Branch chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are something you usually see sold in stores with protein powders and other fitness supplements. However, adding these organic compounds to your diet is good for more than beefing up your fitness routine.
First, what are BCAAs? You've probably seen them in the protein powder aisle at your local grocery store, but big letters on a tub don't tell you much. Essentially, they're three of the twenty essential amino acids required for good health — valine, isoleucine and leucine. They're named such because they're the only amino acids that have a branch off to one side in their molecular structures.
You have to gain essential amino acids from your diet because your body doesn't produce them naturally. You can get them in all sorts of foods, including whole wheat, milk, beef, almonds, lentils, fish, eggs and brown rice, just to name a few.
Many people opt to take oral supplements to achieve the recommended dosage of BCAAs, which varies depending on the reason for use. For example, someone may take a small amount of these amino acids to prevent muscle damage during exercise. Others may take more if attempting to treat a medical problem, such as muscle wasting or lack of appetite.
When looking for a supplement at your local pharmacy, keep in mind that active ingredients can vary wildly between manufacturers. Research reputable brands before you purchase to ensure you can establish a standard dose. You can also ask your physician for recommendations.
Why should you make sure that you're getting enough BCAAs in your diet?
Anyone who lifts weights or exercises regularly knows how important it is to get enough oxygen into your body when you're active. Some studies show that adding BCAA supplements to your diet can improve both aerobic and anaerobic athletic performance. This boost enhances endurance, cuts back on fatigue and reduces levels of serotonin — a chemical that plays a role in exercise tiredness.
It seems like everything claims to boost your immune system. With BCAAs, however, there's some science behind the words. Exercise, stress and anything that takes a lot of energy can weaken your immune system, making it more likely that you'll get sick the next time you come across a bug or virus. In addition to improving athletic performance, BCAA's act as fuel for your immune system, helping it to regenerate itself under stressful or straining circumstances.
Humans aren't the only ones who need amino acids in their diets to be healthy. These compounds play an integral role in muscle growth and other metabolic functions for animals, too. If your pets or livestock aren't getting enough amino acids in their diet, they can lose weight and become susceptible to disease.
While you won't want to feed your furry friends or livestock a BCAA supplement like you'd find in the grocery store, you can still feed them a healthy, balanced diet based on their needs.
BCAAs are popular with weight lifters because they promote lean muscle growth. One of the three amino acids — leucine — triggers muscle development, known as muscle protein synthesis or MPS. In addition to prompting MPS, some studies show that taking BCAAs before or after exercise can reduce muscle strain and soreness and prevent damage. The presence of leucine in your diet tells the body that it needs to start creating new muscle tissue, making up for any damage done during exercise.
BCAAs are beneficial for patients with chronic liver disease or cirrhosis of the liver when taken daily. While the effects are helpful, a large dosage is necessary to get the best results. Experts need to study these potential benefits more before doctors offer BCAAs as a treatment option.
While you may see BCAAs in the supplement aisle, they're not just for marathon runners and weightlifters. If you're not overly active and eat a healthy balanced diet, you likely get all of the amino acids your body needs. Otherwise, you might want to consider adding some supplements to your routine to ensure you take advantage of all the health benefits.
As with all changes to your diet, it's always a good idea to talk to your family doctor first to make sure that you're healthy enough to add supplements. A professional can also determine if the pills will work or interfere with your current medication regime. Once you get the okay, find a brand you like, and create a routine you can stick to. Soon, you'll begin to see the numerous benefits of adding these organic compounds to your life.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer by day & an amateur astronomer by night (at least when the weather cooperates). Megan is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to making science understandable to those without a science degree. She also regularly contributes to Smart Data Collective, Real Clear Science, and Industry Today. Subscribe to Schooled By Science for the latest news.