Branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) consist of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. Due to their role in protein synthesis, branched chain amino acid supplements are often taken by bodybuilders and weight lifters.
What are BCAAs?
Branched chain amino acids, or BCAA, are naturally occurring nutrients found in protein food sources such as meats, dairy products and even some legumes. Taken as supplements or intravenously, BCAAs have numerous applications in medicine as well as for athletic performance.
The BCAA class of proteinogenic amino acids includes leucine, isoleucine and valine, compounds with significant effects on glucose levels, metabolism and muscle health. At least one BCAA, leucine, has been shown to affect the body’s blood sugar levels, possibly by stimulating the pancreas to release insulin. As a group, BCAAs improve the transmission of signals to the brain, particularly those involving food intake and metabolism.
These compounds also account for 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins, and stimulate protein synthesis in muscle tissue. For these reasons, BCAAs are in high demand among athletes, particularly bodybuilders and are widely sold as performance enhancements worldwide. .
Benefits of BCAAs
Anabolic Benefits of BCAAs
Anabolic benefits claimed by commercial marketers of BCAAs include reduced protein degradation after exercise for increased muscle mass, faster recovery time after workouts, and a boost to the metabolism for faster calorie burning.
Clinical Benefits of BCAAs
Branched chain amino acids are also used in clinical settings to treat a variety of diseases, , primarily involving the liver and kidneys. Dosed intravenously, BCAAs have been used in the treatment of kidney failure in elderly patients, and both the acute and chronic forms of hepatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by liver failure. Because BCAAs also affect satiety signals, they may also be used to treat eating disorders.
The ability of BCAAs to affect signal transmission to the brain makes them useful in the treatment of a variety of conditions involving faulty communication between brain and muscles, such as the movement disorder tardive dyskinesia and a variety of neurological problems. In addition, they can also be used to reduce the muscle wasting experienced by people who are bedridden for long periods, and to support the body in recovering from severe stress caused by serious injury or infection.
Potential Side Effects of BCAAs
Although BCAAs are naturally occurring in foods and generally safe, experts warn of some side effects when taken at higher doses in supplement or injectable forms. Although BCAAs are used to combat fatigue and muscle stress, one known side effect of supplementation is fatigue, along with loss of coordination. For that reason, care is recommended when using these amino acids during activities requiring good coordination, such as driving or operating other machinery.
Serious complications can occur when BCAAs are used by individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Diseases), in whom the use of BCAAs have been linked to lung failure and higher death rates. In alcoholics the use of BCAAs has been linked to higher rates of liver disease. In some individuals with a rare condition called branched-chain ketoaciduria, an increased intake of BCAAs can cause seizures as well as serious mental and physical retardation.
Since at least one BCAA, leucine, affects the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, an intake of BCAAs can lower blood sugar levels, particularly in infants, causing a condition called idiopathic hypoglycemia. BCAAs should also be used with caution in any situation requiring careful blood sugar control.
Branched chain amino acids occur naturally in foods and play a key role in keeping the body healthy and muscles strong. BCAA supplements enhance the effects of these amino acids, with benefits for a variety of medical conditions as well as for athletic enhancement – but these benefits also bring risks with intensive or long-term use.