This article is more of a discussion than a set of rules. Let’s be honest here, most of our information is discussing the grey area and nothing is truly black and white. The ATP way is to look at the current knowledge in the scientific world, traditional medicine text books and clinical data to collate as much information as possible. We double check with our code of ethics; “first do no harm” and “follow the laws of nature” and then try to come up with a plan for ourselves, our athletes, our families and friends.
When reading this sort of information, you must self-analyse and work out honestly if you currently fit into an athletic category of a body builder or physique competitor, what is your fat mass: muscle mass? Do you train with enough intensity to need the supplementation? Is your diet adequate or is supplementation necessary?
It is important to understand that we are all individuals and have different requirements. What may be conditionally essential for a body builder training at maximum intensity with minimal fat mass may not even touch the sides in an everyday athlete that is training and dieting with less intensity and may have a totally different fat mass: muscle mass.
BCAA = Branched Chain Amino Acids
BCAA is made up of Leucine, valine and isoleucine. BCAA make up about 20-30% of the amino acids in your dietary protein. In nature, they are usually found in and around a ratio of 2:1:1.
Leucine is renowned to be the most anabolic and for that reason many people will take extra leucine or increase the BCAA blend to be 4:1:1 or 8:1:1 or more or who knows what will be next.
Many people have asked why I continue to use and recommend the original 2:1:1. The boring answer I give is that “it works” and “nature is smarter than us”. The laws of nature for BCAA says that 20-30% of your consumed protein can be BCAA and the rest is a mix of the other essential amino acids along with a big variety of the rest of the aminos to fill in the gaps. And as listed earlier the ratio is always around 2:1:1.
Traditionally BCAA have always been supplemented at 2:1:1 so most of the research is on that blend. There is also a fair bit of research stacking up on supplementing the diet with extra leucine. So that supplemented leucine in combination with the 2:1:1 BCAA found in your protein foods or protein supplement can be used to have a guess at what a 4:1:1 or 8:1:1 blend would do in the absence of any new scientific data specifically testing the higher leucine blends.
Ratios are often more important than amounts. BCAA work together. They need each other to be able to be involved in anabolic and catabolic processes. They share the same conversion enzymes and pathways. Over dosing on one of the BCAA out of balance can overwhelm the conversion pathways of all 3 amino acids resulting in competition for conversion and activity.
Too much Leucine in relation to valine and isoleucine will start depleting tissues of valine and isoleucine as the leucine forces itself through the enzymes and take up the space on the transporters and knock the others off. Interestingly the muscle seems to only take on so much BCAA total. If you overdose leucine that will push the others out. If you take too much BCAA total the muscle doesn’t actually take on any more than it did at lower doses and the brain and heart start taking on the overload. Once again the BCAA will compete for transport so too much leucine knocks out the valine and isoleucine obviously but it is also screws with other neurotransmitters.
This above concept is referred to in the text books as “BCAA Antagonism” and refers to excess leucine increases the BCAA degrading enzymes depleting all 3 BCAA but due to the imbalance only leucine is left.
I mentioned in previous podcast and article that excess BCAA may be linked with anxiety and depression and that is actually due to the fact that leucine in particular can compete with tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylalanine delivery to the brain.
No tryptophan delivery to brain means nothing to make serotonin out of and then insomnia, anxiety, pain and depression can kick in. Blocking tyrosine means no noradrenalin for energetic arousal and dopamine for energy, mood and nootropic activity. No phenylalanine means bad mood and poor pain threshold.
So yes leucine is the most anabolic of the 3 BCAAs but taking extra doesn’t necessarily get extra loaded up into the muscle, it just changes the ratios in the muscle to deplete the other 2 to make space for the extra leucine.
Interestingly when used in combination with very intense exercise rice protein was shown to be more anabolic than whey. They investigated the leucine content and found that whey had higher levels of bcaa and leucine but the leucine bioavailibity was faster with the rice and the timing of leucine may actually be more importatnt than the dose. Further research is needed. But we are getting somewhere.
Now this discussion thus far is assuming that you in an anabolic phase. Growing muscle. Your genetics, body composition, hormonal profile, chemical advantage, lifestyle etc. is keeping you anabolic and building muscle and your BCAA is going down anabolic pathways.
Because if you aren’t in an anabolic state. If you are actually catabolic and in the process of breaking stuff down and burning than you may find the BCAA going down a different pathway to be used as fuel during the catabolism. In this instance, imbalanced BCAA is much worse and may be associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. At this stage, more research is needed to see if this association is a cause or a consequence.
We are catabolic while exercising, when stressed, low blood glucose, low blood volume, high blood cortisol, glucagon, Growth hormone, adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Leucine is ketogenic meaning it can be converted to ketones and the ketones can be used as fuel and spare muscle mass. Unfortunately, these ketones also spare fat as your body is converting leucine to ketones instead of fat and when you get too much ketones you die so your body will protect you by slowing down the production of ketones from fat burning. Valine can be converted and used as sugar. Isoleucine can do a bit of each. We need these aminos balanced when used as fuels so they do not mess with our fat burning ability and glycogen replenishment and in these situations, they may cause problems with insulin signalling, blood sugar changes and cholesterol problems and possibly even obesity.
Another interesting finding is that bioavailability of BCAA and Leucine alone is much better when low levels are used and when supplemented with other aminos. The BCAA is food is absorbed at about 40-60% compared to 14-18% for supplements.
By the way, B12 is essential for BCAA metabolism and conversion. B12 deficiency can result in defects.
Oh yeah and another cool fact. BCAA and leucine research on rats is not real useful for humans, pig animal studies for BCAA is better as pigs and humans have similar storage sites and rats and mice have an uncanny abaility to respond really aggressively to BCAA so they usually use the rat research and hide the pig stuff.
Other Aminos Discussed:
- Acetyl carnitine is the preferred form for flavour, mixability, stability and has great database of knowledge for its use. The acetyl part makes it more neuroactive and influencing dopamine, acetylcholine etc. as well as supplying carnitine.
- Carnitine l-tartrate – also very good form. Need to take about 50% more to get similar levels of carnitine compared to acetyl forms. Very exciting research regarding priming androgen receptors and making you more sensitive to testosterone from the tartaric acid component. It is possible it is only the tartaric acid performing this function as there is some discussion regarding other acids like acetic acid doing the same thing.
- GPLC – propionyl part is a vasodilator and then delivers carnitine to do carnitine things.
- Monohydrate – good, consistent, predictable as long as it actually is creatine monohydrate and not crappy creatine turning into creatinine in your cupboard
Nitrate – very hygroscopic and clumps and degraded in the bottle too fast. The nitrate does vasodilation.
- Ethyl ester – don’t touch.
- HCL – could be a good one. More research needed.
- Creatine can not be RTD pre-dissolved in water it will not last.
Glutamine, creatine, BCAA, WPI / hydrolysed collagen, electrolytes should all be taken post workout. Preworkout glutamine, creatine and BCAA are much better post workout to replenish post depletion. Preworkout loading may not be needed or effective and may get in the way of other aminos that benefit performance such as citrulline, beta alanine, tri and dimethylglycine, L-aspartates etc.
[i] Wessels AG, et al. High leucine diets stimulate cerebral branched-chain amino acid degradation and modify serotonin and ketone body concentrations in a pig model.plos one.DOI:10.1371. march 1, 2016
[ii] Holecek M, et al. Alterations in protein and amino acid metabolism in rats fed a branched-chain amino acids r leucine enriched diet during postprandial and postabsorptive states. Nutrition and metabolism (2016) 13:12
[iii] Bifari F, et al. Branched-chain amino acids differently modulate catabolic or anabolic states: a pharmacological point of view. Ahead of print
[iv] Toshiko T, et al. Role of B12 on methylmalonyl-CoAmutase activity. J Zheijang Univ Sci B 2012 Jun; 13(6):423-437
[v] Yokota S, et al. Leucine restores murine hepatic triglyceride accumulation induced by a low-protein diet by suppressing autophagy and excessive endoplasmic reticulum stress. Amino Acids. 2016 APR; 48(4):1013-21
[vi] Zhang et al.Branched chain amino acids cause liver injury in obese/diabetic mice by promoting adipocyte lipolysis and inhibiting hepatic autophagy. Ebiomedicine (2016)