Exactly How BCAAs Can Help Supercharge Your Workout
As a functional medicine expert, I talk to my patients about the benefits of exercise all the time. Moving your body is one of the most important things you can do for your health, and it’s not just about looking strong and fit on the outside, either! When you’re physically in shape, you have more energy, a better mood, a healthier gut, and you feel more confident in your professional and personal life. Essentially, it changes your whole life for the better.
Unfortunately, many of us struggle to get in shape and deal with stubborn weight loss resistance and/or fitness plateaus. Enter: Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a group of supplements that are your workout’s new best friend.
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What are BCAAs?
There are thousands of proteins in the body, and each is made from a combination of about 20 smaller building blocks called amino acids. Nine of these amino acids — including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine — are considered “essential” which means you can’t make them in the body and you must get them through food, and three of them — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — are called branched-chain amino acids because of their specific “branch-like” chemical structure.
You may have heard of BCAAs before; they’ve been used by professional athletes, weight lifters, and bodybuilders for years. But the truth is, even the average person can benefit from taking BCAAs to support their fitness goals, however modest or ambitious they might be.
What are the benefits of BCAAs?
BCAAs are probably the most famous workout supplement — and for good reason! The list of BCAA’s benefits is long and includes:
1. Limiting fatigue
Studies have shown that BCAAs can help keep you from hitting a wall during your workout. It works like this: Your muscles call on BCAAs during your workout to help you jump, squat, and lift. And throughout your workout, BCAA levels decline as you use your muscles more and more. Through a complex chemical pathway, this decline in BCAA levels eventually leads to an increase in serotonin, which is known to contribute to exercise fatigue. (1) If you supplement with extra BCAAs, you cut off this chemical pathway and lessen the production of serotonin and the increase in fatigue that comes with it. If you tend to hit a wall during your workout, BCAAs might help you bust right through it.
2. Increased fat burning
One of the main goals of regular exercise is to burn off excess fat, especially around the midsection, which is where the most dangerous type of fat typically resides. Luckily, studies have shown that BCAAs can help increase fat metabolism, are associated with a lower incidence of obesity, and linked to a reduction in visceral fat. (2)
3. Less post-workout soreness
Do you ever wake up the day after a difficult workout feeling like you’ve been run over by a car? I know I have. Here’s the good news, though: BCAAs can help with that! Studies have shown that consuming BCAAs can lead to a large decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness, which is what causes you to hobble around the day after a tough workout. (3)
4. Increased muscle mass
If you’re looking to build muscle as well as burn fat, BCAAs are a must. Studies have shown that leucine, isoleucine, and valine stimulate the synthesis of muscle. In fact, one study showed that people who consumed BCAAs after a workout had a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to those who did not consume BCAAs. (4)
How do you take BCAAs?
If, after reading the above, you want to try adding BCAAs to your routine, it’s important to take the right dosage and ratio. The RDA for men and women for BCAAs is
- 19 mg kg−1 day−1 of isoleucine
- 42 mg kg−1 day−1 of leucine
- 24 mg kg−1 day−1 of valine (5)
Foods naturally high in BCAAs include chicken, eggs, tuna, and wild salmon. That said, I typically recommend taking a BCAA supplement before or after your workout. BCAAs typically come in powder - or tablet - form that you can add to a smoothie or drop directly in water. Look for a product without added sugar or artificial colors or preservatives.
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk and debate about the benefits of fats and carbs. But BCAAs remind us that every single macronutrient is important. And when it comes to losing fat, building muscle, and kicking butt during your workout, BCAAs are the nutrients that should really be getting your attention.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Choi S, Disilvio B, Fernstrom MH, Fernstrom JD. Oral branched-chain amino acid supplements that reduce brain serotonin during exercise in rats also lower brain catecholamines. Amino Acids. 2013 Nov;45(5):1133-42. doi: 10.1007/s00726-013-1566-1. Epub 2013 Aug 1. PMID: 23904096.
- Hayashi T, Boyko EJ, Leonetti DL, McNeely MJ, Newell-Morris L, Kahn SE, Fujimoto WY. Visceral adiposity and the risk of impaired glucose tolerance: a prospective study among Japanese Americans. Diabetes Care. 2003;26:650–5
- Fedewa MV, Spencer SO, Williams TD, Becker ZE, Fuqua CA. Effect of branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Muscle Soreness following Exercise: A Meta-Analysis. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2019 Nov;89(5-6):348-356. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000543. Epub 2019 Apr 2. PMID: 30938579.
- Jackman SR, Witard OC, Philp A, Wallis GA, Baar K, Tipton KD. Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans. Front Physiol. 2017 Jun 7;8:390. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00390. PMID: 28638350; PMCID: PMC5461297.
- Bifari F, Nisoli E. Branched-chain amino acids differently modulate catabolic and anabolic states in mammals: a pharmacological point of view. Br J Pharmacol. 2017 Jun;174(11):1366-1377. doi: 10.1111/bph.13624. Epub 2016 Oct 25. PMID: 27638647; PMCID: PMC5429325.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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