BCAAs are a group of three essential amino acids in the body: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Essential, meaning our body cannot produce it on it’s own so we must receive them through our diet.
When we ingest protein through food, digestion begins in the stomach when enzymes specific to each protein are released to break the proteins down and absorb. Proteins consist of different various lengths of single amino acids connected all together in different shapes. The enzymes break protein down into single amino acids, or shorter length peptides (meaning short proteins). Once broken down, the individual amino acids then travel to their respective location needed in the body.
The BCAAs make up about 35-40% of all 9 essential amino acids. Contrary to most other amino acids, BCAAs are mostly broken down in the muscle, rather than in the liver. Thus, just like you would assume, their benefits are involved with our muscles.
One of the most popular uses of BCAAs is to increase muscle growth. Most predominantly involving Leucine. The “Leucine Trigger” is the reference used for the activation of the protein synthesis pathway to make muscle upon the ingestion of leucine.
It is not uncommon to feel sore after a workout, some research suggests BCAA’s can help decrease muscle soreness. Soreness is caused from small microtears in our muscles from the muscle’s activation during exercise. Studies show BCAAs can limit this breakdown. Thus, supplementing with BCAAs, specifically before exercise, may speed up recovery time.
Exercise induced fatigue may seem inevitable when intensity is high. BCAAs may help reduce exercise-induced fatigue. This fatigue is referring to mentally through the action of the hormone serotonin. When the BCAAs become depleted in the blood during exercise (as they are used as energy just like a carbohydrate is), levels of the amino acid tryptophan in the brain increases. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin which contributes to fatigue during exercise. With high levels of BCAAs in the blood, this could possibly be avoided. However, this decrease in mental fatigue is unlikely to translate to improvements in exercise performance.
Fortunately, BCAAs are abundantly found in many foods and whole protein supplements such as whey. This makes BCAA supplements unnecessary for many if enough protein is consumed throughout your day. Outside of whey protein, some of the best food sources of BCAAs include beef, chicken, whey protein, eggs, and greek yogurt.