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February 23, 2010, last updated February 6, 2013
By Rory McClenaghnan, Contributing Columnist
Do Branch Chain Amino Acids make you a better athlete?
All athletes are looking for that edge. Amateur or professional, long
distance runner or body builder, we all want something to make us
'swifter, higher, stronger'. But there are so many things to consider,
will these miracle cures actually work and what are the side effects?
One group of substances believed to improve athletic prowess are
branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), in this article we will look at what
they are, what they do and whether BCAA supplements really can make
you stronger and go on for longer.
What are BCAAs?
The body contains eight amino acids and three of these are branch
chain amino acids – Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. To give you an idea
of how important these nutrients are, they make up of over 30% of
skeletal muscle in the human body. They are essential elements of
protein and get their name from their branch-like structure.
What do BCAAs do?
When you eat protein the body digests it and converts it into amino
acids, which can be absorbed by the blood stream. When BCAAs get
there they do all kinds of useful things, like increasing testosterone and
growth hormone. Muscles are full of these nutrients.
After a workout your body needs fuel and it uses BCAAs from your
muscles to help recover. To obtain these BCCAs, your body depletes
the reserves of these proteins in your muscles. As a result, a somewhat
contradictory process occurs --- you actually lose a bit of muscle mass
following a workout as your muscles recover.
Some people believe taking BCAA supplements will give the body the
nutrients it needs after exercise without having to eat away at your
muscle. Advocates for BCAA supplements say that as a result they
increase strength, endurance and recovery time. Let's take a closer look
at each BCAA.
Protects muscle tissue and helps produce growth hormone, the most
easily digestible BCAA.
Regulates blood sugar levels, balancing your energy out throughout
the day. Also helps with muscle recovery and endurance.
Aids muscle metabolism and tissue repair, both of which contribute to
Do BCAA supplements work?
It is certainly true that endurance and strength training use up a large
amount of BCAAs. So, it is no surprise that athletes have tried taking
BCAA supplements to improve strength, endurance and recovery time,
but does it make a difference?
The weight of evidence seems to suggest "no". A study by the
Départment de Physiologie Systémique in France tested the effects of
BCAA on ski mountaineers at high altitude and found no improvement
in performance with the supplement. Studies into endurance in long-
distance runners conducted by Oxford University, University College of
Physical Education and Sports, and the Department of Physiology and
Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, also support
That is not to say that BCAAs are not crucial in muscle repair and
therefore do improve strength and endurance. The point is topping up
your levels with supplements has no greater effect than the amount
you would normally get from your diet. As MH Williams of the
Department of Exercise Science, Physical Education, and Recreation,
Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, USA concludes: “No data
support the finding that oral supplementation with amino acids, in
contrast to dietary protein, as the source of amino acids is more
Many athletes however, do believe that taking the supplements is
effective. The good news if you want to try them out is that there are
no reported side effects. Any excess BCAAs in your body is just
converted to other amino acid forms.
So how can I get more BCAAs in my diet?
Meat and soy are great sources for all three BCAAs. For leucine, eat
more nuts and brown rice. Chicken, eggs and fish have high
concentrations of isoleucine and adding more dairy products to your
diet will top-up your valine levels. Egg whites have one of the highest
concentrations of leucine, a whopping 4233 mg.
To date, there have been no human studies of the three branched chain
amino acids which have shown any levels of toxicity. However, some
animal studies have found that taking excess leucine when the animal is
on a low-protein diet can depress growth. No one knows whether this
result would also appear in humans taking excess leucine. In contrast
to leucine, isoleuncine and valine when taken in excess seem to have
little to no effect on growth, a 2004 study by Dr. Peter Garlick from the
University of Illinois found. ]
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|Egg whites are high in leucine, a branched
chain amino acid needed for muscle growth.