Amino acids are building blocks for optimum health. Nine of the 20 common amino acids are essential to survival. Without these, our bodies wouldn’t have the energy, focus, and regeneration capabilities we need to survive.
Amino acids are broken into groups based on structure and function. One category of essential amino acids is branched-chain amino acids, also known as BCAA. As the only grouping of amino acids with a particular branching structure, these amino acids are often grouped by their appearance and function.
So what exactly are BCAA amino acids, and what do they do? Here’s what you should know about how branched-chain amino acids work in the body plus the best time to take BCAA foods and supplements to optimize recovery.
What Are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?
Amino acids combine to form proteins, which help the body grow and repair. There are three main types of amino acids in the body: essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and conditional amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are created by the body, while non-essential amino acids must be obtained from food. Conditional amino acids are those which are only needed when a person’s body isn’t properly creating the non-essential amino acids (for instance, when they’re sick).
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a type of essential amino acid characterized by their molecular structure. They have a chain that branches off to one side, which differentiates them from other essential amino acids. BCAAs include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Comprising between 35 and 40% of all amino acids in the body, leucine, isoleucine, and valine each have unique properties that support different areas of growth and functioning in the body.
Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid that has been shown to support the healing of bones and skin. It has also been linked to muscle growth, higher levels of human growth hormones, and increased lean body mass. For this reason, it has been shown to help weight loss. Another benefit — leucine can reduce and control blood sugar levels. This makes it an especially important essential amino acid for people struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Leucine has also been shown to “activate the anabolic signaling molecule mTORC1 (mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1), as well as other factors involved in protein synthesis,” according to a recent article in the journal, Science. In other words, Leucine is essential for protein synthesis — which is essential for survival.
Like leucine, isoleucine helps control blood sugar and accelerates the re-growth of lean muscles and other tissues in the body. This makes it essential for highly active people such as weight trainers and bodybuilders. Isoleucine is also believed to assist in the creation of hemoglobin, which is the pigment carrying oxygen in red blood cells.
Isoleucine is said to be most beneficial for people with low blood sugar or diabetes, who need to keep blood sugar (glucose) levels steady when taking medications. That’s because isoleucine can help increase glucose intake into skeletal muscle, which helps balance blood sugar. Isoleucine does this better than leucine and valine. While leucine is thought to be the most powerful branched-chain amino acid for muscle gain, isoleucine can support muscle growth as well.
Valine supports the proper functioning of the smooth nervous system and the brain. Valine also helps prevent muscle breakdown and ensures proper regulation of the nervous system. Another benefit of valine is appetite suppression.
Metabolism and muscle recovery are also known benefits of this essential branched-chain amino acid. Shown to increase endurance and improve tissue recovery, Valine is most useful for long-distance athletes.
Building Muscle With BCAA Supplements
As mentioned, all three branched-chain amino acids play a vital role in promoting lean muscle mass and optimizing recovery. That’s why many people are turning to BCAA supplements to build muscle, boost weight loss, reduce muscle soreness, and improve overall muscle recovery. Specifically, BCAAs can be taken as a pre-workout supplement to reduce fatigue and improve overall performance.
This was demonstrated in a sports nutrition study on college males during an intense bout of cycling. The men who took BCAA demonstrated higher levels of serotonin — an important chemical that boosts mood and reduces fatigue — helping them maintain an intense workout for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, the men who took the BCAA supplement showed lower levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase, both of which signify a breakdown of muscle tissue. This suggests that BCAA supplements like Leucine can help with muscle recovery and muscle gain.
People who want to grow muscle mass and exercise more vigorously without soreness slowing them down may also benefit from BCAA supplements. Additionally, muscle wasting, also known as muscle atrophy (shrinking and weakening of muscle) is another condition that can be improved by amino acids. Muscle wasting is more common among people who are elderly, malnourished, or have illnesses such as cancer.
Best Time to Take BCAA
While you don’t need BCAAs at every meal, it is important to take them daily. This ensures you’re getting all the nutrients you need so your body can function at its best. Branched-chain amino acids are most commonly found in protein-rich foods like milk, meat, and eggs. However, many plant-based foods also contain these essential nutrients, so vegans can get everything they need from a plant-based diet. For example, beans, soy, corn, cashews, brown rice, and almonds all are whole foods with amazing benefits, like being high in BCAAs.
The best time to take BCAA depends on your fitness goals. For example, if you’re a bodybuilder or you’re engaging in fasted cardio training (training while fasting), you might take BCAA to prevent extended muscle catabolism. This is when existing muscle tissue is used to repair newly torn tissue. When that’s the case, the best time to take BCAA is in the morning before working out.
In fact, taking BCAA supplements on an empty stomach may boost your energy and give you more endurance to power through your workout at optimum levels. If you’re simply hoping to get enough BCAA in your diet, eat balanced, high-protein meals every day.
It’s also important not to take an excessive dose of amino acids or to take these supplements over a long period of time. This is because certain amino acids can accumulate in the body and lead to imbalances. For example, too much leucine can lead to hypoglycemia or pellagra, which can affect the skin, hair, and intestinal tract. Like any other supplement, all amino acid supplements can be dangerous when taken in excess or at an inconsistent rate.
Improving Recovery With BCAAs
Branched-chain amino acids are essential for the human body to function properly. They aid in muscle recovery, fat loss, post-workout recovery, and reduced muscle damage. All the BCAAs that a normal person needs can be obtained through protein-rich sources, so even vegans can get all the BCAAs they need with a balanced diet. However, people engaging in strenuous muscle building or endurance exercises may benefit from a BCAA supplement, which can slow muscle wasting, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, and help improve overall energy levels for better workouts.