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The Truth About BCAAs

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With an array of amino acid powders and pills on the market promising to boost strength, improve body composition and augment rapid recovery, it’s understandable that most people are confused about how amino acids actually work. When your favourite, trusted supplement company tells you that you need to swig on their “Cherry Bakewell Tart” flavoured super-duper BCAA powder in order to look like the jacked up, vascular road map looking character in their ad, it can be an appealing concept for some (the mind boggles). But do they actually work?? Some of you are probably thinking, “Of course they work! Amino acids are the building blocks of life, I’ve read a study, Jay Cutler uses them…..”

Amino acids are the building blocks of life and they are integral to every single metabolic process which takes place in the human body; they are precursors to enzymes and neurotransmitters, and without them, life could not exist. Amino acids contain nitrogen and for this reason they are able to build muscle and organ tissue, as well as bone, skin and hair. For those of you who don’t know what amino acids are, lets take a brief trip back to school…..

There are 200 amino acids, but it is the 22 proteinogenic aminos which tend to be the main focus of interest, as these are the building blocks of the proteins responsible for the growth and repair of tissue. They are responsible for the synthesis of 50,000 proteins and 15,000 known enzymes, which in turn catalyse biochemical reactions within the cells. Each of these 50,000 proteins has a precise amino acid sequence and within a particular sequence is information vital to determining how that protein will fold into a 3 dimensional structure and achieve stability. The chemical properties of each of the amino acids determine the biological activity of the specific protein they are building.

The manner in which each amino acid contributes to the overall characteristics of a protein, will be dependant on its position in the sequence of acids which constitute the protein. Therefore when considering the importance and actions of amino acids, we must think in terms of their “potential” contribution to some much larger assemblage. Once fully manufactured, these proteins become catalysts for pretty much all of the reactions within living cells and control virtually every cellular process.

This is precision engineering at its finest and it’s all happening within your body! It is worth mentioning at this point, that unless there is an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals on ingestion of amino acid supplements, then the amino’s will struggle to build the enzymes which act as said catalysts – vits and minerals act as coenzymes and activators in this process. If you have a poor diet and are hoping to rely heavily on supplements (as many do) to build your temple, then you really are wasting your time with any protein powder or amino acid supplement – there we said it, and we sell these products!

The body can synthesize some of the proteinogenic amino acids itself; we refer to these as non-essential, as it is not “essential” to obtain them from diet. The amino acids that the body cannot synthesize by itself are known as, yep, you guessed it - essential amino acids (EAAs) and must be obtained through diet - these are: Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine. At this point it is worth mentioning that the body cannot store an excess of amino acids for later use and any excess intake will simply be eliminated from the body, leaving in your urine – a first strike against supplements with ridiculously high levels of certain amino acids, in a bid to sucker you into a purchase.

The main focus of this article is BCAAs and the efficacy of the various powders, which claim to enhance energy, recovery and muscle growth. Before we go any further, let’s just make this clear….unless the BCAAs (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) are in the presence of all the other essential amino acids, then they will have little to no effect on energy production, recovery or muscle growth! So if you’re adding a scoop of your BCAA powder to a protein shake, then there may be some benefits (although this is also debatable), but if you are just swigging on a stand alone BCAA drink, then the reality is, it is a waste of your hard earned cash!

Going back to the additional scoop of BCAA powder to your protein shake; this will increase the amounts of BCAAs present and yes all of the essential amino acids are now present, but we may still be faced with a couple of problems….

Is your diet spot on? Are you consuming enough vitamins and minerals to assist these amino acids in building the proteins and enzymes previously mentioned?

If you add a scoop of BCAA powder to a protein powder, is there now going to be an abundance of BCAAs and will these be assimilated and utilised by the body?

Would you be better off just using a good quality protein powder with a high biological activity and a balanced amino acid profile?

As previously mentioned, if you are not eating a healthy diet, then any benefits from taking either a protein powder or a BCAA powder will be extremely limited. This reinforces the statement “Supplements are an aid to diet, not a replacement for it”.

So, assuming that your diet is good and all the vits and minerals required are present, do you now have a reason to add a scoop of BCAA powder to your protein shake? Hmmmm…..this kind of depends on the protein powder; if it is a well processed, highly biologically active powder, with a decent amino acid profile, then no, you don’t. Why? Because if you do have a decent protein powder, then you also have the perfect balance of amino acids, in the correct amounts. A well processed powder will allow for effective digestion, assimilation and utilisation (providing you are relatively healthy) of the amino acids and you won’t be ingesting an excess, which will only be pissed out anyway!

For those BCAA formulas containing stupidly high amounts of Leucine for example, you the consumer are being had over big time! 7000mg of Leucine in a serving will not matter one iota to muscle protein synthesis, as any more than 2500mg or so, will not be used and cannot be stored for later use, so it will simply leave the body in your urine. If you are using a crappy protein powder (there are countless available on the UK market), with a poor amino acid profile, then adding a scoop of a “realistic” BCAA powder (one with 1500-2000mg of leucine) may have some benefits, but you may still lose some leucine (through excess) and a cheap protein powder will not represent good digestion, assimilation and utilisation of its amino acid constituents – if the protein powder is poorly processed, then you won’t be assimilating much leucine and even with the added BCAA powder, you may not actually be hitting the required 2.5g of leucine anyway!

At this point you should be doing the math and deciding if buying both a BCAA powder and a “cheap” protein powder is more viable than spending a couple of quid more and just buying a premium quality protein powder (Primal26/Primal26 PRO) – the answer of course, is no, a cheap powder plus a super-bullshit BCAA powder is not economically viable; you would still be exercising within the false economy of cheaper, inferior products – ALWAYS LOOK FOR QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY!!!

But Leucine is the key amino acid in muscle protein synthesis, we hear you say. Yes, this is true, leucine is able to stimulate muscle protein synthesis as a stand alone BCAA, but it must still be in the presence of all the other EAAs for optimal results – to include it only in the presence of isoleucine and valine is simply pointless and these two BCAAs will also have very little action in the stand alone BCAA formula. In fact, neither isoleucine nor valine when taken alone (but in the presence of all the EAAs), will have anywhere near the effects that leucine has (when in the presence of the EAAs). The take-away message here is: neither BCAA will work effectively on its own, or together with the other BCAAs, unless all of the EAAs are present.

Kleiner states: “Leucine is like the hot button catalysing muscle protein synthesis. While muscle protein synthesis happens after exercise, how quickly it begins and ramps up to a high rate, depends on having the right amount of leucine around. But you still need all the essential amino acids for complete synthesis”.

As already mentioned, there are 50,000 proteins synthesized from the 22 EAAs and each of these is important for different mechanisms, with each having its own unique amino acid sequence – if you are only taking BCAAs, how can you possibly be manufacturing enough of these proteins to replace those that are metabolised during intense exercise? – You can’t, it’s that simple!

A brief look at Myosin

Here’s a extra bit of science….

Myosins are a large family of actin-based mechanoenzymes that bind and hydrolyse ATP to generate the force and movement along actin filaments necessary to drive a wide variety of cellular functions (Mooseker & Cheney, 1996; Cope et al, 1996; Sellers 1999). In other words, myosin is a motor protein, which binds to actin (another protein) and causes the muscle to produce force. It is also involved in a host of other cellular processes.

Skeletal muscle contains 70-100mg of myosin per gram of fresh muscle weight and this corresponds to 40-50% of the total muscle proteins. As you can appreciate, muscle myosin is extremely important to muscle function and therefore building healthy, complete myosin is also important. If you are hoping to increase cellular energy, growth and repair of muscle tissue, then this little snipet of information is incredibly important – You need to build myosin and synthesis depends on much more than just leucine! In fact, leucine, along with isoleucine together, only make up a relatively small percentage of muscle myosin, with the largest portions being made up of glutamic acid (non-essential) and lysine (essential) alone. Other EAAs integral to the structure of muscle myosin are: phenylalanine, tryptophan and methionine, with valine (BCAA) not forming part of the structure. Further to this, BCAAs do not make up any significant portion of muscle collagen, and although they are constituents, and no less important than the EAAs, they just don’t offer very much when taken alone.

Take home message…

Your body can only hold a certain quantity of branch chain amino acids and for those amino acids to work, they need to have all their mates with them. Hence a drink that contains huge quantities of BCAAs alone is a waste of money, especially if you have aspirations for it to assist with muscle building and recovery.

Far better to stick with a quality protein or full amino acid complex.


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