January 9, 2024

BCAAs: Everything You Need To Know Before Buying

Written by our expert


Avanthika Nityanand

M.Sc Human Genetics, B.Sc Plant Biology & Plant Biotechnology

BCAAs: Everything You Need To Know Before Buying
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Read till the end to get quick tips from the fitness industry pros.Updated on 19th March 2024.

What Are BCAAs?

Branched-chain amino Acids (BCAAs) consist of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

They are termed 'essential' because the body cannot produce them independently and must obtain them through diet.

BCAAs are unique due to their branched molecular structure and play a crucial role in protein synthesis and energy production in the body.

They are found in high-protein foods like meat, dairy products, and legumes and are also popular as dietary supplements, especially among athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

Why Is It Used As A Supplement?

BCAAs are supplements primarily to enhance muscle growth, improve exercise performance, and reduce muscle soreness after workouts.

Leucine, in particular, significantly impacts muscle protein synthesis, making BCAAs attractive for those looking to build muscle mass.

They are also believed to help lose weight and reduce fatigue after exercise.

For people who may not get sufficient amounts from their diet, BCAA supplements can help maintain muscle mass, especially during intense training or weight loss regimes.

Do BCAAs Work?

A 2022 systematic review discusses the effects of BCAAs on athletic populations, analyzing data from 2,298 records across Web of Science, PubMed, and Scopus. Participants in the studies were athletes or regular trainers who received oral BCAA supplements. BCAAs were found to stimulate anabolic signals, but their impact on performance and body composition was minimal.

The research indicated that BCAAs might reduce muscle soreness in resistance training, although results were mixed in endurance sports. Variability in BCAA supplement protocols and a general lack of reporting on total daily protein intake suggested that the benefits of BCAAs need careful interpretation. This comprehensive analysis underscores the complexity of assessing BCAAs' efficacy in athletic performance and recovery​. [ref]

Human Clinical Trials on BCAAs

In a 2022 double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial conducted at Maastricht University Medical Center, Netherlands, researchers explored the impact of lowering branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) levels in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) using sodium phenylbutyrate (NaPB), a compound known to accelerate BCAA catabolism. The study found that NaPB significantly improved peripheral insulin sensitivity by 27% and muscle mitochondrial oxidative capacity, reducing plasma BCAA and glucose levels.

However, it had no effect on insulin, triglycerides, free fatty acids (FFA) levels, or fat accumulation in muscle and liver. No adverse events were reported, suggesting that modulating the BCAA oxidative pathway might be a potential treatment strategy for T2D patients. [ref]

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Grab Your Tub Of BCAA

In a 24-week study, researchers aimed to understand the long-term effects of BCAA supplementation in sarcopenic patients with liver cirrhosis (LC). The study primarily focused on evaluating the impact of BCAA on muscle mass, strength, and physical performance. Secondary outcomes included assessing survival, liver function, and laboratory and prognostic markers changes over six months. Results indicated that BCAA supplementation significantly improved muscle strength, function, and mass.

Furthermore, the BCAA group experienced fewer cirrhotic-related complications and had a higher cumulative event-free survival rate. Prognostic markers also showed significant improvement, concluding that long-term BCAA supplementation can benefit patients with advanced LC by improving sarcopenia and prognostic markers. [ref]

Animal Studies on BCAAs

A 2005 study on BCAA tolerance in animals showed that whole-body amino acid concentrations in pigs do not reliably predict maintenance requirements or ideal amino acid profiles. Research also indicates that dietary excess of individual BCAAs and the other two BCAAs is well tolerated in diets with surplus protein, based on studies with young animals. This implies variability in the efficiency of using dietary or endogenous amino acids among indispensable amino acids and suggests that amino acid concentrations may not be accurate indicators of nutritional requirements. [ref]

A 2011 study to assess the effects of BCAA supplementation on the growth and metabolic parameters in young rats undergoing chronic aerobic exercise. Findings showed that training led to reduced body length and increased cartilage weight in rats, regardless of BCAA supplementation. Physical activity significantly decreased proteoglycan synthesis in cartilage tissue. However, BCAA supplementation helped mitigate this reduction and enhanced glycogen stores in the liver. Despite these benefits, no significant differences in body growth due to BCAA supplementation were observed. This research suggests that while BCAAs may offer specific metabolic benefits, their impact on overall body growth in this context is limited. [ref]

Animal studies on cancer have particularly examined leucine and its derivative, beta-methyl beta-hydroxybutyrate, for their role in regulating skeletal muscle metabolism. However, tumors that may utilize BCAAs for proliferation and invasion complicate the situation. The tumor's high uptake of amino acids, indicated by (11)C-leucine in positron emission tomography imaging, has led to dual research directions: investigating both BCAA deprivation to potentially limit tumor growth and BCAA supplementation to support the maintenance of lean tissue in the host. Currently, there is no definitive conclusion on the effectiveness of these approaches, and animal models with relevant clinical features are crucial for understanding if amino acid therapy can favorably alter the balance between the host and the tumor. [ref]

Do BCAAs React with Any Medication?

BCAAs can interact with certain medications, although comprehensive data on all possible interactions is unclear.

Here are a few known considerations:

  1. Diabetes Medications: BCAAs may affect blood sugar levels. Therefore, they could interact with diabetes medications by enhancing or diminishing their effects. This interaction might necessitate adjustments in medication dosage to maintain optimal blood sugar control. [ref]
  2. Thyroid Hormone Medications: BCAAs, particularly leucine, may interfere with thyroid function and thyroid hormone medications. This interaction could potentially alter the effectiveness of the medication. [ref]
  3. Medications for Chronic Alcoholism: Some evidence suggests that BCAAs might interact with medications used to treat chronic alcoholism, such as disulfiram and naltrexone. However, specific mechanisms and clinical implications of such interactions need further clarification. [ref]
  4. Parkinson’s Disease Medications: There's a potential for interaction between BCAAs and Levodopa, a medication used in Parkinson's disease. BCAAs might compete with Levodopa for absorption and transport, possibly reducing its effectiveness. [ref]

Given these potential interactions, it's crucial for individuals on any medication to consult with healthcare professionals before starting BCAA supplements.

This ensures that potential risks are managed appropriately, and interactions are closely monitored.

Is it Safe to Use?

BCAAs are generally considered safe for most people when used in recommended dosages.

However, excessive intake can lead to potential side effects such as fatigue, loss of coordination, and gastrointestinal issues.

People with certain medical conditions, like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Maple Syrup Urine Disease, should avoid BCAAs.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women and those with chronic health conditions should consult a healthcare provider before using BCAA supplements.

BCAAs are generally considered safe for most individuals when used within recommended dosages. However, there are some important considerations to keep in mind:

Dosage and Duration

Excessive intake of BCAAs can lead to potential side effects, including fatigue, loss of coordination, and gastrointestinal issues.

It's important to adhere to recommended dosages and not to exceed them, especially over long periods.

Pre-existing Medical Conditions

Individuals with certain health conditions should exercise caution.

For instance, BCAAs might be contraindicated in people with ALS or those with Maple Syrup Urine Disease, a rare genetic disorder.

Can Pregnant Women Take BCAAs?

Due to a lack of extensive research in these areas, pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid BCAA supplements or consult a healthcare provider before use.

Medication Interactions

As noted earlier, BCAAs can interact with various medications, including those for diabetes, thyroid disorders, and Parkinson's disease.

Therefore, individuals on medication should consult with healthcare professionals before supplementation.

Individual Responses

The effects of BCAAs can vary from person to person.

What works for one individual may not necessarily work for another, and adverse reactions, although rare, are possible.

Given these factors, while BCAAs are safe for most people, they should be used responsibly.

It's always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen, particularly for individuals with pre-existing health conditions or those on medication.

Guidance From The Pros

Professionals in nutrition and fitness emphasize the importance of dosage and timing for optimal benefits. They suggest taking BCAAs before or after workouts to aid muscle recovery and reduce soreness.

Livest Health caught up with some game changers in the fitness industry to get their opinion on BCAA as a workout supplement.

Dr. Biglee Murali, body-builder and fitness coach

Dr. Biglee Murali

"Branched-chain amino Acids (BCAAs), comprising leucine, isoleucine, and valine, play a crucial role in athletic performance and overall wellness. We refer to leucine as the 'Protein Switch' because the body's protein synthesis process requires the presence of leucine. A regular supply of leucine is essential for building and preserving muscle – including vital organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Particularly during intense physical activities, leucine can be a game-changer in initiating the recovery process.

BCAAs can also serve as an energy source, being used by muscles for fuel, especially when glucose levels are depleted. This makes them a boon for individuals working towards fat loss goals.

I've even observed significant results with my older clients, particularly senior citizens above 60, where introducing BCAAs has been beneficial."

Nijanthan Thiagarajan, Fitness Coach

Nijanthan Thiagarajan

"I only take or recommend BCAAs to my clients when they feel exhausted after a workout," says personal trainer Nijanthan Thiagarajan.

Pratiiek Roy, Fitness Coach

Experts also highlight the importance of integrating BCAAs with a balanced diet and regular exercise for best results, especially for athletes and individuals engaged in intensive physical training.

For example, seasoned fitness expert Pratiiek Roy says, "I do take BCAA during and between my workouts, and it helps me recover well."

Additionally, they caution about potential interactions with medications and advise consulting healthcare providers before starting BCAA supplementation, particularly for individuals with pre-existing health conditions.

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