The health industry these days is obsessed with BCAA – its uses, best sources, how much to take and more. But what is it? What’s the fuss all about? We explain.
What Is BCAA?
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acid, an amino acid with an aliphatic side-chain with a branch. Yes, we understand that sounds pretty technical – so we’ll break it down for you.
BCAAs form three of the 9 essential amino acids which build up the thousands of proteins responsible for balanced growth and maintenance of the body.
The 9 amino acids essentially are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Of the nine essential amino acids, three are the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine and valine.
The term “Branched-chain” basically refers to the chemical structure of BCAAs, which are found in protein-rich foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products.
What Do BCAAs Do?
So what do these BCAAs do and why is there so much discussion around them? They are an essential building block of our body. BCAAs make up for 40% of the body’s requirement of essential amino acids.
Here are some of the other functions BCAAs perform, and how they help.
Increase muscle mass
If you’re someone who’s looking to get into high intensity muscle training, you need to up your BCAA levels. They boost your skeletal muscles during training, giving your body the impetus to push the envelope.
Reduction of protein breakdown
BCAA also enhances the recovery of your muscles after the workout when combined with carbs. BCAA supplementation is necessary to preserve glycogen levels which are the primary and most reliable sources of energy production in the body.
An optimal glycogen level prevents your body from breaking muscle protein to get energy to work out. That’s why BCAA supplements are a win-win for your muscles—they help sustain and safeguard them. That’s potentially more energy, more reps, and more gains.
Maintain blood glucose levels
BCAAs are said to play a key role in regulating blood glucose levels. These essential amino acids are responsible for taking large portions of blood sugar during high intensity workouts thereby regulating it.
When you have a balanced carbohydrate, high-protein, and amino acid beverage during and post-exercise, it can induce an insulin response. The insulin response then helps transport amino acids into cells to repair muscle damage and build muscle tissue.
This means that basically you’re able to replenish the anabolic building blocks that your body needs to repair itself post-workout and reduce delayed onset muscle fatigue, with BCAA.
Enhance fat loss
Amino acids, especially BCAAs, have been shown to help athletes burn more body fat—especially belly fat. Leucine is thought to be responsible for this, since it is known to increase both energy expenditure and fat oxidation.
Help heal liver diseases (Cirrhosis, cancer, hepatic encephalopathy, NASH)
BCAAs are thought to aid in the reduction of complications linked to liver failure. Supplements are noticed to improve liver function.
Help in cases of chronic renal failure
BCAA supplementation is said to be beneficial in improving appetite and nutritional status. BCAAs, since they are builders, help patients suffering from burns, sepsis and trauma, heal gradually back to health.
How To Make Natural BCAA?
You can get natural BCAA in your diet with the right combination of protein-rich food supplements.
How Can I Get BCAA Naturally?
BCAA natural sources aren’t that hard to come by. Here are some everyday foods that contain BCAAs.
- Meat, poultry and fish
- Beans and lentils
- Tofu and tempeh
- Pumpkin seeds
These are some of the best natural sources of BCAAs.
How Can I get BCAA In My Diet?
You can get BCAA in your diet by eating protein-rich foods from the plant and animal kingdom. Dairy products are good if your are vegetarian – milk contains 2 grams of BCAAs per cup, with each cup measuring around 230 ml.
Chicken is one of the most popular foods among fitness enthusiasts. It is an excellent source of lean protein, maintaining muscle. Different parts of chicken – wings thighs etc – have different nutritional values.
Chicken breast is one of the best for bodybuilders or athletes looking to stay lean while muscular. One chicken breast has about 55 grams of protein. Chicken thighs and wings have higher fat and are good for weight gain.
Turkey is another good source of lean protein and is becoming more easily available in India. Along with the BCAAs, it contains an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan helps your body create serotonin which is a chemical that can make you feel relaxed and ease pain.
Turkey is also high in B vitamins which are important for fitness and endurance performance.
Salmon is a superfood rich in Omega-3s – but it’s also a great source of lean protein. It also helps fight pain and soreness after exercise because it has powerful inflammation fighting properties.
Known as the chicken of the sea, tuna is rich in easy-to-digest proteins and Vitamin D. Tuna also contains Omega-3 fatty acids, helping improve blood cholesterol levels and inflammation.
Curd and yogurt are excellent sources pf BCAA. Curd is a good source of calcium and helps keep bones and muscles strong. And since it is a probiotic, it contains healthy gut-friendly bacteria that aid in digestion. Since dairy has a good amount of carbs and protein, they work well as a post-workout snack.
Peanuts aren’t as widely revered as their fancier counterparts almonds and walnuts – but these humble legumes are one of the best sources of plant-based BCAAs!
They contain protein, healthy fats and fibre, along with B-vitamins and minerals like potassium, which you often lose through sweat when you work out.
These are some of the natural food sources of BCAA you can include in your diet.
Do Eggs Contain BCAA?
Yes. In fact, if you run a search for “BCAA natural sources”, eggs are bound to pop up! Eggs contain a fair amount of BCAAs – 1.3 grams per large egg. Eggs are known as the gold standard for protein bioavailability, as our bodies can easily absorb the nutrients it contains.
Eggs have all of the essential amino acids which can be easily digested and absorbed. Studies show that eating an entire egg – yolk and all – can stimulate muscle growth and muscle repair more than just the egg white. The yolk also contains important vitamins and minerals.
How Do Vegans Get BCAAs Naturally?
So yes, vegans do have natural BCAA options to choose from. Beans and lentils are great sources of BCAAs, containing 2.3-3 grams per cup of lentils.
Vegans can get their dose of BCAAs from plant foods such as:
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios)
- Whole grains (brown rice, whole grain or whole wheat bread)
- Soy products (firm tofu, tempeh)
- Seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, squash seeds, hemp seeds)
- Greens (cooked spinach, seaweed like spirulina seaweed)
If you are trying to workout or gain weight/muscle on a vegan diet and need higher amounts of protein with less calories, you can have soy powder or protein powder, after consulting your fitness expert and nutritionist.
There are several benefits of BCAA, which we have outlined below.
1.Boost muscle growth
One of the most popular uses of BCAAs is to increase muscle growth. Leucine (one of the BCAAs) activates a certain pathway in the body that stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of making muscle.
One study indicated that people who consumed a drink with 5.6 grams of BCAAs after their resistance workout had a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to those who consumed a placebo energy drink.
2.Decreases muscle soreness
Some research suggests BCAAs can help decrease muscle soreness after a workout. It’s pretty common to feel sore and uneasy a day or two after a workout, especially when you start a new exercise routine or exercise after a long time.
This soreness, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise and can last up to 72 hours. While the exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood, researchers believe it’s the result of tiny wear and tear in the muscles after exercise.
BCAAs have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which may help reduce the duration and intensity of DOMS.
3.Reduces fatigue after exercise
Just as BCAAs may help decrease muscle soreness from exercise, they may also help reduce fatigue and tiredness after a workout.
Everyone experiences fatigue and exhaustion from exercise at some point or the other – especially if you are into CrossFit or HIIT workouts. How quickly you get tired depends on several factors, including exercise intensity and duration, environmental conditions and your nutrition and fitness level.
Your muscles use BCAAs during exercise, causing their levels in your blood to decrease. When blood levels of BCAAs decline, levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increase.
This tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your brain, a chemical that is thought to contribute to the development of fatigue during exercise.
Studies indicate that participants who supplemented with BCAAs improved their mental focus during exercise, which is thought to result from the fatigue-reducing effect of BCAAs. (This supplementation has no bearing on exercise performance.)
4.Prevents muscle wastage
BCAAs can help prevent muscle wasting or breakdown. Muscle proteins are constantly broken down and rebuilt (synthesised). The balance between muscle protein breakdown and synthesis determines the amount of protein in muscle.
When muscle wastage occurs, it indicates that protein breakdown is exceeding muscle protein synthesis. Muscle wastage is a sign of malnutrition and occurs with chronic infections, cancer, periods of fasting and as a natural part of the ageing process.
Since BCAAs account for nearly 40% of the essential amino acids found in our muscle protein, they help keep muscles in top shape.
BCAAs fortify the immune system. Intense training repeated over days and weeks can lead to fatigue, immune suppression, and overtraining if an athlete does not recover properly between bouts of training.
Studies how that long-term supplementation of 12 g BCAA daily showed improvement in the immune response to several weeks of intense endurance training in long-distance cyclists.
6.Effect on people suffering from liver disease
BCAAs may improve health in people with cirrhosis, a chronic disease in which the liver does not function properly.
It is estimated that 50% of people with liver cirrhosis will develop a disorder called hepatic encephalopathy, or the loss of brain function that occurs when the liver is unable to remove toxins from the blood.
While certain sugars and antibiotics are the mainstays of its treatment, BCAAs may also benefit people suffering from the disease.
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What can I take instead of BCAA?
There is much debate over whether you need BCAAs before a workout or whether you should supplement with BCAAs if you are into high-intensity exercise or sports training. It depends on your fitness and health goals. If you are eating a healthy and balanced diet with adequate amounts of protein you may not need BCAAs.
Some practitioners and fitness trainers encourage their clients to consume BCAAs only if they are training fasted, or not consuming enough protein throughout the day. If you are consuming 1.5- 2 gram of protein per kg of bodyweight then you would be fine without Bcaa’s.
Do vegans need BCAA supplements?
It depends on what your goals are and your level of physical activity, fitness goals etc. Both highly trained athletes and everyday fitness enthusiasts often supplement with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Some evidence shows that BCAAs may help build muscle, reduce workout fatigue, and decrease muscle soreness after exercise.
There are many vegan BCAA options available, like Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios), whole grains (brown rice, whole grain or whole wheat bread), soybeans, soy products (firm tofu, tempeh), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, squash seeds, hemp seeds), greens (cooked spinach, seaweed like spirulina seaweed) and quinoa.
Does peanut butter have BCAA?
Yes. Peanuts are actually considered a legume and they contain all the BCAAs. You can find peanuts in various forms, such as whole, peanut butter, or peanut powder.
They contain protein, healthy fats and fibre, along with B-vitamins and minerals like potassium, which you often lose through sweat when you work out. But you should choose natural peanut butter that does not contain vegetable oils and extra sugar and flavourings.
You can add peanut butter to your smoothies or oatmeal, have it with whole grain toast, spread it on apple slices or even have it with whole grain crackers.
Are BCAAs bad for your kidneys?
BCAAs are a type of essential amino acid. They form three of the 9 essential amino acids which build up the thousands of proteins responsible for balanced growth and maintenance of the body.
BCAAs therefore are an essential part of our health and maintaining strength and body function and growth – so they cannot be avoided altogether. Studies have shown that BCAAs exert some kind of fluctuating effects on the kidneys.
In some cases, BCAAs have rapidly interfered with renal function, decreasing GFR and stimulating kidney fibrosis, thus increasing CKD (chronic kidney disease) progression, presumably because of their effect on energy metabolism.
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