Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are building blocks your body uses to make proteins, which your muscles “burn” for energy. The three essential amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine, considered essential because your body can’t make them itself, so they have to be consumed through diet.
BCAAs can also be taken in supplements, like our vegan protein powders, often taken to enhance weight loss, improve energy levels and increase muscle gain. Taking BCAA supplements is considered safe and without side effects for the majority of people.
Benefits of taking BCAAs
BCAA supplements are most commonly taken in powdered form to help build muscle tissue protein. Many athletes and bodybuilders take BCAAs during their workouts to increase recovery and help them train harder for longer.
Studies suggest that BCAAs can help:
- Encourage muscle growth, as the BCAA leucine activates pathways in the body that stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the process of building muscle.
- Increase muscle recovery after a workout and decrease muscle damage, which can help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). BCAAs decrease protein breakdown during exercise and decrease levels of creatine kinase, an indicator of muscle damage, so supplementing with BCAAs before exercise can help speed up recovery time.
- Reduce fatigue, as your muscles use BCAAs during exercise, causing levels in your blood to decrease. When blood levels of BCAAs decline, levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increase, which is then converted to serotonin, a chemical that has been shown to contribute to fatigue levels.
- Prevent muscle wasting. The balance between muscle protein breakdown and their rebuilding (synthesis) determines the amount of protein in muscle. Muscle waiting is when there is more protein breakdown than synthesis, and is a sign of malnutrition. Because BCAAs account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins, it’s important that BCAAs and other essential amino acids are replaced during the muscle protein process to halt it.
Although BCAAs play an important role in building muscle, your muscles require all the essential amino acids for maximum results, which is why our intra-workout SUSTAIN vegan EAA supplement includes a full essential amino acid profile. We’ve also included 6g of BCAAs per serving of our PERFORM vegan protein powder to help enhance performance while building muscle.
Are BCAAs safe during pregnancy?
Your protein requirements do increase during pregnancy, however this can be easily made up through whole food plant sources. Getting a variety of protein from different sources can help ensure you get a full range of amino acids - nutritional sources of BCAAs include lentils, nuts, and soy proteins.
Although amino acids are found in food, the amount found in BCAA supplements is much higher than that found in a normal diet. As a pregnant woman or nursing mother you have to be particularly alert as to how much and what you’re putting in your body, and consuming an excessive amount of any substance can have unintended effects on your body.
So, if you are thinking of keeping supplemented with BCAAs during pregnancy, consult a doctor to see if you actually need another source of essential amino acids, as many people already get enough. It’s also important to keep in mind that the supplement market is largely unregulated, so make sure you get yours from a trustworthy source and only includes ingredients you’re comfortable with both you and your baby consuming.
As always, check with your doctor before supplementing during pregnancy.
Can BCAAs cause kidney damage?
Word on the scene is that BCAAs can negatively affect the kidneys or cause kidney stones, due to the consumption of excessive protein, which pushes your kidneys and can cause kidney damage. This is because kidneys filter waste out of the bloodstream, including excessive protein, so, theoretically, the additional effort of filtering supplemented protein could overwork the kidneys.
However, the results of the Nurses Health Study don’t provide any evidence for this theory. The Nurses Health Study concluded that a high protein diet which included additional BCAAs would not affect kidney function in normal, healthy individuals - however, if you have pre-existing abnormal kidney function, BCAAs/a high protein diet can negatively affect kidney function. So as long as you have no prior issue with your kidneys, you can supplement with BCAAs with no worries.
Are BCAAs bad for fatty liver?
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an increasingly prevalent issue, and has been associated with elevated plasma BCAAs. However, some findings have also suggested that BCAA supplementation can slow down or even halt progression of liver disease - so the jury’s still out on this one!
Do BCAAs cause erectile dysfunction?
Both your psychology and your physical state affect your libido - and BCAAs definitely do not affect the psychological elements.
It gets slightly more complex when we start talking about physically. BCAAs compete with tryptophan for transport pathways in the brain, and tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin. Serotonin is negatively involved in sexual function, meaning high levels of BCAA and low levels of serotonin would actually only serve to benefit a high libido. At the same time, as serotonin is the happiness hormone, having a low mood doesn’t really tend to be compatible with having a high sex drive.
The bottom line is that humans and our sexual functions are tricky and complex. It’s unlikely that taking BCAAs would cause issues with sexual function, so if you are having issues in that area, you might want to think about what else could be impacting either your psychological or physical state.
Does BCAA raise blood pressure?
There have been some studies associating elevated levels of BCAAs with high blood pressure both positively and negatively, so the conflicting evidence suggests the topic needs further research.
The bottom line is that BCAA supplementation is considered safe for people who are generally in good health. If you do have any underlying health conditions or particular medical issues, always check with your doctor or a professional before supplementing with BCAAs.