BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids) Benefits and Foods - Dr. Axe

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Benefits of BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids), Including Muscle Recovery


BCAA benefits - Dr. Axe

Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) have received a lot of hype lately as a superstar sports supplement that can bump up muscle building and promote quicker recovery between workouts.

However, the potential benefits of BCAAs extend way beyond the gym, with new studies showing that supplementing with these essential amino acids could also improve liver function and keep you looking trim. Those aren’t the only BCAA benefits either.

Ready to learn more about how upping your intake can help enhance your health? Let’s take a closer look at some of the BCAA benefits and risks, plus how you can get more of these essential amino acids in your diet.

What Are BCAAs?

Branched chain amino acids are a common supplement that are often marketed as a quick way to enhance athletic performance. BCAAs and essential amino acids (EAAs) are some of the biggest buzzwords in nutrition nowadays, with a steady stream of new studies constantly emerging showing just how vital these nutrients are to health.

The official BCAA definition includes any type of amino acid that has a chain that branches off to one side. This includes three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. All three are considered essential amino acids, which means that your body is unable to produce them on its own, and they need to be obtained from food sources and/or supplements instead.

Overall, there are 20 different amino acids required by the body to grow, develop and function properly, including glycine, tyrosine, cysteine and more. Eleven of these amino acids fall under the non-essential amino acid definition, meaning that they can actually be produced by your body.

Unlike most other amino acids, BCAAs are broken down in the muscle instead of the liver and play a key role in the production of energy during exercise. They are also absolutely vital to many other aspects of health, including maintaining normal blood sugar levels and building muscle.

BCAAs have been heavily researched in recent years, and a slew of new studies has unearthed a long list of benefits of BCAA supplementation. Studies show that adding BCAA powder to your daily diet could help boost muscle growth, ease post-workout recovery, improve liver health, prevent muscle loss, enhance athletic performance and even increase weight loss.


1. Potential Muscle Growth

One study published in Frontiers Physiology found that people who consumed a BCAA supplement after resistance training experienced 22 percent more muscle protein synthesis than a control group. But keep in mind that getting a good mix of all nine of the essential amino acids in your diet rather than just branched chain amino acids is key to maximizing muscle growth.

Indeed, a 2021 International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism review examined BCAA supplementation for enhancing muscle strength and hypertrophy. As long as individuals consumed adequate protein with all nine essential amino acids, BCAA supplementation appeared unnecessary for muscle development. (Muscle recovery is a different. See next.)

2. Speeds Up Recovery Time

If you find that you’re constantly feeling sore after hitting the gym, BCAAs may be able to help. A study in the Journal of Nutrition looked at BCAA supplementation before and after exercise. It helped decrease exercise-induced muscle damage while promoting muscle-protein synthesis.

Other studies show that BCAAs could reduce the breakdown of protein during exercise and reduce muscle damage to sidestep soreness and speed up muscle recovery. Plus, one study out of Japan even found that taking a BCAA pre-workout supplement led to reduced soreness and muscle fatigue.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise that a review of eight studies published in Nutrition concluded that BCAA supplementation is a more effective strategy to speed up recovery than rest following periods of intense exercise.

5. Improves Strength

Not only can it increase muscle growth and reduce soreness, but it may also enhance strength and performance as well. For example, one study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K. showed that supplementing with leucine daily for 12 weeks during a resistance training program resulted in significant improvements in strength performance.

4. Prevents Muscle Loss

Losing muscle mass is a normal part of the aging process and often occurs as we start to get older, a condition known as sarcopenia. Muscle loss is also commonly experienced as a side effect of chronic conditions like cancer. Fortunately, getting plenty of BCAAs in your diet is an easy and effective way to start to slow muscle wasting and optimize your body composition.

According to a study published in the journal Clinical Science, the infusion of branched chain amino acids was effective at reducing the breakdown of muscle in the body in humans. Other animal studies have confirmed these results, reporting that BCAAs could block the degradation of skeletal muscle in rats.

5. Promotes Liver Health

Some research suggests that branched chain amino acids may be beneficial for people with certain liver conditions, such as cirrhosis, hepatic encephalopathy and liver cancer.

For example, one review of 11 studies found that taking BCAAs was able to improve liver function in patients undergoing liver surgery, reducing the risk of complications, the duration of hospital stays and the potential financial burden on the patient.

Other research has also found that taking branched chain amino acids may offer protection against liver cancer and could benefit hepatic encephalopathy.

6. Increases Weight Loss

More and more emerging research has found a concrete link between supplementing with BCAA and weight loss. In one study, taking a branched chain amino acid supplement was found to increase lean body mass and decrease body fat more effectively than whey protein when combined with resistance training in 36 men.

Similarly, an animal study showed that long-term supplementation with leucine helped reduce body fat without affecting protein status in rats.

7. Potentially Fight Breast Cancer

A 2022 Frontiers in Oncology study unexpectedly found that elevated BCAAs — either in the genetic model or due to increasing dietary intake in mice — suppressed the tumor growth and lung metastasis of breast cancer.

BCAA Supplements

So what is the best BCAA supplement option if you’re looking to boost muscle strength and recovery and take your workout to the next level? There are plenty of BCAA powders, capsules and pills available on the market for a quick and convenient dose of extra protein.

A BCAA protein powder instead may be the best option, as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs and includes all three branched chain amino acids as well.

Some of the best amino acid supplements include whey protein and protein powder made from bone broth, both of which contain a wider range of the important amino acids that you need as well as BCAAs.

Brown rice protein powder is another option and is a vegan BCAA source that boasts a complete set of all 20 amino acids. Use any of these options to make a tasty BCAA drink or smoothie alongside your favorite fruits, veggies and superfood mix-ins.

The best BCAA supplement products should also be free of fillers and additives, including artificial sweeteners, thickeners, milk solids and dextrins.

BCAA Foods

You can also get branched-chain amino acids through food sources, such as many high-protein foods that are high in leucine, isoleucine and valine. Here are some of the best BCAA foods:

You can also get your fix of BCAAs through food sources. Meat, poultry and fish supply the highest amount of BCAAs, followed by other protein foods like legumes, dairy products, tempeh and eggs.

  • Chicken and turkey
  • Wild-caught salmon
  • Beef and lamb
  • Eggs
  • Fermented soy products, like natto and tempeh
  • Lentils
  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese and Greek yogurt
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Hemp seeds

When to Take & How Much

When it comes to figuring out when to take BCAA supplements, most recommend using them before and after workouts to optimize your exercise routine. Another option is to take them right before bed, which is thought to help support muscle recovery and reduce soreness while you sleep.

For best results, BCAAs should be taken over a longer period of time, which means that it’s important to take it on days that you exercise as well as days that you don’t.

The BCAA dosage can vary, but it’s typically recommended to aim for about 91 milligrams per pound of body weight. For example, if you weight 150 pounds, you would need to take about 13,650 milligrams — or 13.7 grams — of BCAAs daily. Ideally, this dose should be split into a few smaller doses throughout the day, such as before and after working out.

Risks and Side Effects

BCAAs are generally considered safe and can be consumed with minimal risk of BCAA side effects when used in doses up to 35 grams per day. However, there are some BCAA negatives to consider as well and supplementation may not be right for everyone.

For example, those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are advised not to supplement with BCAAs as it may impact cells in the nervous system. Additionally, people with a condition known as maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) are unable to properly break down branched chain amino acids and should limit consumption to avoid any potential BCAAs side effects.

Weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, coma and even death are all potential symptoms that can occur as a result of this genetic condition.

Final Thoughts

  • What is BCAA? Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a type of essential amino acid, including valine, leucine and isoleucine, that contain a branch on their side chains.
  • The body is unable to produce these amino acids on its own, which is why it’s important to get them from food sources or supplements instead.
  • What do BCAA supplements do? Research has uncovered a number of potential benefits of BCAA supplementation, including enhanced muscle growth, faster recovery time, better liver health, decreased muscle loss, improved athletic performance and increased weight loss.
  • BCAAs can be found in many different protein foods, including meat, poultry, fish, legumes and eggs.
  • They are also available in BCAA supplements or protein powders such as bone broth, whey protein, brown rice protein and more.
  • Try taking BCAAs before and after workouts for an easy and effective way to boost your exercise routine and get faster results.

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