Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)?

If your exercise regimen includes resistance training, lifting weights, or other high intensity routines, you may have heard of BCAAs, a supplement purported to improve muscle recovery and rebuilding. What exactly are BCAAs, and do they deliver on their promise?

Before we can answer the question, here is a bit of a primer. Almost all biological processes in the body require amino acids. These are complex molecules that help build muscles, for example. The body knows to build 13 amino acids on its own, but 9 others need to be imported via food. They are called essential amino acids (EAA), and are easily obtained from protein rich foods. You see, amino acids are the building blocks of protein.

Three of the 9 EAAs are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) because of their molecular structure. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine is particularly interesting, as it initiates protein synthesis. In other words, it helps build muscles mass.

When we exercise hard, our muscles start breaking down in micro-tears, which basically means a lot of work for amino acids to come in and start their repair work. This is why it’s recommended to consume protein rich food after a workout. The proteins from our food are broken down into amino acids, which are then shipped to the muscles and utilized to rebuild what was broken down.

Can BCAAs do a better job than say, milk or eggs or a PB&J sandwich?

According to several studies, BCAAs do have a positive impact. The studies were conducted on athletes and showed that consumption of BCAA after workouts can help reduce muscle soreness and expedite muscle recovery.

However, the studies had several limitation:
1. They were conducted on extremely small groups – less than 20 people.
2. They were conducted on young male athletes, whose bodies work differently than a middle aged amateur.
3. The control groups were given a placebo, but nobody checked what a normal real food diet could do for them instead.

So, should you invest in BCAAs? Unfortunately, the evidence for their efficacy is very limited. Before spending money on supplements, make sure you consume good quality protein from food. Make sure to get a good dosage in right after exercise, as studies have shown that protein intake within the first 20 minutes after exercise has the most impact.

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