The prevalence of various supplements and ergogenic aids today can be very confusing not just for the recreational athlete, but even for seasoned competitors who aim to improve their performance. The supplement industry is taking advantage of the increasing number of people who are now more conscious about their health. While some are clinically backed by science to deliver results (glutamine, creatine and protein), other supplements have received skepticism on whether they really work or whether they simply produce a ‘placebo effect.’ Some pills offer almost all of the performance enhancements that you can think of, and you can be quite sure that if a product does that, it’s definitely false. Still, there are supplements such as Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) which are proven by science to be beneficial to performance.
What are Branched Chain Amino Acids?
Branch chain amino acids or BCAA’s are composed of three essential amino acids namely leucine, valine, and isoleucine. Essential amino acids are nutrients that can only be derived from food such as especially meat, dairy products, and legumes. On the other hand, non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body. ‘Branch chain‘ refers to the chemical structure of these three essential amino acids.
What are the known uses of BCAA’s?
Branch chain amino acids have been used in medicine for treatments of various diseases which includes brain conditions due to liver disease, a movement disorder called tardive dyskineseia, and to treat poor appetite in kidney and cancer patients. It is also being used to help slow muscle degeneration in patients who are confined to bed.
BCAA’s are also known to prevent fatigue and improve concentration. Athletes have been using Branch chain amino acids to improve exercise performance by reducing protein and muscle breakdown during intense training.
Are BCAA supplements effective or are they just a waste of time (and money)?
A study has proven that although BCAA’s does not directly enhance athletic performance, they still produce a postive effect on muscle recovery and the immune system. According to the study, “Data show that BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis. Muscle damage develops delayed onset muscle soreness: a syndrome that occurs 24-48 h after intensive physical activity that can inhibit athletic performance.“
Another study performed by Green et al (2007) observed the effects of BCAA supplementation on endurance exercise through measuring blood samples. 9 untrained men performed 3 series of 90 minute bouts of cycling at 55% of VO2 max. They performed the cycling bout once with BCAA’s, once with a carbohydrate drink, and once with a non calorie containing drink.
Blood samples were taken at 4, 24 and 48 hours following exercise. The study showed that the blood samples of those who took BCAA’s had lower accumulation of waste products, which minimized soreness for the cyclists.
These studies suggest BCAA’s could certainly benefit sportsmen and gym goers by buffering waste product accumulation in muscles, thus preserving muscle tissue and promoting quicker recovery.
When should BCAA’s be taken or ingested?
Branch chain amino acids are usually taken prior to exercise or training. BCAA’s are ‘free form,’ which means that they do not require much time to be digested. The contents of your supplement should contain 50% leucine, 25% isoleucine, and 25% valine. BCAA’s should be taken with water before and after training, and even with any other pre or post workout supplement. For those who aim to build muscle mass, BCAA’s can be taken with whey protein for faster absorption and for additional nutrients.
According to consumerlab.com, there is no apparent toxicity or danger associated with BCAA supplementation. They recommend anywhere from 1 to 12 grams.
Should I take BCAA’s?
The benefits of Branch chain amino acid supplements are proven to be effective. However, before you take BCAA’s or any supplements, talk to your coach, sports nutritionist, or doctor for advise. Know your goals – Why are you participating in exercise or training? Are you aiming to be a bodybuilder? Are you going to compete in a race? BCAA is an answer to the question ‘What supplements can help improve my performance?‘ or ‘What can help build my muscles?‘ but other factors should be considered. For any supplements, don’t take them for vague reasons unless you really need it and you are advised to take it. Remember that sometimes, eating a healthy diet and getting enough rest could do a lot more than taking a supplement.
Athletic supplements such as Branch chain amino acids do have a role and are effective ergogenic aids, but like any other aspect of your training, taking supplementation should match your goals.
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Green B.K, Woodard J.L, White J.P, Arguelle E.M, Haymes E.M., (2007). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exercise Metabolism; 17(6): 595-607