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Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): What are they, Side Effects & Risks

Posted by Adam Bloom on

Many athletes use BCAAs as a supplement with intense training. BCAAs, or Branch Chain Amino Acids, can be helpful before, during, and after workouts. BCAAs are known to help people go longer and harder with their training. Even as they are in widespread use, many would like to know exactly what are BCAAs?

From amateurs to pros, the use of BCAAs has become widespread. People find the BCAAs are beneficial not only for intense workouts but also for more rapid recovery following a workout. Exploring exactly what are BCAAs may help explain how the results many people see by taking BCAA supplements come about. It is one thing to just take it on faith that BCAAs work. Actually understanding the biochemistry of it all can only help. 

However, there are also some health and safety considerations with respect to BCAAs. Though the positive uses of BCAAs are recognized by nearly anyone who takes these supplements, the long-term effects of using BCAAs may not be as well understood by the people who take them.  

What are BCAAs, exactly? How do they work? And what are the potential dangers of using BCAAs?

This guide will offer an in-depth explanation of what BCAAs are, how they work, and what you really need to know about them. 

What are BCAAs?

Branched-chain amino acids consist of three of the essential amino acids our bodies cannot make on its own and must be obtained from a food source. These essential amino acids are molecules that have a chain of elements attached. The chemical function of these chains is complex. What we need to understand is that these three amino acids are essential for building muscle. This is how they get the name. The three branched-chain amino acids are: 

  • Leucine: Considered the most important of the three, leucine helps maintain energy levels by stabilizing glucose in the bloodstream. Leucine is important for building muscle because it assists in the biochemical production of muscle tissue. It can also help with recovery because leucine boosts our ability to heal muscles. This reduces soreness. Leucine can lead to a 25% increase in muscle tissue. 
  • Isoleucine: Our bodies cannot produce isoleucine and we must get it from some outside source. Obviously, nutritional sources are the main way we obtain isoleucine, but protein supplements can also provide this essential amino acid. Isoleucine functions in a way that is similar to leucine except leucine performs its metabolic work through fats only. Isoleucine can metabolize through fats and carbohydrates. 
  • Valine: Similar to leucine and isoleucine, valine helps build muscle by bringing more glucose to the muscles as they are stressed and worked. On its own, valine does not build muscle. But taken with leucine and isoleucine, it helps facilitate greater muscle development. Valine also assists with brain function, and it can help you sleep. A bonus for the insomniacs. 

These three blocked chained amino acids are the dynamic trio of muscle growth and development. Together, these three amino acids build muscle, speed recovery from workouts, and reduce the soreness from workouts.  

What do BCAAs do?

Taken together, block chained amino acids facilitate the metabolism of glucose in muscles as they are stressed. Exercise is basically controlled stress of your muscles. As anyone who takes an active interest in the science of exercise knows, what we do is cause-specific stress to our muscles in order to help them become stronger and more resilient. Essential to this process is the metabolism of glucose as a source of energy. The blocked chained amino acids function to make this metabolic process happen more effectively. By taking a BCAA supplement, we are ideally helping and accelerating our bodies to do the work nature does on its own. 

BCAA Benefits

The benefits of BCAAs are well known to athletes and trainers. These things do not come to prominence because of a trend. They really do provide numerous benefits. As we have seen, BCAAs are part of the natural nutrition we require on a baseline level. Supplementing this nutrition produces some real results. 

  • Reduce Soreness: BCAAs minimize muscle damage from workouts. The micro-tears in muscles and the natural buildup of lactic acid are the inevitable results of a good workout. BCAAs help reduce these conditions. By increasing the metabolism of glucose and increasing muscle growth, BCAAs naturally reduce the pain of muscle stress. 
  • Improve Muscle Growth: As you work your muscles, your body naturally initiates the process of protein synthesis. This is fundamentally the goal of exercise. BCAAs help this natural process. BCAAs make the metabolic systems that carry out protein synthesis function more efficiently. The net result is more muscle. 
  • Getting Lean: As we workout, our bodies will require an increased level of glucose in order to carry out the metabolic functions. Glucose is sugar, and our bodies will begin to metabolize this in order to continue with protein synthesis. BCAAs ensure that this glucose metabolism produces lean tissue rather than fatty tissue. Thus, we become muscular and trim. 
  • Less Tired: As we exercise, the natural levels of BCAAs in our bodies get used up and decrease. This will lead to the production of tryptophan. The same chemical in our holiday turkey that makes us sleepy. BCAA supplements will boost the levels of BCAAs in our bodies and suppress the production of tryptophan. This means more stamina for longer and more satisfying workouts. 

BCAAs Side Effects

BCAAs are naturally occurring chemicals and are essential for our health. Taking supplemental BCAAs for increased muscle growth and stamina is considered safe. However, as is the case when we add any chemical to our bodies, there is a potential for side effects

Most of the dangerous side effects of BCAAs seem to impact other conditions. There are some things you should know.

  • Pregnancy and breast-feeding: There is not enough information on the safety of BCAAs during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Doctors warn to simply avoid taking BCAAs if you are pregnant or breast-feeding. 
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease): Taking BCAAs if you have ALS has been linked to lung failure and it increases death rate. Avoid BCAAs if you have ALS. 
  • Branched-chain ketoaciduria: Taking BCAAs with this condition can lead to seizures and severe physical retardation. 
  • Surgery: Since BCAAs can affect blood sugar levels, it is dangerous to use them if you are facing surgery. Stop using BCAAs at least two weeks before having a surgical procedure. 

What are the BCAAs Risks?

In addition to the side effects listed above, there are some other risks associated with BCAAs.

Studies have found that some women who take BCAAs have an increased risk of gestational diabetes. Developing gestation diabetes puts these women at a much higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Doctors advise pregnant women and women who may be trying to become pregnant to avoid taking BCAA supplements. 

There is also a rare disorder known as Maple Syrup Sugar Disorder (MSUD) that develops in people who cannot properly metabolize BCAAs. The condition gets its name from the sweet odor of the urine of people afflicted with this disorder. This is a serious condition that can cause mood disorders, hallucinations, weight loss, and anorexia. This condition can ultimately lead to coma.

Is BCAA good for weight loss?

The simple answer to this question is yes. However, the studies show that weight loss from taking BCAA supplements was as much due to exercise and diet as it was to the use of BCAA supplements.  

Taking BCAA supplements facilitates weight loss and maintains lean muscle. This is a double benefit. But again, exercise and a healthy diet are crucial factors in achieving these results. 

Since BCAAs work by accelerating the metabolism of glucose, natural and healthy weight loss can be a net result of taking them.

When is the Best Time to take BCAA?

There are two schools of thought on when it is best to take BCAAs. Before exercise or after exercise. The problem is that both are right in their own way. 

Taking BCAAs 30 minutes before a workout is optimal for reducing soreness and for reducing damage to muscles. One study demonstrated that 10 mg of BCAAs about 30 minutes prior to a  workout increased strength and endurance in the non-dominant arm of weight lifters. 

Another study showed that the same amount of BCAAs taken prior to training produced comparable results in increased strength and stamina to a control group that used a protein boost with a whey protein supplement. The results show that BCAAs taken before a workout significantly increase strength. 

As for taking BCAAs after a workout, studies have shown that taking them post-workout can continue to build muscle as much as 4-5 hours after training. The metabolic processes that BCAAs make possible continue to occur in the body well after the actual workout. 

Both schools of thought are correct for different reasons. Taking BCAAs before training can help with stamina and endurance and this makes for an effective workout. Taking them after allows the amino acids to continue to metabolize and produce muscle. 

Should I take BCAAs every day?

You do not need to take BCAAs every day. However, if your training schedule involves significant muscle development, you may benefit from taking them every day. The most important thing to bear in mind is that there are side effects from taking too much BCAA supplement. Listen to your body seems to be the most common advice on this subject.

There is no medically recommended dosage for BCAA supplements. Sports medicine experts advise you to consult the manufacturer's label for the best way to use their products.  

Best BCAAs for Men or Women

Men and women often have different fitness goals. Men tend to want to bulk up and put on a lot of muscle. Women tend to shy away from things like BCAAs specifically because they do not want all the obvious bulky muscle.

The good news for women is that BCAAs do not mimic things like testosterone. They are not hormones, but natural amino acids. Women will benefit specifically from something like NF Sports Natural Amino Post-Recovery Drink. This alleviates soreness and promotes the type of lean muscle women are often after their workouts.

Men will also benefit from NF Sports Natural Amino, and they can complement this with NF Sports Pre-Workout for maximum results.  

The important thing to remember is that BCAAs are not necessarily for massive muscles. BCAAs benefit men and women by optimizing workouts for less soreness, more stamina, and more lean muscle. 

The type of muscle we develop depends mostly on the kind of training we are engaged in. BCAAS does not determine the amount of muscle we can develop. They simply make workouts more efficient no matter your fitness goals. 

Wrapping things up

Some of the important things we need to take form this is that Branched Chain Amino Acids are really just naturally occurring amino acids that our bodies require. The bottom line of BCAAs is that they make up 3 of the 9 essential amino acids we must get from food or some other source. 

As for supplements, BCAAs are safe and effective. They reduce soreness in workouts by boosting our natural metabolism of glucose. This metabolic boost also helps in building muscle. The benefit of taking BCAA supplements can extend well beyond the workout itself by continuing the metabolic processes which stimulate the production of muscle tissue. 

While there are potential side effects with BCAAs, most of these side effects impact other conditions. Being aware of how BCAAs may interact with a condition you already have can prevent any real harm. 

Finally, both men and women stand to benefit from BCAA supplements. If you are a committed athlete and put yourself through rigorous training and workouts, the natural processes that BCAAs stimulate will make those workouts much more beneficial. Men can put on some serious muscle, and women will find that the production of lean muscle will likely help meet their fitness goals. 

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