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Branch Chain Amino Acids - Good for lots of things

Men's Health, nutrition | June 5, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Branch Chain Amino Acids - Good for lots of things

Bodybuilders and marathoners have been using branch-chain amino acid supplements for decades. Here's what you need to know:

Amino acids are the smallest units that make up proteins in our bodies and in the foods we eat. There are three branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, valine and isoleucine. Their molecular structures involve a side-chain of three hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom, creating a “branched chain”. Don't worry, that's the extent of the deep science in this article.

This is what really matters –

Like all amino acids, the body uses BCAAs to build proteins for muscles, cartilage, enzymes, hormones, and more. But BCAAs are particularly important for blood sugar regulation, energy production, and muscle health – up to a third of muscle protein is made of branch-chain amino acids. They account for 40% of the body's total amino acid reserve with around 20% of that found in the muscle.

Because of this huge protein reserve and demand from skeletal muscles, BCAAs have a fast-track delivery system from food to muscle. They jump the queue during digestion and are preferentially absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and, unlike every other amino acid, BCAAs aren't degraded in the liver – once they have been absorbed in the gut, they are transported directly to the bloodstream and delivered to muscles.

Muscle Health, Fitness & Branch Chain Amino Acids

Branch-chain amino acids are used in muscles as an energy source during exercise and to rebuild muscle proteins after exertion. The higher the concentration of BCAAs in the muscle, the better it functions and the bigger the muscle can become.

Boosting your BCAA intake can give you massive gains, but there are functional benefits to adding them to your workout shake too.

BCAA supplementation can help to:

  • Decrease muscle damage and injury during prolonged exercise, and improve recovery times. It does this by decreasing lactase concentrations within the muscle. This means less soreness and stiffness the day after working out.
  • Promote long-term muscle-growth and anabolism by increasing growth hormone circulation.
  • Improve performance by enhancing muscular oxygenation and lowering lactate levels during resistance training. This gives the muscle more energy and strength.
  • Reduce fatigue during exercise by regulating serotonin production within the brain [1]. This is great for beginner athletes and those of you heading back to the gym after a break.

If you're getting into fitness for the first time, ramping up your training program, or looking to get 'swoll, then BCAA supplementation is the boost you need.

But it's not just fitness fanatics that can benefit from increasing their BCAA intake

Weight Loss & BCAAs

If exercise isn't your thing, eating a low-calorie diet can still lead to lose weight, but it can also send the body into a catabolic state where it breaks down muscles instead of fat.

Evidence shows that supplementing with branch chain amino acids during a diet can help to maintain lean muscle mass while promoting fat loss [2]. More muscle gives you a higher metabolic rate, so fast-track your weight loss by protecting your lean mass with BCAAs.

Leucine can also help to cut the cravings while you're on a diet. Studies have also shown that supplementation can reduce over-eating by improving feelings of satisfaction after meals [3]. This is partially because of BCAAs' effects on blood sugar:

Blood Sugar, Diabetes & BCAAs

Athletes want steady blood sugar levels so that they can tolerate long training sessions, but supplementation can also be a powerful therapy for people with diabetes, obesity, stubborn weight-loss issues, and hormone imbalances. Research on isoleucine and valine has suggested that these branch-chain amino acids have a huge influence over blood sugar levels and insulin secretion [4]. Leucine also appears to be involved, as people with type 2 diabetes excrete this BCAA at a faster rate than people with stable blood sugar levels [5].

Taking a BCAA supplement improves the release of hormones that control blood glucose from the brain, making it easier to stick to your diet and keep your blood sugar within healthy range  [5] [6]. Long-term supplementation has been shown to protect the proteins within the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin, as well as protect muscles from degeneration associated with type-2 diabetes. It can also improve insulin sensitivity, helping to get glucose into cells faster and quickly return blood sugar levels to normal [7].

Branch Chain Amino Acids & Ageing

As the body ages, we naturally lose muscle mass, balance, dexterity and strength. Branch-chain amino acids to the rescue! 

A 2016 study showed that taking a 6g dose of a BCAA supplement before exercise therapy resulted in significant improvement to over-all strength and balance in 3 months, as compared to taking a placebo before performing the same exercises [8].

The benefits don't stop there –

A three-month trial recently tested the effects of leucine supplementation on the cognitive function of 38 frail elderly individuals. After three months of supplementation, the group's cognitive scores were improved by 30% [9].

Other studies have confirmed that supplementing with BCAAs in old age is safe, with an upper-limit of 35g per day – but as little as 6g can give significant results [10].

Therapeutic Effects of BCAAs

The benefits of supplementing with branch chain amino acids have also been studied in many diseases:

  • Liver disease - BCAA supplementation may reduce symptoms of fatigue and weakness [11], reduce complications from liver failure [12], and reduce the risk of complications from surgery [13].
  • Parkinson's disease - BCAA supplementation may help to maintain muscle strength and reduce tremors [14].
  • Cardiovascular disease – Increasing BCAA intake can decrease circulating cholesterol, making it less likely to deposit in arteries and worsen cardiovascular disease [10].

How Much BCAA Can I Take?

Daily requirements of branch-chain amino acids are estimated to be between 34mg – 144mg per kilogram of bodyweight, per day. The lower end of the scale was calculated by the World Health Organisation in 1984, so err towards the higher dosage range if you are looking for real results.

Calculate how much BCAA you need:

            [your weight in kilograms] x 144 = [the milligrams of BCAAs you need per day].

Don't be afraid to go a little higher for therapeutic results – evidence shows that 15g – 35g per day is safe and effective for healthy individuals, and it appears to be safe to supplement BCAA at the same level throughout adulthood and into old age [16].

Because the branch-chain amino acids will be absorbed before any other amino acids, you can easily boost your BCAA levels by consuming whole foods.

BCAA's meatBranch-chain amino acids are found in all high-protein foods:

  • Meat & fish: 3g per 84g serve
  • Tofu & Tempeh: 2.3g   per 84g serve
  • Beans & lentils: 3g per cup
  • Dairy milk:  2g per cup
  • Eggs: 1.3g per large egg
  • Quinoa: 1g per cup
  • Nuts: 1g  per 28g

Source: FSANZ [15]

Given these levels, it's obvious that you may need to take a BCAA supplement to get the recommended 15g – 35g per day. Look for a supplement without any additives, preservative, artificial flavours, natural stimulants or compounds.


  • More isn't always better. Consuming BCAAs above the upper tolerable limits (above 30g per day) can cause an increase in toxic ammonia levels in the blood [16]. Stick to moderate therapeutic levels of 114mg/kg/day.
  • Individuals with ALS and conditions of ketoacid build-up (e.g. branched-chain ketoaciduria or “maple syrup urine disease”) should avoid BCAA supplementation and keep their dietary protein intake to a minimum.
  • Because BCAAs jump the queue for absorption in the gut, other amino acids can miss out on being absorbed and you may become deficient. Ensure adequate protein intake in the diet, and take BCAA supplements away from food.
  • Branch-chain amino acids require B vitamins, particularly thiamine, for their metabolism, actions and therapeutic benefits [7]. Consider taking a good quality B vitamin complex alongside your BCAA supplement.  Australia’s best online discount chemist


[1] Biomstrand, E. (2006) A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. Journal of Nutrition, 136:2.

[2] Dudgeon, W. D., et al. (2016) In a single-blind, matched group design: branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet. J Int Soc Sports Nutr., 13:1.

[3]  Blouet, J., et al. (2009) Mediobasal hypothalamic leucine sensing regulates food intake through activation of a hypothalamus-brainstem circuit. J Neurosci. 29, 8302–8311.

[4] Doi, M., et al. (2003) Isoleucine, a potent plasma glucose-lowering amino acid, stimulates glucose uptake in C2C12 myotubes. Biochem Biophys Res Commun., 312:4.

[5] Schwartz, G. J. (2013) Central leucine sensing in the control of energy homeostasis. (2013) Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am., 42, 81–87.

[6] Chen, H., et al. (2012) Leucine improves glucose and lipid status in offspring from obese dams, dependent on diet type, but not caloric intake. J Neuroendocrinol. 24, 1356–1364.

[7] Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2010) Herbs & Natural Supplements. Elsevier. p. 927.

[8] Ikeda, T., et al. (2016) Effects and feasibility of exercise therapy combined with branched-chain amino acid supplementation on muscle strengthening in frail and pre-frail elderly people requiring long-term care: a crossover trial. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab., 41:4, 438 – 445.

[9] Abe, S., Ezaki, O. & Suzuki, M. (2017) Medium-Chain Triglycerides in Combination with Leucine and Vitamin D Benefit Cognition in Frail Elderly Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo), 63:2, 133 – 140. 
 [10] Borack, M. S. & Volpi, E. (2016) Efficacy and Safety of Leucine Supplementation in the Elderly. J Nutr., 146:2.

 [11] Kawaguchi, T., et al. (2011) Branched-chain amino acids as pharmacological nutrients in chronic liver disease. Hepatology, 54:3, 1063 – 1070.

[12] Melcalf, E. L., et al. (2014) Branched-chain amino acid supplementation in adults with cirrhosis and porto-systemic encephalopathy: systematic review. Clin Nutr., 33:6.

[13] Su, X. L., et al. (2014) Meta-analysis of branched chain amino acid-enriched nutrition to improve hepatic function in patients undergoing hepatic operation. Chinese Journal of Hepatology, 22:1, 43 – 47.

[14] Tosukhowong, P., et al. (2016) Biochemical and clinical effects of Whey protein supplementation in Parkinson's disease: A pilot study. J Neurol Sci, 367, 162 – 170.

 [15] FSANZ (2010) NUTTAB.

[16] Rasmussen, B., et al. (2016) Determination of the safety of leucine supplementation in healthy elderly men. Amino Acids, 48:7, 1707 – 1716.

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