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BCAA 101: Everything you need to know

Branched Chain Amino Acids: What. Why. For Whom.

If you’re on the fitness circuit, chances are you’ve heard a passing mention of BCAAs. Chances also are that you’ve never bothered to inquire about them. Because, “they sounded like some complicated chemical that those gym bros take to get big”.

Chances, given that I’m saying all this, are that you might’ve been mistaken.

BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids, have been around for a while in the fitness industry. Confined to the ‘serious bodybuilder’ margins though, they’re finally making a much deserved comeback.

So here’s your cheat-sheet on this latest (well, not really) fitness supplement fad. The good, the bad, the…frankly there is no ugly.

Read, and decide for yourself, if they deserve a place in your ’supplement stack’.

What are BCAAs?

All proteins are made up of amino acids. Nine, to be precise.

BCAAs are 3 of those 9 (Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine), that have a branched chain structure. Hence the name.

That’s all the chemistry you don’t need to know. So don’t fret about it.

What you need to know is that BCAAs are essential amino acids, which means that our bodies can’t produce them. We need to eat them.

The good thing is, they’re present in most protein sources. So, just like I argued about whey, if you’re eating enough good proteins, you don’t necessarily need to supplement with BCAAs.

Problem is, most of us aren’t. Especially the vegetarian folks, since veg sources of proteins are generally low on BCAAs. These are found a lot more in meats.

That said, here are the claimed pros and cons of BCAAs, analysed. Both scientifically and from personal experience. Because I’ve been consuming them for 6 months.

Better Muscle Growth

There are studies that prove that BCAAs are essential for muscle growth.

Which is obvious, since they do form an integral part of protein synthesis. But if you’re already getting enough BCAAs from your diet, overloading your body with a supplement will not lead to any extra muscle growth.

In that sense, slightly unlike overall protein intake, a continuous increase in BCAA intake won’t keep giving incremental benefits.

Muscle sparing effects

Some studies have shown that consuming BCAAs before or during your workout, helps reduce muscle breakdown.

As we’ve discussed before , once the body runs through it’s immediate energy stores (ATP), it might start breaking down some muscle protein. But, as we discussed, this doesn’t happen in a regular gym session.

For the body to turn on muscle, you need to severely deplete it. Which happens only during endurance training (marathons) or during fasted state workouts (IF). Read this for a ready IF primer.

In both these cases, sipping a BCAA solution during your workout is highly recommended. Both by science and me.

Caution: for those consuming BCAAs during fasted workout — Don’t consume anything more than 8–10gms of BCAA. They have very few calories, but a higher dose might put you out of fasted-state by triggering insulin.

Reduced Muscle Soreness

Ever heard of DOMS. Especially the ladies?

DOMS, or Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness, is that pain you experience about 24–48 hours after strenuous endurance or resistance exercise.

When compared to a test group that was given a non-protein placebo, a significant number of athletes reported reduced soreness after consumption of BCAA.

Which means that it’s better than nothing. But the jury is out on whether it’s better at reducing soreness that just a regular protein shake after your workout. So as long as you have one of these on your list, you should be good.

Reduced Mental Fatigue

This, is my personal favorite. And the main reason I take a BCAA supplement during my workout (even though I’m sure I get enough from my diet)

Research has shown that BCAAs reduce percieved mental fatigue. Lots of chemistry here again, but in essence, BCAAs suppress the production of serotonin, which is a hormone that signals ‘I’m tired’ to the brain. Test participants who were given BCAA during workout, reported, on average, 15% lesser fatigue.

This is one benefit my personal experience totally corroborates. Ever since I started consuming BCAAs, I saw that I could workout longer. I felt more energetic, which was strange, because BCAAs have barely any calories.

So I rationalized it as a placebo effect. I thought that maybe the act of sipping a flavored liquid during the workout is making me feel replenished (which might still be true). But once I found these studies, I understood!!

This, for me, is the foremost reason why I use a supplement and why I sip it during my workout. Unlike most others who actually drink BCAA as a pre-workout.

So those are the top 4 positive claims about BCAA. But there’s one big negative too.

BCAAs can cause depression

The correct, scientific way of saying this, is that BCAAs reduce serotonin levels. Which is a fact that we discussed as a positive above. Well, like anything good, it has a potential downside too.

Seratonin is neurotransmitter — it signals many things to the brain. One is the feeling of fatigue, but linked to it also are feelings of relaxation and sleep.

Reduced seratonin levels, amongst people who already have low seratonin, can lead to depression and inability to sleep.

This too, I’ve expereinced personally.

You see, serotonin levels drop on a low-carb diet. So if you’re on LCHF or IF or Keto, chances are your levels are low (hello cake cravings).

Now low serotonin, as we know, aids good mood and relaxation. Which are things all of us want to feel. That, is the scientific causation behind carbohydrate cravings. Your body is begging you to up serotonin levels, and carbs help do just that.

If on such low levels, you add BCAAs, the situation might exacerbate. I, personally, found it difficult to sleep for a while after my BCAA fueled workouts. Until I did this research, I couldn’t figure why. Because usually one sleeps better when tired.

So now (for many other reason too), I’ve shifted to working out in the morning.

Since I get to consume enough carbs after workout during the day, hopefully serotonin should recover. And that’s my advice to all those who workout in the evening — go easy on BCAA supplements. Especially if you don’t eat a good meal post workout (which in itself is a bad idea but then so is eating too much before sleeping. See why I shifted to morning workouts. Sigh)

So there you have it. My verdict on BCAAs. It isn’t some magic drug for bulking bros, nor is it completely useless for us regular folks.

Diet & Dosage

You need about 10gms (women) to 13gms (men) of BCAA on a regular basis. Add about 5gms if you’re serious about building muscle. And here’s how you decide if you need a supplement.

Given below is the BCAA found in common protein sources. Add up and check. If you’re good on your requirement, don’t supplement. Unless you have a workout fatigue (sometimes translates as headache) problem. If you’re working out fasted though, I highly recommened a BCAA drink during workout.

  • Meat, poultry and fish: 3–4.5 grams per 3 oz (84 grams)
  • Beans and lentils: 2.5–3 grams per cup
  • Milk: 2 grams per cup (237 ml)
  • Tofu and tempeh: 0.9 to 2.3 grams per 3 oz (84 grams)
  • Cheese: 1.4 grams per 1 oz (28 grams)
  • Eggs: 1.3 grams per large egg
  • Pumpkin seeds: About 1 gram per 1 oz (28 grams)
  • Quinoa: 1 gram per cup.
  • Nuts: 0.7–1 gram per 1 oz (28 grams), depending on the variety.

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