Written by: Victoria Phan, PharmD Candidate 2020, University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy
You may hear conversations about “amino acids” floating around the health and fitness industry, or maybe you vaguely remember learning about them in your high school biology class, when they were presented as the “building blocks” of protein. Furthermore, the term "Branched Chain Amino Acids" was more than likely discussed in that very same textbook.
Well, your high school biology class was not wrong. Amino acids really are the building blocks of protein, and protein is critical for the sustainability of your body’s daily function. It is also essential for muscle building, which is why amino acids have gained in popularity among the exercise and body-building community.
Breaking It Down
There are a total of 20 amino acids. Of these, eleven are produced by humans and categorized as “non-essential,” while the remaining nine (that our bodies cannot provide) are “essential.” Essential amino acids are supplemented through diet alone.
Three of the nine essential amino acids are considered branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine comprise around 35% of your body’s muscle protein and are believed to help preserve muscle glycogen stores, which fuel your muscles and minimize protein breakdown during exercise.
Common food sources of Branched Chain Amino Acids
Most people consume a sufficient amount of BCCAs daily. The abundance of these essential amino acids among a large variety of foods makes a deficiency is rare. Common food sources of BCCAs include:
- Soy protein
Just one egg or one ounce of cheese has about 400 mg of all three BCAAs. One serving of pork contains about 7-8 grams of leucine while there are 3-4 grams of isoleucine and valine together. A cup of wheat germ contains approximately 1.5 grams of leucine, 1 gram of isoleucine, and 1 gram of valine.
How Does Our Body Use Branched Chain Amino Acids?
When you consume Branched Chain Amino Acids, they move into your cells and into a structure called the lysosome. When they are in the lysosome, triggers alert your body that there are amino acids available for use, and the start of protein synthesis initiates.
One of the protein synthesis pathways that activate is the mechanistic target of rapamycin or (mTOR) pathway. Leucine is mostly responsible for the activation of this pathway. Activation of mTOR directly affects skeletal muscle building, and it is the reason why leucine has gained extra attention in recent years in the muscle-building community.
Branched Chain Amino Acids are mostly metabolized in skeletal muscle and other tissue but can also be metabolized in the liver. Along with the enzyme branched-chain amino acid aminotransferase (BCAT), leucine, isoleucine, and valine are metabolized to keto acids. These keto acids are then decarboxylated by branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase (BCKD), which turns them into metabolites that enter the TCA or Krebs cycle, which is responsible for cellular metabolism and energy production.
Each of the branched chain amino acids has unique functions.
Leucine is most well-known for skeletal muscle anabolism. It also is responsible for blood glucose regulation, muscle and bone tissue repair, growth hormone production, and mound healing.
Isoleucine has been shown to assist in glucose utilization, nitrogenous waste detoxification, and stimulating of immune function.
Valine helps maintain mental vigor, muscle coordination, and emotional calm.
Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) Supplementation
The recommended daily dose of leucine is 55 mg/kg/day, isoleucine is 15 mg/kg/day, and valine is 24 mg/kg/day.
The average person should be able to get these recommendations from diet alone and generally will not require additional supplementation.
However, for those who are muscle training/weightlifting, or who suffer from starvation, severe stress, trauma, liver failure, and in some cases an infection/fever, branched-chain amino acid supplementation may be a good option.
To find out if a compounded preparation of BCAA supplementation will benefit you, talk to your doctor reach out to one of our pharmacists for more information
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- BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACIDS (BCCA): Valine; Leucine; Isoleucine. DCNutrition.com. https://www.dcnutrition.com/amino-acids/branched-chain-amino-acids-bcca-valine-leucine-isoleucine/. Accessed September 13, 2019.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. l-Isoleucine, CID=6306, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/l-Isoleucine (accessed on Sept. 12, 2019)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Leucine, CID=6106, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Leucine (accessed on Sept. 12, 2019)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Valine, CID=6287, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Valine (accessed on Sept. 12, 2019)
- Neinast M, Murashige D, Arany Z. Branched Chain Amino Acids. Annual Review of Physiology. November 2018:139-164.
- Zhang et al. Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology (2017) 8:10. DOI 10.1186/s40104-016-0139-z
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