If you missed Part 1 of this article series on the tiny, possibly over-hyped protein building blocks called “amino acids”, you can read “Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Pulling A Fast One On You? – Part 1” by clicking here
So you probably already know all about Essential Amino Acids, or “EAA's” if you read that article linked to above. EAA's kissing cousin are the Branched Chain Amino Acids, or “BCAA's”, and the BCAA's include leucine, isoleucine, and valine (good names for preppy kids, if you ask me).
The BCAA's are interesting (at least to people in white lab coats) because they are metabolized in the muscle, rather than in the liver. This means that BCAA's can be relied on as an actual energy source during exercise, and could therefore prevent premature muscle breakdown. There was actually one compelling study done by a guy named Ohtani that showed exercising individuals who got BCAA's had better exercise efficiency and exercise capacity compared to a group that didn't get BCAA's.
Other studies have found that BCAA's could increase a ton of factors that are really useful for an exercising athlete, like red blood cell count, hemoglobin, hematocrit and serum albumin, and could also lower fasting blood glucose and decrease creatine phophokinase, which means less inflammation, better red blood cell formation, and better formation of storage carbohydrate.
But that ain't all.
BCAA supplementation after exercise has been shown to cause faster recovery of muscle strength, and even more interestingly, the ability to slow down muscle breakdown even during intense training and “overreaching” (getting very close to overtraining). Just Google the branched chain amino acid studies by Sugita and Kraemer for more on that (yes, shocker, this is a blog post, and not a peer reviewed scientific journal report with full citations, because if it was the latter, you'd be asleep by now – so if you're a science nazi, then go get busy on Google scholar).
OK, so continuing onto with the many cool things that BCAA's can do…
When you supplement with BCAA's, they can decrease the blood indicators of muscle tissue damage after long periods of exercise, thus indicating reduced muscle damage, and they also help maintain higher blood levels of amino acids, which, if you recall from Part 1, can make you feel happier even when you're suffering during exercise. So as you may have guessed, low blood levels of BCAA's are correlated with increased fatigue and reduced physical performance.
Heck, they even use BCAA's in medicine. BCAA's could help people recover from liver disease, could assist with improvements in patients with lateral sclerosis, and could help recovery in patients who have gone through trauma, extreme physical stress (can you say “Ironman triathlon”?), kidney failure, and burns.
But here is what I think could be the two most interesting things about BCAA's, especially for fat loss:
1. In his book, “SuperHealth: The Last Diet You'll Ever Need”, my friend KC Craichy swears by them for decreasing the appetite when taken 30-60 minutes prior to exercise. I haven't personally used this strategy, but it could be worth a try.
2. When taken prior to a fasted exercise session, BCAA's could increase fat oxidation (and yes, I'll actually cite a study for this one, it was “Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion.”, by Gualano, et al)
So if you've stayed with me so far, here's the take-away message about amino acids (and thanks to Dr. David Minkoff for helping me with this nice summation):
If all 8 essential amino acids are present, muscle repair and recovery can start before you're even done with your workout – and when you're mentally stretched toward the end of a tough workout, game or race, high blood levels of amino acids (i.e. from the BCAA's in sports gels) can allow the body and brain to continue to work hard instead of shutting down.
Based on all this, do I take BCAA's and EAA's?
You bet I do.
And I swear by them for enhancing mental focus during a workout, keeping me from cannibalizing muscle during fasted morning workout sessions, and decreasing post-workout muscle soreness. When racing triathlons, I personally use a sports gel by GU, called “Roctane” (which has BCAA's in it) and something called Recoverease for even more BCAA's after a workout (in this case, mixed with a cocktail of proteolytic enzymes, another recovery supplement we didn't talk about.
Also, before hard workout sessions, I pop 5-10 Kion Aminos tablets to get my blood levels of EAA's high.
Finally, just in case I've given you the wrong impression with my picture or analogy, do not eat Lego blocks during your workout. If you have questions about that, or anything else I've talked about here, simply leave your questions below.