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Now I Know My A, B, CAAs

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Amino acids are organic compounds mostly composed of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. They are found in protein-rich foods like meat and seafood and perform many important roles in the body. There are 20 amino acids that the body needs to function, and nine of these are labeled essential amino acids. The nine essential amino acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Theronine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

The body can make the other 11 amino acids on its own, but the essential amino acids must come from your diet.

Branched-chain Amino Acids

If you’re in the fitness world, you’ve likely heard of BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids. These are three specific amino acids of the nine essential: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and called branched-chain due to their chemical structure. These BCAAs have a litany of benefits to anyone who is engaged in exercising. Leucine is touted as the amino acid responsible for muscle growth, and isoleucine and valine are thought to aid more with blood sugar and energy levels.

Leucine creates the avenue that stimulates muscle protein synthesis – which is the process of turning amino acids into skeletal muscle. One study had a group consume 5.6 grams of BCAAs after lifting weights and showed a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to the placebo group. The stipulation in this study is that the BCAA group showed 50% less protein syntheses than a group who consumed whey protein with a similar amount of BCAAs. So the takeaway would be – BCAAs after a workout is good, having BCAAs with protein is better, having just water is the least beneficial to muscle protein synthesis.

BCAAs can also prevent muscle wasting, which is the opposite of muscle protein synthesis. This occurs when the muscle breakdown is greater than the amount of the rebuild, or protein synthesis. Muscle wasting occurs in cases of malnutrition, chronic infections, and cancer, and can also occur from long periods of fasting and naturally with age. Of the essential amino acids in the muscles, BCAAs account for 35 to 40% of the total amino acids needed by the body, and 14 – 18% of the amino acids in the muscles. For this reason, BCAAs have been recommended for people suffering through cancer and the elderly, as well as within the fitness community.

Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash

More Benefits

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, is the actual term for what we’d call “feeling sore after a workout”. BCAAs have been shown to help with muscle soreness because they decrease muscle damage. Some studies have shown BCAAs decrease protein breakdown during exercise and decrease levels of an enzyme called creatine kinase that leaks from into the bloodstream when muscle tissue is damaged. Other studies have reported that groups taking BCAAs after exercise reported less muscle soreness than the placebo group.

Just as BCAAs can help decrease muscle soreness, they may also help fight fatigue from exercise. Muscles use BCAAs during exercise, causing the levels in the bloodstream to decrease unless they are replenished. When these levels decrease, the levels of tryptophan – the amino acid that makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving turkey – increase in the brain.

Studies show BCAAs peak in the bloodstream 30 minutes after consumption. Therefore, taking them before you start a workout takes advantage of the fatigue-reducing effects during exercise. However, there are benefits to be had after a workout as well. BCAAs, particularly leucine, stimulates muscle protein synthesis, reduces muscle breakdown, and can fight the oncoming soreness. One of the most popular BCAA powders on suggests one serving during exercise, and one serving after exercise – the best of both worlds.

Amino acids are the building blocks of the body, and nine of those are called essential because we can’t make them on our own. It’s important to get them from our diet. Of those nine, three are called branched-chain amino acids due to their chemical structure. These BCAAs have many benefits especially for anyone engaged in heavy exercise. If you want to improve your performance, reduce fatigue, reduce muscle soreness, and help your muscles to rebuild after a workout, adding BCAAs to your supplement routine may be just what the doctor ordered.

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