On this page we give you an introduction to BCAA. Here you can find out what you need BCAA for, how they work in the body and when it makes sense to take BCAA. We’ll also tell you which foods are naturally rich in BCAA and which different forms of BCAA are available as dietary supplements.
- BCAA (branched chain amino acids) is the name for the three branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine.
- BCAA can be used directly by the body and do not have to pass through the liver like other amino acids.
- Besides whey and creatine, BCAA are among the most popular dietary supplements for building muscle.
- BCAAs are becoming more and more popular with people who are striving for weight loss or who do endurance sports.
What is BCAA?
Definition of BCAA
Proteins are made up of amino acids. These are divided into different groups based on their chemical structure. The proteinogenic amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine have a branched side chain, which is why they are grouped together as branched-chain amino acids. Instead of this somewhat bulky name, the English abbreviation BCAA (branched chain amino acids) is often used. BCAA are one of the essential amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own. So you have to get them through your food.
Where do BCAA occur in the body?
The largest reservoir of branched-chain amino acids is the skeletal muscles. There they are mainly found as part of muscle proteins. BCAA are found in animal protein in a ratio of 2: 1: 1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine). The BCAA concentration in the blood plasma is also quite high compared to other amino acids (with the exception of glutamine). Since they can cross the blood-brain barrier with the help of a transport system, the branched-chain amino acids can also be found in the brain.
How do BCAA get into the muscles?
BCAA are absorbed in the intestine through the intestinal mucosa. They reach their target tissue as free amino acids via the blood without being broken down or converted in the liver like other amino acids. About 70 percent of the increase in free amino acids in blood plasma after a meal is due to BCAA. Once in the target tissues, they take on important metabolic functions. We will explain what these are in the following sections.
BCAA in sports
The results of numerous scientific studies suggest that BCAAs both stimulate muscle building and inhibit muscle breakdown. This makes BCAA very popular in weight training and bodybuilding. BCAAs have been shown to stimulate muscle building by increasing the amount of glutamine in muscle, which the body sees as a signal to build more muscle. The inhibition of muscle breakdown takes place via branched-chain keto acids (amino acid metabolic product), which arise from the breakdown of BCAA.
BCAA are also useful in endurance sports. Apparently they lead to a reduction in muscle fatigue. The brain messenger substance serotonin is held responsible for the exhaustion processes in the context of physical stress. Serotonin is made from tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan competes with branched-chain amino acids for the same transport mechanism into the brain. If there is a lot of BCAA in the blood after ingestion, these are mainly absorbed into the brain instead of tryptophan, which inhibits the production of serotonin. Less serotonin, according to this theory, also means less fatigue.
What else do BCAAs do? If you train intensively, this can lead to an overload of bones, tendons and joints, especially at the beginning with weak muscles. Fortunately, BCAA’s muscle protection doesn’t seem to be limited to inhibiting muscle breakdown. BCAA can apparently also prevent muscle soreness and muscle damage, as a study on untrained young men who had to complete 90-minute endurance exercises showed. There is so far no clear evidence of a possible improvement in regeneration through BCAA.
BCAA in weight loss
If you want to do body shaping, you are bound to be interested in the nutritional values of BCAA. Since these are isolated amino acids and not complete proteins, the branched-chain amino acids themselves are not included in the nutritional value calculation. BCAA supplements therefore hardly contain any calories. The calories of the products come only from the additives used and are negligible.
That sounds good, but do BCAA help you with fat loss? According to the authors of a smaller study, BCAA increase fat burning during exercise that leads to glycogen depletion. In our opinion, this is not enough to call BCAA a fat burner. But it does show that BCAA and exercise can bring you closer to your goal during diet or definition phases.
In addition, you should not forget about the inhibition of muscle breakdown by BCAA. When you cut down on your calorie intake, your body tends to use your muscles for energy. This is to be avoided as a loss of muscle mass means fewer calories burned. This in turn can promote a yo-yo effect.
Do BCAAs have side effects?
With all the positive effects, you are certainly wondering whether taking BCAA leads to side effects. Branched-chain amino acids are considered to be well tolerated at the usual dosages. Mentally unstable people should discuss the use of BCAA with their doctor because of the possible influence on the serotonin metabolism.
Occurrence of BCAA in food
BCAA can also be found naturally in food. Good sources are meat and fish. It is best for vegans to use legumes, grains or nuts. When choosing your sources, you should consider what macronutrients they contain. Protein-rich foods are almost always also rich in BCAA. In addition to BCAA, nuts also provide a lot of fat.
BCAA dietary supplements
Nowadays, BCAA production for sports nutrition is usually done by fermenting corn. Most supplements are therefore also suitable for vegans. BCAA used to be extracted from animal substances. BCAA products are available in different dosage forms: powders, capsules, tablets, liquid concentrates and also ready-to-eat drinks.
These BCAA preparations also differ in their composition. To optimize the taste, you will find sweeteners and flavors as additional ingredients in many BCAA supplements. In the case of capsules and tablets, this is usually avoided. In addition, products with different proportions of the branched-chain amino acids are offered. Some manufacturers emphasize the importance of leucine and sell products with a ratio of 8: 1: 1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine) or even higher.
So far, however, it has not been proven that such a high leucine content has advantages. The International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends intake in a ratio of 2: 1: 1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine).
BCAA or Whey Protein?
Are BCAA better than whey? There is no general answer to this question due to the various possible uses of branched-chain amino acids. You should keep in mind that BCAAs are not a complete protein. According to a study, simply taking BCAA instead of protein is not enough to effectively stimulate muscle growth. The availability of further essential amino acids (EAA) is a speed-determining step in muscle protein synthesis.
Whey or another high-quality protein powder should therefore be viewed as a basic supplement for building muscle. However, BCAA reach the muscles faster than the amino acids in whey and in this way bring you added value. Due to the positive effects of BCAA, they are also a beneficial addition to protein shakes.