which is diazoxide

If you have any medical conditions and are taking medications it is important to speak to your doctor or health care provider before taking branched-chain amino acids as they may interact with certain medications.

If you are breastfeeding, pregnant, or plan to become pregnant do not take branched-chain amino acid supplements.

Where can you purchase branched-chain amino acid supplements?

You can purchase branched-chain amino acid supplements at most health food stores or online.

As with any dietary supplement, always read the labels and make sure it has been third-party tested to ensure quality.

Are branched-chained amino acid supplements legal in sports?

Yes, branched-chained amino acid supplements are legal in sports as they are not on the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) banned substance list and they are also readily available in many food sources.

Summary

Branched-chain amino acids are three types of essential amino acids, specifically leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

They can be found in many foods and are also available as a dietary supplement.

These amino acids have many potential benefits, including helping to prevent liver damage, preventing muscle wasting, and helping muscle growth among others, but more research is needed to confirm all of the potential benefits.

There is a wide range of food sources that naturally provide branched-chain amino acids including poultry, fish, and dairy products along with many others listed above.

Side effects from taking branched-chain amino acids include nausea, pain, and headache. Do not take any branched-chain amino acid supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you have any more questions about branched-chain amino acids and whether to take them as a dietary supplement, consult with your doctor or health care provider to see if they are right for you.

References and Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16365096

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790854/

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