BCAA's Are They Worth It?
Honorable Mention: BCAAs
I wanted to discuss BCAAs – Branched Chain Amino Acids – but they aren’t necessarily on my must-haves list. Still, they deserve to be highlighted. http://www.memes.com/generator
There are two very different schools of thought when it comes to BCAA supplements. One camp firmly believes in their importance and efficacy, the other thinks they’re a waste of time and money. I’ll list the facts below so you can come to your own conclusion.
Branched Chain Amino Acids are a combination of the three amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine – aka L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, and L-Valine. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, one of the most basic components of everything in your body. Imagine amino acids as the clay that makes bricks, and those bricks put together are what make a house—your body.
There are nine amino acids that are considered crucial for a healthy body—these together are known as essential amino acids. Without them, we would ultimately die. Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine are three of those essential amino acids that you need every single day. Between them, they account for about 33% of your total muscle tissue.
What do BCAAs do for your body?
BCAAs allow simpler amino acids to combine and form a complete muscle tissue. As they do so, BCAAs stimulate insulin production, thus allowing the circulation of blood glucose to the muscle cells to be used as energy. BCAAs can be used to build proteins. They can also be burned as fuel to produce direct energy.
How do BCAA supplements boost performance?
During exercise, the release of BCAAs is a sign to the body to stop the process of protein synthesis. The BCAAs that were previously stimulating protein synthesis are burned while your body exerts effort—they become fuel, creating energy.
Taking BCAA supplements during exercise can stimulate protein synthesis—if your body is given extra BCAAs as you work out, it can restart and continue protein synthesis, and use any extra BCAAs as fuel.
This addition of BCAAs can also stimulate the release of insulin, helping to build various energy molecules, such as glycogen. BCAAs can also help prevent muscle breakdown after a stressful physical activity like exercise.
Leucine—the Amazing Amino Acid
As I mentioned early, BCAAs are made of up three amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. If this trio were a rock band, Leucine would be the lead singer. Studies have suggested that Leucine is actually the most important amino acids in BCAAs. Why is that?
Leucine activates something called mammalian target of rapamycin pathway. Did I lose you yet? Say that three times fast.
The mammalian target of rapamycin pathway is a vital cellular signaling pathway. Basically, it gives the go-ahead—or the thumbs-down—for a number of a physiological functions: cell growth, the creation of new cells through division, metabolism, protein synthesis (you know that one,) and autophagy (the natural process of destruction of old cells.)
Whew. Take a breath. “Mammalian target of rapamycin pathway” is also called mTOR—and we’ll use that term from here on out. Out of mTOR’s many jobs, the one which interests us in this subject—workout supplements—is protein synthesis.
If you imagine protein synthesis as the employee in charge of creating muscle, mTOR is that employee’s manager. Leucine is the bigwig boss, the CEO. Leucine, in fact, is such a superstar that it can even fly solo as a supplement and maintain its efficacy without the presence of the other two BCAA amino acids. However, it’s more convenient and cost-effective to intake all three amino acids in one power-packed supplement of BCAAs.
Are BCAAs a waste of money?
The biggest argument against BCAAs is the idea that you get enough BCAAs throughout the course of the day in your normal diet. The anti-BCAA crowd says you don’t need any type of BCAA or amino acid powders if you eat enough protein. In fact, many articles and blogs say you don’t even need to take protein powder.
Let’s separate fact from opinion here.
It is true that you don’t necessarily need to take BCAAs, or protein powder, IF you meet the following conditions:
A steady diet that meets your macronutrient (carbs, proteins and fats) and caloric needs every single day
A sanitary—aka non-active—lifestyle; no gym workouts or weekly sports
The first condition is difficult to achieve—it’s no easy feat to eat regular meals that all meet your full nutritional requirements. But, even that isn’t a reason to supplement BCAAs.
I’m more concerned with the second condition. If you are not an active person, BCAAs would most likely be a waste of your money. However, for active gym-goers, BCAA supplements may well be beneficial.
The case against BCAA supplementation states that you should hypothetically get enough BCAAs from your protein shakes, before and after a workout. It contends that the BCAAs from your protein shake (whey protein) should last through the duration of your workout, so there’s no need to take BCAAs mid-workout for energy, as many other gym rats do.
At first, after hearing this, I thought to myself, Sure, that makes sense... until I realized a crucial factor was missing from that blanket statement. Wait… everyone’s workout is different, so our bodies will burn through BCAAs at different rates depending on exertion.
So for one person doing a shorter workout, the BCAAs from a protein shake may last their entire gym session. That same amount of BCAAs may not last for someone doing long, intense exercise.
It should be noted that supplement companies have been known to do biased studies which only show the positive results from consuming extra BCAAs. While it seems shady, we shouldn’t be surprised that supplement companies want the results to weigh in their favor. But they don’t only do this for BCAAs—this is true of their studies across the board. We can trust studies done by independent academic researchers, but company studies tend to show bias.
Even products that have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be beneficial for your health, such as fish oil, are often touted commercially as more effective than they are in reality. Companies are prone to over-exaggerating supplement benefits. They may add useless ingredients that sound important, and justify their claims by slapping a fitness model on the visual marketing.
Supplements aren’t cheap. With the litany of recommendations for muscle gains, we need to be spending our money wisely. So if BCAAs may not even work, why do we spend so much money on them?
The question we should really be asking is: why are supplements, including BCAAs, so expensive?
I recently read an anti-BCAA-supplement article that stated the average price of BCAAs falls anywhere between $25-$89. I was shocked. Who spends $90 on a basic supplement?! I wondered. And as I thought this, I realized that I had once spent that much on a basic supplement too, back in the day when I didn’t know any better.
BCAAs, and other basic supplements like Beta-Alanine, should only cost $20-30 per month at the maximum. The main reason people pay more is because, like myself in my early 20s, we believe the hype, empty promises, and fancy-sounding added—but useless—ingredients advertised by big brand supplement companies.
Here’s a question—would you pay more money for a specific brand of water? Not the usual price difference of $1-$2, I’m talking $300 for an eight-ounce bottle of water. They exist! And it’s ridiculous. But just as we’re outraged about such expensive water, we should be wary of the extremely high price of supplements.
The point I’d like to make is that BCAAs shouldn’t be singled out for criticism about their cost when other supplement prices are just as inflated. As I write this, I’ve just received my order of supplements, in which there is a 3-month supply of BCAAs that cost me $23. $23 for 500 grams of BCAA, which will last me three months—compare that to GNC’s BCAAs, which cost about the same for a one-month supply.
How and why did I get my supply so cheap? I found a supplier that doesn’t just focus on sales and profits, but providing quality, pure supplements. They don’t do flash marketing. Their packaging is boring as hell with no visual buyer appeal. No bodybuilders or fitness models grace their products or do promotions for the supplements. They do use a few lower-level YouTube celebrities, or “influencers,” mentioning the supplements on their channels, but that’s about it.
So, how to they sell? I can’t say from a behind-the-scenes perspective, but my guess is they sell because people want high-quality products and pure ingredients.
Should I take BCAAs when training during a fast?
This is a factor worth considering by those who, like myself, do intermittent fasting and train while fasting. The short answer is no.
Why not? If you’re fasting to lose weight, there is a big goal to keep in mind—burning fat. And in a nutshell, this is how burning fat works.
Your body burns three major components for energy, in this order: carbs, fats, and finally protein. In order for your body to burn a large amount of fat it has stored up, it first needs to use up most of the carbs in your body.
Think of it like a checking account and a savings account, set up with overdraft protection. If you make a purchase that’s over the amount in your checking account, the banks will automatically draft the necessary amount from your savings account so your checking doesn’t overdraft.
Your body works in a similar fashion. When you fast long enough, usually around 12 hours, your body is drained of its stores of carbs and has to switch over to fat as its energy supply. But what if, just as your body begins to burn its fat stores, you eat? Will that food cancel out the body’s transaction of burning fat, and cause it to burn its new carbs instead?
For the simple answer, yes. It’s like your checking account is low on funds and you’re about to make a purchase that would overdraft your account—but instead of over-drafting, or making a transfer from savings, you simply deposit more money right into your checking account.
So, what does this have to do with BCAAs?
When you consume food, your insulin spikes, sending a message to your body which set a number of processes in motion. One of these changes is the body begins burning carbs instead of fat.
And food’s not the only thing that can spike insulin levels… BCAAs do the same job. So, if one of the main goals of fasting is to burn fat, then taking BCAAs will negate your fat-burning fasting efforts. BUT BCAAs also preserve muscle while cutting, and during fasted training.
Many people who are cutting via an intermittent fast (IF) will find this to prove true for them. Before I began my own research on BCAAs, a thought popped up in my mind: If you are doing IF the right way, then you should be consuming enough protein within your feeding window to maintain muscle.
I had the same thoughts about cutting calories in order to lose fat. If you cut in the correct way, then you should maintain muscle mass, right? And as it turns out, that’s true. Unfortunately, many people make two common mistakes when cutting, which can upend their muscle retention during the process. First, they cut calories too dramatically. Second—and this is mostly true for newbies to IF—they don’t consume enough protein during their feeding window.
So two things are true here. Taking BCAAs when cutting can maintain muscle, AND taking them when training on a fast, or during a fasted window, will prevent your body from burning fat. In fact, many studies maintain that you’re better off in the long run to avoid training while on a fast, but that’s a topic for another day.
There’s another physiological factor in play here that affects the efficacy of taking BCAAs during fasting: autophagy.
What is autophagy?
Your body has natural processes that keep its cells healthy. Autophagy is the orderly way in which your body cleanses itself and fights against cancer. It’s essentially your body breaking down its old cells and “eating” them to make new ones.
The body targets parts of its cells to be degraded and recycled, then walls them off within a double-membraned structure. The contents are fused with cellular components that break things down into parts that can be rebuilt as new cells and structures. Imagine your cells as Legos, something that can be broken down and rebuilt into an entirely new and fresh creation.
This process of breaking down damaged, diseased, or worn-out cells and gutting them for spare parts helps promote cell survival in some cases, like disease, and cell morbidity in others, such as starvation where your body needs to burn the cell parts for energy. Autophagy is a great way to cleanse your body and fight against cancer.
Autophagy happens naturally when you fast—and BCAAs will break that fast and shut down the cell-cleansing process.
How much BCAAs should I take?
Only take BCAAs supplements on the days you work out. Take 5 grams, 30 minutes before and after your workout. Personally, I take 5 grams in the middle of an intense workout, and 5 grams again after. I experience a small energy boost when taking BCAAs during my workout—although this may be a placebo effect. But placebo effects have been proven to work, and either way, I feel the benefits.
The Big Picture
The schools of thought on BCAAs seem to be as divided as two-party politics. Pro-BCAAs and Anti-BCAAs, both vehemently defending their position. Where do I stand? I currently take BCAAs, because I receive a package deal and they come with my other supplements.
Do they work for me? I’m not 100% sure. Like I said, I do feel a boost during my workouts when I take them. But I’ve been on and off BCAA supplements intermittently, so it’s difficult to tell for certain. For the next six months—ending March of 2017—I’ll take them every time I exercise and track if I feel the difference. Watch for my results here next spring.
Should you take BCAAs? Now that you’ve read some of the facts and beliefs surrounding the supplement, the decision is yours to make. If you decide to take them, buy them from a company like www.trunutrition.com. For all your supplements, make sure your supplier sells only pure ingredients, at a reasonable price (cheap, if you can find it!)
I hope this article helped outline the most important supplements, why they can help your workouts and gains, and how much to take of each. Ultimately, your supplements are your personal choice, but having the facts will help you make the most informed decision possible, for your workouts and your health..