Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are one of the most historically used supplements by athletes of multiple disciplines. In fact, they are one of the cornerstones of the food supplement industry and are a must for anyone who wants to take care of this additional aspect of their sports plan and program.
In recent years, however, with the release of new studies and the placing on the market of new supplements, the interest in BCAAs has come to decrease and in fact, their role and effectiveness has been reduced, both as a supplement. ergogenic and as an aid for body recomposition.
In this article we will first see what BCAAs are, understand the benefits and reasons why they may not be such an interesting supplement, and then analyze what are the margins of use.
What are BCAAs
BCAAs are three amino acids (leucine, valine and isoleucine) which are characterized by their branched chain structure. They are among the 9 essential amino acids, so our body is unable to synthesize them from other amino acids and must be introduced from the outside through food. In addition to the structure, the other peculiarity lies in their metabolism. In fact, they are the only amino acids that are not metabolized in the liver, passing directly into the muscle tissue. Here they are metabolized by the BCCA amino-transferase enzyme which, precisely, is not present in the liver.
All three branched chain amino acids are insulinogenic, but unlike the other amino acids that allow insulin stimulation, they are not glucagonogenic. This property has attracted the interest of the supplement market due to the benefits of insulin spikes after physical activity.
Benefits of BCAA
The benefits of BCAAs therefore lie in their structure, their metabolism and their function. They have been proposed in the integration market with a first ergogenic role. In fact, it has been seen in the literature how BCAA supplementation allows to reduce perceived effort even and above all if in synergy with a carbohydrate drink. This seems to be true for endurance sports, but it can be combined with sessions with particularly dense weights or with muscular endurance work (rep. Range above 20 reps).
The second benefit that was seen relates to body composition during a definition phase (i.e. calorie restriction). In this context, to prevent muscle catabolism, it was seen how BCAA supplementation could represent an alternative for the system to extract amino acids for energy purposes instead of those that it normally obtained by degrading muscle tissue. In addition to these two benefits, many uses have been proposed, in particular with BCAA formulas rich in leucine which has been seen to be the main driver in terms of stimulation of proteosynthesis.
Why not use them?
Why then shouldn't we use them? In fact, although the supplementation of BCAAs has shown several benefits, they do not derive so much from these three amino acids in particular, but rather from the introduction of an amino acid content in strategic contexts/moments. Moreover, although the three amino acids are able to stimulate proteasynthesis, they are not sufficient for it to take place. The body always needs at least 9 essential amino acids to kickstart the process. For this reason, the modern science of nutrition and sports integration sees the use of a pool of essential amino acids in such moments much more common, able to emphasize even more the benefits seen for the three branched amino acids. We will explore the topic in an article dedicated to essential amino acids.
When should they be used?
Are there therefore margins of use of the three essential amino acids? Indeed, yes, and this concerns contexts of very aggressive low-calorie diets. In this case we are not so much interested in stimulating proteasynthesis but rather giving energy material to the body to avoid the catabolism of muscle tissue. The BCAAs would therefore be "improperly" used by the body as an energy substrate. This makes sense in regimes that involve the elimination of carbohydrates (for example, the ketogenic diet or heavy carbohydrate burns before a contest). In this sense, BCAAs can be an excellent addition to our food plan.
As seen, the integration of BCAA is absolutely not a must, indeed it should be restricted in limited circumstances and often unrelated to the sporting context. However, this allows us to appreciate how much the science of sports nutrition is constantly evolving and how much research can provide help to athletes to emphasize their sports performance.