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Branched-Chain Amino Acids 101: The ABCs of BCAAs

by in Healthy & Nutritious Living
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If you keep up with sports and fitness nutrition you’ve probably heard a lot about Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) in the past several months. Everyone from Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health to and even Dr. Mercola and Web MD have something to say about BCAAs. So what’s all the buzz? We’re going to break down the science behind the stories.

If you’re intimidated by the fact that the bodybuilding community has championed BCAAs, don’t be. You don’t have to be a power lifter or high-intensity athlete to benefit from BCAAs. Researchers have studied the benefits of BCAAs on both men and women, of varying body types and athleticism, and across the entire life span, from premature babies to older adults and everyone in between. Sure, there have been studies researching the potential benefits of BCAA intake in athletes, but scientists have also looked at BCAA intake in average young adults as well. And while performance improvement in athletes is an exciting topic, so is improved quality of life for average everyday people like you and me.

Amino Acid Basics

So let’s start with the basics. What’s an amino acid? You may or may not remember amino acids from way back in high-school biology. They’re the ‘building blocks’, or basic structural units, that combine to form proteins. All amino acids have the same basic structure, but each type of amino acid has one very different segment called a side-chain. The elements that make up those side chains give them vastly different properties. Some side chains mix well with water and others repel it, some are slightly acidic and others are slightly basic, and some carry a slight charge and will react with other charged particles. When amino acids combine to form peptide chains, or proteins, it’s the different properties of those amino acid side chains that cause the proteins to take on different shapes. The shape of a protein, in turn, determines its functionality and the role it plays in the body.

Most amino acids have a side chain with a single structural ‘chain’ of linked carbon atoms, but a few special amino acids have a side chain that splits into two segments. The amino acids with those two-pronged side chains are, you guessed it, the branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

Branching Out: The Branched-Chain Amino Acids

So what’s the big deal with BCAAs? There are few different reasons that BCAAs have become a hot topic of conversation, but the main reason (and the reason that they show up in the health, fitness, and bodybuilding magazines) is the role that BCAAs, and in particular leucine, play in building lean muscle. Sure, muscle fibers are proteins, and amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, but the role that BCAAs play in muscle anabolism (that’s the technical term for building muscle fibers) goes beyond that of raw material. BCAAs, and leucine in particular, have been found to influence the synthesis of skeletal muscle proteins!

Scientists have been studying the link between amino acids and muscle fiber generation for decades, and by the early 2000s the scientific community had established that Leucine plays a key role in initiation of muscle anabolism.[i] In fact, Leucine is so important to muscle integrity, that muscle cells are one of only three areas of the body known to be able to produce the enzyme involved in the breakdown of the amino acid. Another interesting finding is that one of the products of the breakdown of Leucine, β‐Hydroxy β‐Methylbutyrate (HMB), may also inhibit the breakdown of existing muscle fibers! So whether you want to “lose weight” without losing muscle tone (i.e. use up your stored fat tissue while maintaining lean muscle mass), you want to “bulk up” (increase lean muscle mass), some combination of both, or you just want to maintain a healthy body weight, look no further than IsoPower, with 2776 mg Leucine per serving!

Including adequate amounts of BCAAs as part of a healthy diet may help you support a healthy body weight. A group of almost 1,000 young adults in China were were measured for body composition and weight distribution and were also surveyed to determine their eating habits. The research team found that ingestion of BCAAs was inversely related to both overweight & obesity, and waist circumference, both of which are risk factors for multiple chronic diseases.[ii] What their findings suggest is that the individuals whose diets included higher levels of BCAAs were more likely to be of a healthy weight and/or have a more ideal body shape. The researchers conceded that further studies are needed to verify their findings, but, that’s potentially great news for anyone looking to stay fit and maintain a healthy body weight. Every one of our beneficial habits adds up to healthy way of life.

Increased BCAA intake may also help preserve lean muscle mass when you’re on a calorie restricted diet to lose weight. It’s pretty well established that for most people, the best method for weight loss is taking in less calories than you’re burning through some combination of increased calorie use through physical activity and/or reduced calorie intake. The tricky part is that with reduced calorie intake you might not only burn stored fat; you can also lose lean muscle mass. That can be detrimental in the long run because lean muscle mass is an important factor in a healthy metabolism. One study found that adding BCAAs to the diet minimized the loss of lean muscle mass in individuals on a calorie restricted diet.[iii]

So how much is enough and does the source matter? One study determined that 25g of protein, containing ~3,000 mg of leucine, is the optimal amount for maximizing muscle anabolism after a workout.[iv] Several subsequent studies have looked at the possibility of supplementing with leucine or a BCAA mix, with or without a lower dose of protein.[v], [vi] While those studies highlight that the use of selected BCAA supplements may have similar benefits to adequate protein intake that includes BCAAs, the key here is similar benefits, and at what additional cost? One study even found that for sustained benefit after exercise, supplementing with 25g of whey protein, with naturally occurring BCAAs, is more effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis than supplementing with isolated leucine or leucine with low-dose low protein.v

The Essentials: Essential vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids

So getting back to amino acids, if you dig deep you might remember that some amino acids are non-essential, meaning that our bodies are able to produce those amino acids when aren’t getting a sufficient amount in the diet. Essential amino acids are those that we have to get from our diets because our bodies are incapable of producing them. If you aren’t obtaining enough of any one of the essential amino acids from your dietary intake, your body can’t produce any of the proteins that include that amino acid. You limit the vital functionality of one or many proteins when you’re low on one, or a few, of these essential amino acids. I think you know where I’m heading with this. The BCAAs, valine, leucine, and isoleucine, are essential amino acids. If you’re not getting enough of these amino acids in your diet they become limiting factors in the production of any proteins that include them and you’re missing out on all the other benefits they provide.


The Total Package: Complete Protein

Fortunately for you, Essen Nutrition’s IsoPower Whey Protein is rich in the branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Every serving contains 5781 mg of BCAAs! (2776 mg Leucine, 1503 mg Isoleucine, and 1502 mg valine) IsoPower provides more than just the BCAAs though. It’s a complete protein, which means that it provides all the amino acids that your body needs. Whey protein provides a near ideal balance of both essential and non-essential amino acids, so that your body has all the raw materials it needs to build all the many vital proteins that keep you at your best. A single scoop of IsoPower contains 26g of high quality bioavailable protein. That’s about as much protein as you’d get from a 4 oz. chicken breast, or a quarter-pound beef patty! And if you compare IsoPower to what scientist found to yield optimum results for muscle protein synthesis, a serving of IsoPower provides almost exactly that amount of protein and BCAAs!

If you’re looking to supplement your dietary intake of protein with a rich source of branched-chain amino acids in a complete protein source, look no further than IsoPower!

** IsoPower is a nutritional supplement and isn’t intended to treat or cure any medical condition. This article is intended to provide general information only. It isn’t a substitute for medical advice from a qualified medical professional, and no nutritional supplement should be substituted for your prescribed medications or the advice of your medical team. Everyone is unique, and what is safe and effective for one person may not be for another. Before taking any nutritional supplement, be sure to consult with your physician, medical specialist(s), and/or a registered dietitian in order to get the best information for you. **




[1]Yan-Chuan L, et al. (2015), The Ratio of Dietary Branched-Chain Amino Acids is Associated with a Lower Prevalence of Obesity in Young Northern Chinese Adults: An Internet-Based Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients, 7(11): 9573–9589. doi:  10.3390/nu7115486

[1] Dudgeon, WD, Kelley, EP & Scheet, TP. (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. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13:1 doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0112-9

[1] Moore DR, et al. (2009), Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr 89, 161–168.

[1] Churchward-Venn, TA, et al. (2012), Supplementation of a suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effects on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men. The J Physiol, 590: 2751–2765 2751. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.228833

[1] Bukhari, SSI, et al. (2015), Intake of low-dose leucine-rich essential amino acids stimulates muscle anabolism equivalently to bolus whey protein in older women at rest and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, 308: E1056–E1065. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00481.2014.

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