Amino acids explained
Amino acids help stop your body breaking down muscle tissue, but what else do they do and should you have more?
Sport supplements can be hard to get your head round. For example, BCAAs sound intimidating, but they’re great for building muscle and are completely natural. Let us explain exactly what BCAAs are and how you can potentially benefit from them.
What are they?
BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) supplements contain valine, leucine and isoleucine. These are considered ‘essential’ amino acids because they need to be present in your diet - as opposed to ‘non-essential’ amino acids, which your body can produce itself. Together, they can comprise up to one-third of muscle protein.
What do they do?
The theory is that they can help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue during intense exercise. They also increase the release of human growth hormone.
Who should take them?
‘BCAAs should be taken by anyone who weight trains,’ says strength coach Gregg Marsh, ‘preferably in capsule form rather than tablet or liquid.’ There's little evidence that BCAAs will improve performance among endurance athletes, though, and unless you’re training seriously hard it’s possible you can get enough BCAAs from a recovery drink to make a separate supplement unnecessary.
How much should I take?
‘Anything less than 20 capsules per workout is a waste of time,’ says Marsh. ‘Many professional rugby and football clubs have seen huge improvements in performance, using 40 caps of BCAAs every workout.’ Nutrition expert Anita Bean is more conservative: 'Doses of 6-15g may help improve your recovery during hard training periods.'
When should I take them?
‘They work best if taken before during and after workout,’ says Marsh. ‘Studies have shown that taking BCAA supplements during and after exercise can reduce muscle breakdown, while taking them before resistance training reduces delayed onset muscle soreness [DOMS].’ They might also be beneficial if taken last thing at night - but the evidence here is sketchier.
Do they have any side effects?
BCAAs are fairly safe, since you’d normally find them in dietary protein sources anyway. Excessive intake might reduce the absorption of other amino acids, but that's about it.
Taking BCAAs before exercise causes the breakdown of leucine, isoleucine and valine in the liver, directing it to your muscles for muscle protein synthesis. Just make sure you don’t train on an empty stomach or you may experience some discomfort. The best combination is to ingest BCAAs before and during exercise, followed by whey protein after the gym session.
Japanese researchers carried out a study that investigated whether the use of BCAA supplements could reduce muscle soreness after intense activity. Their findings revealed that 5g of BCAAs consumed prior to resistance workouts decreases muscle soreness and fatigue for several days after exercise, supporting the use of BCAAs in improving recovery.
A seperate study carried out by Australian researchers at Victoria University, Monash University, Macquarie University, and the Australian Institute of Sport discovered that when athletes drank a formula containing BCAAs (13.5g leucine, 8g isoleucine and 9g valine) three hours before strenuous exercise, their performance improved by 10%.
One problem with amino acids is that they quickly deteriorate. Amino acids are not stored by your body in the same way as it stores starch and protein as fat, but they can be replaced.
Your body can’t make them, but that doesn't mean you have to take BCAA supplements. These vital muscle-builders are also found in certain foods.
5 natural sources of amino acids
Eggs offer a full range of essential amino acids as well as plenty of liver-protecting choline.
Salmon provides essential amino acids and a dose of healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Soy beans are a rare plant-based source of essential amino acids and also provide heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Beef is a complete protein source that has all the essential amino acids as well as a dose of muscle-boosting creatine.
Turkey provides all the essential amino acids plus high levels of immunity-boosting selenium.
Click on the links below to find out all you could possibly want to know about the other major supplements:
Protein Creatine Amino acids Antioxidants Fat burners Lesser known supplements Supplement FAQs
These are the experts who filled us in on amino acids:
Anita Bean is the author of The Complete Guide To Sports Nutrition (£15.99, A&C Black Publishers). For more visit anitabean.co.uk.
Dr. Lonnie Lowery is an exercise physiologist, nutrition expert and former competitive bodybuilder. He is also a licensed dietician specialising in sports nutrition.
Nikhil Rao is a trainee doctor, avid weightlifter and regular contributor to the US bodybuilding site t-nation.com. He has been using creatine for six years.
Gregg Marsh is a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer and nutrition consultant. He has more than eight years of experience in nutrition. For more visit fitleanandhealthy.com.