Whats up guys! Welcome back to The Nerdy Athlete Blog! I hope y’all enjoyed the introduction post last week. The support that I’ve felt from you guys this past week has been nothing short of incredible, and I just want to take a quick second to say THANK YOU!! Your excitement and engagement has really ignited a new fire in me, and I’m forever thankful for that. But anyways lets get down to business!
As promised, this week’s entry of The Nerdy Athlete is all about BCAAs. The fitness supplement market is a multi million dollar industry, and everyone and their mother is constantly asking about which supplements are going to help them achieve goal X Y and Z. There are thousands upon thousands of supplements out there, and because of that, there is an unlimited amount of information about these supplements that can be rather confusing and misleading. This week’s edition of The Nerdy Athlete is meant to educate you on what BCAAs are, what they are believed to do, and the contradictions in the literature. Lets get to it!
What The Hell Are BCAAs?
BCAA is an acronym for branched chain amino acids. Before we can really dive into the topic of BCAAs, its important that we all have an understanding of what amino acids are. For my real science heads out there, Britannica defines an amino acid as “any of a group of organic molecules that consist of a basic amino group (―NH2), an acidic carboxyl group (―COOH), and an organic R group (or side chain) that is unique to each amino acid” (Reddy, 2019). Here’s is a picture of the chemical structure for those of you visual learners out there. Now, for my plain english people (myself included hahahahah), amino acids can best be defined as the basic building blocks of proteins in the human body.
When we consume amino acids, our body breaks them down and uses them to aid in the muscle synthesis process. This results in the creation of new proteins to help our muscles rebuild themselves after a strenuous bout of exercise. There are about 7 billion things we could talk about in regards to amino acids, but for our purposes today, I want to be sure that we understand the difference between an essential and non-essential amino acid. Non-essential amino acids are amino acids that can be produced in the body, while essential amino acids cannot be produced in the body. There are only 20 amino acids that are responsible for the creations of the literal thousands upon thousands of proteins in our bodies, and of those 20, 9 are essential amino acids. Since we cannot produce those essential amino acids in our body, we have to get then from our diet.
Okay… What The Hell Are BCAAs?
So, we know that there are 9 essential amino acids that we must get from our diet. Branched chain amino acids are a group of three of those nine essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine (Walle, 2018). When we think of BCAAs, we automatically think of the powdered supplements fro our local GNC, but BCAAs also exist in the food we eat. Protein packed foods like beef, eggs and nuts are full of BCAAs, so you don’t need to just use supplements to be sure you’re getting them in your diet.
According to a Walle, there are a few ergogenic benefits that BCAAs provide, such as:
Increased muscle growth
Leucine activates specific pathways in the muscles that stimulate muscle synthesis (Blomstrand et al., 2006).
Decreased muscle soreness
The literature shows a correlation between BCAA supplementation and decreased muscle soreness post exercise (Shimomura et al., 2010).
Reduced rate of perceived exertion
This triggers an increase in tryptophan in the brain, which then is converted to serotonin, which is thought to be a possible contributing factor to the onset of fatigue during strenuous exercise (Shimimura et al., 2004).
Prevents muscle wasting
Muscle wasting occurs when the rate of muscle protein breakdown exceeds the rate of muscle protein synthesis. Essentially, if you are not replacing the protein stores in your muscles after strenuous exercise then your body will begin to to break those proteins down for energy rather than creating new proteins to rebuild your muscles.
BCAAs seem like the shit huh? Well, maybe! Just as there are studies that show there may be some big time ergogenic benefits, there are also plenty of studies that suggest otherwise.
Well… What Does The Literature Say?
Honestly, the literature is rather split on whether BCAA supplementation actually results in ergogenic benefits; however, there is still a multi million dollar market for these supplements. For example, VanDussledorp et al. (2018) states “It has been suggested that BCAA supplementation may reduce protein degradation and/or muscle enzyme release, decrease skeletal muscle damage in response to intense resistance exercise, reduce feelings of soreness, mitigate central fatigue and promote subsequent recovery of muscle function; however, these findings remain inconclusive at present. While underlying mechanisms remain unclear, BCAA supplementation is a popular practice among recreational exercisers and athletes and continues to garner significant research interest”. I speculate that it is possible that research remains inconclusive on whether BCAA supplementation actually provides ergogenic benefits due to the discrepancies between the methodologies of the studies. Many studies focus on untrained individuals (Antonio et al., 2000), when the reality is that probably 99.99% of the people who are actually buying BCAAs are resistance trained individuals. The results of these studies hold little to no value to the trained individual, as physical adaptations that come with regular resistance training may influence test results.
Also, the prescribed servings of the BCAAs in each study vary dramatically. For example, some studies prescribed BCAA supplementation based on a participant’s body weight (VanDusseldorp et al., 2018), while other studies settled on a universal number that would be given to all participants with no regard for their body weight (Jackman et al., 2010). It is entirely possible that 1 serving of BCAAs, much like alcohol, might affect a 275lbs linebacker differently than it would affect a 140lb cross country runner, and many of the studies in the literature fail to account for that. Without much consistency in the literature on the recommended serving of BCAAs in order to yield ergogenic effects, I question how companies come up with their serving sizes for their products, but thats neither here nor there.
In addition, various studies that produced results showing significant ergogenic benefits from BCAA supplementation administered the BCAA’s intravenously (Kobayashi et al., 2006), while numerous studies that yielded the opposite results administered them orally (Kephart et al., 2016). This might suggest that oral consumption of BCAAs is less effective than an intravenous administration, possibly due to the acids in our stomach destroying the BCAAs before we even get a chance to absorb them. It seems as if BCAA supplementation that would yield the muscular synthesis benefits that are advertised would need to be administered through an IV, and I just don’t believe that a large percentage people taking BCAAs have the means to do that lmfao.
Although rather subjective, of all the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the literature surrounding BCAAs, the one thing that is consistent is that BCAA supplementation has been seen to reduce the perception of muscle soreness post exercise (Fedewa et al., 2019). Whether through oral or intravenous administration, just about every study that I read resulted in a decrease in muscle soreness post exercise. Reduced muscle soreness is an awesome benefit of BCAAs; however, it is important to note that a decrease in muscle soreness does not equate to an increase in performance. You might not be sore, but your muscles are still recovering after strenuous exercise. So be smart!
So.. Should I Buy Them?
Hey man I’m not here to tell you to buy them or not, but rather to provide you with the information to help you make that decision for yourself. Based on the differing results in the literature, how could anyone 100% tell you yes or no? I’m sure thats probably not the answer some of y’all are looking for hahahaha. But in my honest opinion, I don’t believe that I will be supplementing BCAAs anytime soon. With there being so many inconsistencies in the literature on the effectiveness of BCAA supplementation, I’m getting the impression that BCAA supplementation for SOME people might be just taking expensive pees. After all, whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, and has time and time again been proven in the literature to be a catalyst to muscle synthesis (Tang et al., 2007), so I’d much rather stick with whats proven rather than whats questionable. Then again, there are multiple studies that show benefits of orally ingested BCAAs, so do with that what you will. But I can for sure say its whey protein gang for me hahahahaha.
Now look, I am 100% positive I left some stuff out and missed some things, so if there’s something you’re curious about, ask!! I hope this was able to help some of you out who had been curious about all the hooplah behind BCAAs. I appreciate each and everyone one of you who made it this far! Thank you again for rockin’ with me. Happy Monday. Go attack the week! #CCTS #TheNerdyAthlete
Next Week’s Topic:
The Importance Of Sufficient Sleep
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