The acronym BCAA stands for branch chained amino acids. We can not discuss BCAAs without first knowing what amino acids are. Amino acids are considered the basic building blocks of protein. This means that amino acids play a huge role in our overall health and wellness, especially within an exercise regimen.
What are BCAAs?
There are 20 amino acids that can be found in the human body, but 9 of those are not produced by the body. They need to be acquired through diets and supplements. Out of those 9 only 3 are considered to be BCAAs. This is because of the first part of the name; Branch chained. This simply refers to the molecular structure of the amino acid. If you look at the picture below you will notice that the molecules branch off from the main structure.
You will also notice the names of these amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. Each of these amino acids helps us in unique ways.
Why are BCAAs important?
Taking a closer look at each Amino acid can help you decide what you should look for in a supplement.
Leucine is considered the muscle builder of the group. It kickstarts muscle protein synthesis which causes muscle proteins to build up. This results in faster, more efficient muscle growth. Leucine can also help with weight loss in general. In order to build up muscle protein, Leucine spikes insulin production. This tells the body that it does not need anymore energy so you will feel less hungry. It is important to note, however, that the main benefit of Leucine is muscle growth. Leucine as an appetite suppressant has not been very well researched. The information we have is mostly anecdotal.
Isoleucine is similar to Leucine, though its fat reducing effects have been widely studied. In fact, Isleucine’s main effect is fat reduction. Isoleucine activates special receptors called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors or PPARs. These receptors reduce the functioning of fat storing genes and increase the functioning of fat burning genes. This is great news for people whose main objective is weight loss.
Valine is important to increasing energy and reducing muscle fatigue. When we exercise, our brain is flooded with an amino acid known as Tryptophan. If that word sounds familiar to you it is because it is what is responsible for making us tired after a heavy meal. Valine essentially pushes the Tryptophan out of the brain and settles in instead. This helps us stay alert and energetic during our workouts. It is also keeping our muscles energized so that recovery time and soreness are decreased.
What should you look for in a BCAA?
BCAAs are considered to be safe, though you should always consult your doctor when starting a new supplement. It is recommended that you consume between 15-35 grams. Make sure to read the ingredient list on the back to see just how much you are taking. The amount you take is also going to vary based on what your exercise routine looks like. If you just do a little light cardio and you are not interested in gaining muscle then you should stay closer to 15 grams. If you are a weightlifter looking to increase muscle mass, then you should be taking about 35 grams.
The amount and percentage of each BCAA you consume will depend on your goals. Always look at the ingredient lists on your BCAA supplement to ensure that you are getting what you want. You also might want to check out that label if you have dietary restrictions. BCAAs are found in high protein foods like fish, eggs and red meat. There are plenty of vegan options, however.
What are some good BCAA options?
BCAA supplements are the quickest and most efficient way to get your BCAA intake for the day. It is easy to find these amino acids in foods we love. Below you will find a chart of BCAA rich foods and links to some recommended supplements.