If you think leucine, isoleucine and valine are the names of the dragons in Game of Thrones, you’d be wrong (close, but still wrong). This strange-sounded trio is actually known as branched chain amino acids and even though they aren’t a dragon dynasty, they’re still a formidable family that you definitely want on your side.
Amino Acid Family
When we eat protein, it is broken down into amino acids, which are then absorbed and used to make other proteins that are vital for functions such as digesting food and using it as energy, developing and maintaining cells plus many more. Without these amino acids our body could not perform even some of the most basic tasks, which is why they are known as the ‘building blocks of life’.
There are three sub-groups of amino acids:
- Essential: so called because it is essential that we get them through diet; our body cannot make them naturally.
- Non-essential: which can be found in food and supplements, but our body can produce them too.
- Conditional: which we only need in certain conditions, like if we get sick or are under a lot of stress.
The Branched Chain Brothers
Within the essential amino acids ancestry there is a set siblings known as – leucine, isoleucine and valine. These are the branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. In terms of chemistry, BCAAs have a ‘non-continuous link of carbon bonds’, which means that instead of the molecules linking up in a straight line (linear formation), the molecules are connected to each other at all different points and look a bit like a spider.
But while the three BCAAs share a family resemblance in terms of structure, and their chemical compounds are roughly the same, the way the molecules are arranged mean that they each bring something different to the table when it comes to individual qualities.
Valine feeds our muscles with glucose so that they don’t start to feed on themselves, (muscle deterioration) and also helps to form ‘binding sites’ on cells, which are like little markers for the brain to find when it is sending out chemical signals.
Isoleucine helps to regulate our blood sugar levels, which contributes to our energy status, and also helps body tissue to repair itself, especially after injury.
Now it would be wrong to have a family favourite but leucine is pretty special because not only does it maintain blood sugar levels, aid hormone growth and help with the development of muscles, it is also the only amino acid that is shown to burn fat without depleting muscle stores.
With great power also comes great responsibility though and as head of the BCAA family, it is recommended that a healthy adult should consume more leucine a day; around 40mg per kg of bodyweight, compared to 10-30mg each of valine and isoleucine (per kg of bodyweight) or a ratio of 2:1:1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine).
Who Needs BCAAs?
While everybody needs them, there are certain groups of people that may need to try a little harder to make sure they are getting enough BCAAs, and some others who may want to think about increasing their intake.
Vegans and Vegetarians
For the average, meat-eating adult that undertakes a normal amount of activity, there is no reason they shouldn’t be getting enough BCAAs through their diet. Valine, isoleucine and leucine are all naturally found in meat (especially game), poultry, fish, and eggs. For vegetarians and vegans however, this could be a big problem, and while BCAAs can also be found in beans, seaweed, and nuts, non-meat eaters should definitely consider a BCAA supplement, especially if they are prone to fatigue, muscle soreness or even just feelings of ‘blah’ (that’s a medical term).
The Sick & Elderly
Without BCAAs we could all be in danger of slowly wasting away without even realising but for people who are already feeling weak through illness, have recently had surgery or have experienced loss of appetite, their system needs all the help it can get. Firstly, to know when to eat, but then be able to utilise that fuel effectively and efficiently when it is taken in. Again, while this can be achieved through natural diet, a good quality supplement could also be beneficial to kick start recovery and maintain decent progress.
The way that BCAAs break down food in the body and use it as glucose and the way BCAAs (especially leucine) burn fat in the body, - which in turn can help to control obesity; a leading contributor to type-2 diabetes - has been the subject of many scientific studies. Research seems to point out that BCAA intake can have a direct impact on lowering your blood sugar levels naturally. However, people with diabetes, especially those on medication are strongly advised to seek medical advice before starting or changing an eating program.
Athletes & Body-builders
BCAAs have many different qualities that make them directly appealing to athletes and bodybuilders. In terms of endurance, they can help to fight fatigue, push through plateaus and maintain blood sugar levels so you don’t crash and give up. In terms of muscle growth, where do we start? Leucine’s almost magical ability to build muscle and shed fat at the same time is a bodybuilder’s dream. Not only that but BCAAs are shown to reduce recovery times, heal injured muscles faster and even maintain muscle during off-periods. While protein is already an essential part of a sportsperson’s nutrition program, you will often find that a BCAA supplement is not far away during a race or workout. The combination of valine, isoleucine and leucine is – for many athletes – just as important to their training regime as their trainers, barbell or stopwatch.
The Family Favourite
They say that knowledge is power, and hopefully you now know enough about the power of branched chain amino acids to understand exactly why you need them and how to get them. The final take-home message has to be that everyone needs these essential amino acids, but if you want to be the strongest link in the chain (or the gym), maybe think about beefing up your BCAAs.
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