Breaking Down Proteins- Is BCAA supplementation beneficial?
Supplementing with Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) has been around the health and fitness industry for quite some time. I have heard about supplementing with them since getting into this field, but didn’t really know their functions and benefits or how to use them for a very long time.
In fact, I really didn’t know a lot about amino acid supplementation benefits until recently, and even then it was just basic facts– they aid in recovery through protein synthesis and prevention of muscle catabolism, which means less soreness post-workout. This can be a somewhat valuable main takeaway, but there is a bit more information to really grasp the effects of amino acids. Protein turns out to be a little complicated, so for today I will cover:
- What are amino acids?
- What food and supplement sources provide amino acids and how do they differ?
- What are the guidelines for supplementing with amino acids and/or branched chain amino acids?
There are 22 amino acids (AA) your body needs to function well. Some are synthesized in your body, and some need to be consumed exogenously through food or supplements.
The latter are called your “Essential Amino Acids” (EAA) and there are 10 of them (though there is some debate on this number, I don’t believe it to make the biggest difference for the purposes of this article). In case any of you care to remember them, there was an acronym used in graduate school to help: “Pvt. Tim Hall”
As you can see: Phenylanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Methionine, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine and Lysine
The EAA’s and the AA’s your body naturally makes can all be arranged into different combinations that make chains that create a variety of proteins, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, and way more- basically every function that takes place within your body.
It turns out, there are a LOT of people that are lacking the appropriate amount of some amino acids. You can imagine this can have significant repercussions in your body- some effects like low energy or fatigue, are subtle and can go unnoticed for quite some time. There are tests that can be done to measure the concentration of AA’s in your blood if you are interested in investigating your own levels further. In any case, getting a good amount and the RIGHT amount, is very important.
When you eat protein in a food source- fish, rice, steak- your body breaks the protein down into these different amino acids. After traveling in the blood stream to the cell, the cell does one of two things:
- Uses amino acids to make one of those protein chains to kickstart another process or
- Break the amine (Nitrogen) off the molecular structure and is then used as a carbohydrate which is burned or stored as fat or glycogen. Nitrogen is then urinated out or gone to liver as ammonia.
An example to note: if a person eats only whey protein for three days, you can measure the intake of protein, and output of urinary nitrogen and calculate how much protein is being utilized/retained. For example, if you eat 100g of whey protein/day for three days, only 84% of the Nitrogen will be peed out which means only 16% is retained. This is because the combination of amino acids in whey protein are not the ideal combinations to be made into proteins, so a lot of the AA’s get wasted. There are basically “limiting factors”-too many of some amino acids and not enough of others to make the right combinations.
This type of analysis has been done on many protein sources. We can look and see how well different sources of nitrogen are utilized and made into protein in the body:
Chicken Egg: 48%
Breast Milk: 49%
(Numbers from this podcast with Dr. David Minkoff)
You can see the difference in value for the varying protein sources.
Alright, so now that I have talked a ton about Essential Amino Acids, you are all probably anxiously waiting the “to-dos” around supplementing with Branched Chain Amino Acids. So first, lets talk about their value and purpose.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) include three of the EAA’s: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. BCAA’s bypass digestion and get used for immediate fuel for hard working muscles, and spare muscle by promoting anabolism during those times of physical stress. Existing protein doesn’t get catabolized when you supplement with BCAA’s, which is a good thing. Remember, EAA’s include all the BCAA’s, so if you are supplementing with EAA’s and/or eating a diet high in quality sourced protein where you would get all EAA’s, then you reap the benefits of BCAA’s as well. There are additional theories around how the increased concentration (through supplementation) of those BCAA’s in your bloodstream during a workout can help uniquely from just dietary sources, though.
How to supplement?
Most people can handle a maximum of 30g AA’s/day. Otherwise it is metabolized as sugar and stored as fat. NOTE this number refers to EAA’s, not JUST BCAA’s. If a vegan was concerned they were not getting the protein they needed, a recommendation of taking an EAA supplement of 10g 3x/day would be appropriate. Supplementing in this manner, the recommendation is to do it on an empty stomach, 23 minutes or more before a meal if it has fat or protein because that delays/affects absorption. If you want to have something without fat/protein (like banana or berries) then you can eat that with the AA’s.
In terms of workouts and supplementing with BCAA’s, the recommendation is still to eat it with a carbohydrate source only (so as to not affect absorption) about 30 minutes before a workout (23 minutes is the official absorption rate) of 5-10 grams.
Like most diet-related topics, everybody is different. If you want to try out supplementing with BCAA’s to see if they make a difference for your workouts and your recovery, by all means give it a go. I want to reiterate that you will find even MORE positive results if you are eating a diet with quality-sourced protein and nutrient dense foods (come talk to me if you need help understanding what those foods are). Make sure you aren’t buying brands that include artificial sweeteners like sucralose or added sugars like maltodextrin, either. The supplement industry can be ever so sneaky with how and what they add to fool you. Keep an eye out at CoreFit for some high quality BCAA’s!
I mentioned before that there is a test to see your AA levels. This test isn’t the cheapest, but it also gives you your vitamins, minerals, and essential fat levels, too. It can be very valuable and helpful when trying to dial in your diet and health for optimal wellness. You may be able to order this through Direct Labs online.
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT
Questions? Leave them in the comments below or shoot me an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org