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Branched Chain Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of any protein in the same way one lego block is the starting point of a lego house. As proteins are the the main biologically active component of life the bricks that build each protein are pretty important. It is estimated that there are over 2 million different proteins in the human body all of which are built from only 20 standard amino acids in processes controlled by our genes.

11 of these amino acids can be made from other ingredients and chemicals, spare parts lying around the workshop that is our body. However the remaining 9 amino acids cannot be manufactured and we need to get these from the food that we eat.  These amino acids are termed “essential amino acids”. Breaking this down further there are 3 essential amino acids that are important to exercise and athletes, these branched chain amino acids (BCAA) include Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. The importance of branched chain amino acids is gaining validity through research into both muscle recovery and fatigue.

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These amino acids are vital cogs in the muscle growth and repair chain and due to their fast acting nature (liver metabolism is not required before use) they have been shown to be highly beneficial when used around training and exercise. The anabolic effect of BCAA has been well researched and documented.  It also appears that of the three amino acids in question it may be leucine that is the most important for muscle repair due to its role in protein synthesis. This is valuable information to bear in mind for recovery nutrition.

It is also during exercise that these amino acids may have some benefit. Central fatigue, or fatigue that originates from the brain as opposed to the muscles, is linked to the production and transport to the brain of tryptophan. The production of tryptohan is reduced when blood levels of BCAA are high and thus it is believed that by maintaining a high level of BCAA central fatigue can be delayed. This is why including protein (a source of BCAA) before or during endurance exercise is beneficial not only to recovery but to perceived levels of exertion and cognitive function.

Supplementation with BCAA is well tolerated and can under certain conditions assist exercise performance, however studies have shown little effect when compared to the effect of carbohydrate.  It should also be borne in mind that at very high doses the associated production of ammonia from BCAA may in fact hinder performance. While performance benefits are as yet unproven the role of BCAA in recovery and muscle repair should not be ignored. The best way to utilise this information is to include foods rich in branched chain amino acids around exercise. When your workout snack or recovery nutrition calls for protein (as it should) make sure that it contains a good source of these amino acids to help your muscles recover faster.

 BCAA rich foods

  • lean meatbcaa
  • fish
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • milk
  • cheese

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