The dark side of BCAA’s

Supplementing with Branched Chain Amino Acids has been around the health and fitness industry for quite some time. I know 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:

  1. What are amino acids?
  2. What are the dangers of supplementing with BCAA’s?
  3. What are the guidelines for supplementing with amino acids and/or branched chain amino acids?

There are 22 amino acids (AA). Some are synthesized in your body, and some need to be eaten or supplemented to perform their functions in the body. 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:  Phenylalanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Isoleucine, Methionine, Histidine, Arginine, Leucine and Lysine

These are the AA’s you MUST eat (or take in some other exogenous form) in order to function optimally. The EAA’s and the AA’s your body naturally synthesizes 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 in quite a few amino acids. You can imagine this has some significant repercussions in your body, some effects being quite subtle (like low energy, fatigue) 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 into different amino acids. After traveling in the blood stream to the cell, the cell does one of two things:

  1. Uses amino acids to make one of those protein chains to kickstart another process or
  2. Break the amine (Nitrogen) off the molecular structure (aminos are made of the same chemistry as carbohydrates-Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen except they also have nitrogen) and is then used as a carbohydrate which is burned or stored as fat or glycogen
    1. Nitrogen is then urinated out or goes to the 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 and 84% of the Nitrogen is 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:

Whey: 16%

Soy: 16%

Fish/Lamb/Beef: 32-33%

Chicken Egg: 48%

Breast Milk: 49%

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.  

Why do people use BCAA’s?

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) include three of the EAA’s: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine.  They are usually found about 20% of the amino acids in food. 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. 

Caution with BCAA’s

I believe that nature knows best. This means when we take a look at the ratio of AA’s in real food, we do NOT see that ratio (leucine: iso leucine: valine ideally 2:1:1) that is often seen in BCAA supplements. Many companies bump up the leucine content much higher (8:1:1) which can be rather problematic. Though leucine has a lot of research around how it is anabolic and can be beneficial for muscle growth and preservation of muscle during exercise, we see a problem when consumed outside of the natural AA ratio.

A spike in leucine signals the enzyme that degrades leucine AND the other BCAA’s. This enzyme controls all the BCAA’s as they share the same conversion pathway. As the pathway is essentially overwhelmed, the leucine goes elsewhere- like the brain and heart. This has been associated with cardiovascular disease. We ALSO see a spike in insulin when consumed. This makes sense, as insulin is also anabolic, but we don’t really want a chronic insulin spike, or TOO much. This has potential to lead to insulin insensitivity which is associated with Type II diabetes.

If you are sipping on BCAA’s all day, you will DEFINITELY want to consider this negative association with BCAA’s. Additionally, if the BCAA supplement you are consuming has artificial sweeteners in them, that can negatively affect your gut, and create more problems in addition to the chronic insulin spike and potential cardiovascular issues.

So can you just take a BCAA supplement that has a ratio of 2:1:1? Well, there is also research that has shown that there is an association with similar problems taking more BCAA’s outside of the additional EAA, as if you ramped up only leucine intake. There is more research to be done here, but I believe it is better to be safe than sorry and you can STILL reap benefits of taking EAA’s without isolating the BCAA’s.

How to take EAA’s?

Like most diet-related topics, everybody is different. If you want to try out supplementing with EAA’s or 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.

Roughly speaking, you are best off to supplement with EAA’s before, during, and after a workout. Beyond that, your AA consumption should come from food. For a more personalized approach to supplementing, seek out a professional to help! There are some great podcasts I have attached as well if you want to check those out.

Questions? Leave them in the comments below or shoot me an e-mail, therese@therestorativedietitian.com

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16365087
http://www.schwarzenegger.com/fitness/post/the-protein-bible-part-4-protein-and-amino-acid-timing

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