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5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are now one of the most popular supplements around, earning a place in millions of homes and gyms, worldwide. Numerous studies show a direct link between BCAA intake and improved strength and recovery, fuelling sales growth which shows no sign of slowing.

Whether you are a keen runner, professional tennis player, amateur weightlifter or an Olympic gold medallist, you could certainly benefit from adding more BCAAs to your diet.

Evidence supports the use of BCAA supplementation for strength and recovery during exercise but also recognizes their role in some diseases, such as cancer. Other studies have also linked bloodstream levels of BCAAs to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.

In this article, we’ll go over the main benefits of BCAAs for strength and recovery and why you should consider adding them to your diet.

What are BCAAs?

When we talk about protein, we are referring to amino acid residue – which is what protein is made from. BCAAs are essential amino acids because the body is unable to synthesize them on its own, therefore, they must be consumed in our diet. Of the nine essential amino acids, three of them fall into the BCAA category. They are:

  • Leucine – boosts protein synthesis, helping build and repair muscle. It also assists with insulin to regulate blood sugars and is one of only two amino acids which cannot be converted into sugar.
  • Isoleucine – enables energy to be stored in muscle cells rather than fat cells by regulating glucose uptake.
  • Valine – improves mental functioning, reduces fatigue and prevents muscle breakdown.

Other essential amino acids are oxidized (broken down to release energy) in the liver, however, BCAAs are unique in that they can be metabolized in muscle. Why is this important? Well, the body needs BCAAs in the bloodstream to maintain normal bodily functions. If none are available, the body will break down muscle cells to release them. [1] [1]

Food Sources

The supplement industry does a great job convincing us to invest in BCAA supplements to get optimal results. However, for the most part, you will get all you need from everyday foods.

The recommended intake of BCAAs is around 15-20 grams per day, so getting enough from your diet is not all that difficult. You should aim for around five grams per meal (assuming three square meals per day).

Here are some common foods with examples of their BCAA content, per 3oz serving, cooked.

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  • Cheddar Cheese – 4.7g
  • Ground turkey – 4.2g
  • Ground Beef (95% lean) – 4.0g
  • Peanuts – 3.1g
  • Cashew Nuts – 2.8g
  • Whole eggs – 2.2g
  • Chicken breast – 2.1g
  • Lentils – 1.3g
  • Black Beans – 1.3g

Lentils, black beans and kidney beans contain all three branched-chain amino acids; however, some plant-based foods are not “complete” proteins. For a food to be a complete protein source, it must contain all nine essential amino acids. While kidney beans and black beans are complete, lentils lack enough methionine.

You can overcome this problem by combining lentils with other foods high in methionine (such as rice) to form complete proteins. Peanuts suffer a similar problem because they lack the essential amino acid, lysine. To make it complete, simply spread it on bread or toast.

If you’re unsure what foods contain complete proteins, head over to nutritiondata.self.com. This fantastic site lists the protein and nutritional profiles of thousands of foods. If a protein is not complete, simply click the “find foods with complementary profile” link to find sources containing the missing essential amino acids.

The 2:1:1 Ratio

When you look at BCAA supplement packaging, you will nearly always find reference to the BCAA ratio. The most common is 2:1:1, made up of two-parts leucine, one-part isoleucine, and one-part valine. While 2:1:1 is the most common, you will sometimes see products with ratios of 4:1:1, 8:1:1 and even 10:1:1.

These higher ratio BCAA supplements all contain more leucine. If you take time to read the packaging or the manufacturer’s marketing materials, they usually reference the muscle-building power of leucine. In reality, they are just cheaper to produce, so you will rarely find them citing existing research to back up their claims.

Scientists have used the 2:1:1 ratio in studies based on the levels found in natural food sources. Historically, there has been little need to investigate other ratios. Nevertheless, the role of leucine in protein synthesis has caught some interest. While current evidence is limited, a ratio of 4:1:1 has shown promise in one study, where results found it to increase protein synthesis by over 30%.

Benefits of BCAAs

1. You’ll Build Major Muscle Mass

When looking to improve strength, or to build muscle (hypertrophy), you need to activate protein synthesis. For this to happen, leucine is the single most important dietary requirement. Chemical signals tell your body to build and repair muscle, and leucine effectively amplifies that signal – especially following resistance exercise. [2]

As leucine is the main amino associated with muscle growth, you might be wondering why this is not recommended as a standalone supplement for muscle growth. As it happens, studies have been conducted to investigate. One such study compared three groups: one took a placebo, the other a leucine supplement, while the third group consumed a regular BCAA drink with a ratio of 2:1:1. While leucine performed better than the placebo, it did not do as well as BCAA group.

The reason for this is simple: all amino acids are required for muscle growth. So, while leucine stimulates the process, other forms of protein are needed to build muscle. Without the other amino acids, leucine is like a motivational building site manager with no workers to do the job. [3]

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2. You’ll Be Far Less Exhausted

Getting tired during a workout can be a real drag. You will be glad to hear that branched-chain amino acids – particularly valine – can help with this.

When you exercise, the level of tryptophan (another essential amino acid) rises. When tryptophan reaches the brain, it is used to make serotonin – a hormone been linked to our feeling of fatigue. All amino acids are transported to the brain on the same bus, yet not all are allowed entry to the brain. With limited accommodation available, valine competes with tryptophan and overpowers it. Less tryptophan in the brain means less serotonin, and less serotonin means lower fatigue. [4]

3. You’ll Recover Way Quicker

The body can take a real beating during intensive exercise. Recovering after such a session can take a few days or more.

One study, looking into the effects of BCAA supplementation in experienced resistance-trained athletes, showed positive results. The rate of recovery improved for strength, countermovement jump height and muscle soreness.[5] BCAAs can also speed up recovery time following endurance sports and intensive cardio sessions.4. No More Muscle Catabolism

Our priority, when exercising – whether it’s to lose weight, tone up, or get healthier in general – is usually to improve our body composition; after all, better body composition makes you look more toned, and the health benefits are well documented.

While exercising, we need more BCAAs to function properly. [11] [6]

When bloodstream levels are too low, the body looks for somewhere to get them. At this stage, it begins breaking down (catabolizing) muscle tissue to access the branched-chain amino acids it needs.

Consuming BCAAs ensures an adequate level is available in the bloodstream, reducing the chances of muscle breakdown. During and following intensive exercise sessions, it is important to consume slightly higher levels. This is the reason why some athletes will sip on a BCAA supplement drink during a workout.

Intermittent fasting has risen in popularity in recent years, with millions of people finding success with this form of dieting. As you can imagine, while in the fasted state, the bloodstream is low on BCAAs. Knocking back a very low-calorie BCAA drink during the fasted helps combat this.

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Following a workout, a meal or meal replacement high in protein is typically consumed to further replenish BCAA levels. If the aim of the workout was to build muscle, this is the best time to give protein synthesis a boost with some muscle-building leucine. Fast acting carbs are also a good idea at this time, as the energy can be stored in the muscles as glycogen.

5. Massive Muscle Energy Storage

When you eat, the energy you consume is either used or stored. You could be forgiven for thinking that excess energy is stored in fat cells, but it’s not.

Once digested, carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which supplies your cells with energy. The hormone, insulin, helps regulate blood sugar. One of the ways it does this is by helping glucose move through cell walls to be stored.

Unused glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Any excess glucose which cannot be deposited as glycogen is finally stored in fat cells.

The fantastic thing about glycogen stored in muscle cells is this: once stored in the muscle, it cannot return to the bloodstream to be used anywhere else. It can be used only by the muscle. For this reason, encouraging glucose to be stored in muscle cells is preferable to it being stored as fat.

Glycogen stored in muscles is a readily available energy source. So, when blood sugars are too low, contracting muscles will use the fuel stored within them to get the job done. This is where the branched-chain amino acid, isoleucine, shines by promoting glucose uptake by muscles. Greater uptake means less energy is stored as fat resulting in quicker energy access for the muscle. [7]

Dangers, Side Effects & Toxicity

Is There a Risk of Toxicity

It is safe to say that consuming high levels of BCAAs is not toxic. Studies looked at toxicity in mice and rats, concluding there to be no observed-adverse-effect level. [8]

However, if you’re looking to maximize your training efforts, research shows that excessive levels of BCAAs can actually hinder performance.[14] [9]

Inclusive Ties to Type-2 Diabetes

Maybe the largest concern for some people is that there is a direct link between high levels of BCAAs in the blood and type-2 diabetes. [15] On initial inspection, this looks to be bad news for branched-chain amino acids. However, further research suggests it is poor insulin sensitivity which drives higher circulating BCAA levels.[10] [11]

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Negative Effects on Insulin Sensitivity in Vegans

During a 2017 study, when supplementing with BCAAs, vegans became more resistant to insulin. [12]

During this study, they consumed an extra 20 grams of branched-chain amino acids per day for three months. Considering the lack of research on the subject, it is difficult to ascertain why this happened. Evidence shows that switching to a plant-based diet lowers the BCAA plasma levels associated with insulin resistance. [13]

The vegan subjects also had much better insulin sensitivity at the start of the study.

Increased Spread of Cancer & Disease

Inside our cells, a series of chemical reactions are constantly taking place. This series of events, known as a biological pathway, is what we refer to as our metabolism. These interactions produce new molecules such as fat or protein and can trigger changes in our cells.

The mTOR pathway forms part of this process. In simple terms, the mTOR pathway regulates cell growth. The branched-chain amino acid, leucine, stimulates the mTOR pathway, which is great for muscle growth, but not so great for some forms of cancer. Many cancers rely on mTOR activity for the growth and spread of cancerous cells. For this reason, much research is taking place regarding BCAAs and their link with diseases. [14]

Take Home Advice: Take BCAAs

It’s easy to see, given the evidence, why BCAAs are such a popular supplement for people engaging in exercise. Faster recovery, increased muscle growth, and reduced fatigue benefit all kinds of athletes, from beginners through to seasoned Olympians.

For those lifting weights, BCAAs will help you get bigger and stronger; marathon runners might delay hitting the wall, and if you’re playing competitive football week in week out, you can recover faster. In contrast, if you are not exercising regularly, there really is no need: just ensure you’re eating enough complete, plant-based proteins such as lentils, black beans, nuts and grains, some fish and meat a few times per week and you’ll be fine.

However, if you are vegan, your family has a history of diabetes, or have been recently diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, you should certainly consult with your doctor before adding BCAA supplements to your diet.

Featured photo credit: Brad Neathery via unsplash.com

Reference

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Robin Young

Fitness writer, and CEO at Fitness Savvy

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

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Published on July 12, 2019

What to Eat When Constipated? 10 Foods to Improve Your Gut Health

What to Eat When Constipated? 10 Foods to Improve Your Gut Health

There’s nothing worse than being constipated! Unfortunately, this frustrating condition is quite common in adults and children alike.

Constipation can strike out of the blue – but it’s often for very simple reasons. Diet is a major cause, particularly when you haven’t been eating enough fiber or drinking enough water.[1]

Other causes include a disruption to your normal bowel routine, such as not going to the bathroom often enough. This sort of disruption can occur with traveling or even being in a sedentary desk job. Lack of activity can have a major impact on your bowel regularity.

Certain medications can also upset your bowel movements, especially opioids, anti-inflammatories, antacids, and antihistamines.

Constipation can also be caused by gut imbalances. Candida overgrowth or SIBO can trigger a variety of digestive symptoms including constipation.[2]

If you find that you’re getting constipated frequently, don’t keep reaching for the laxatives. Think about what’s caused your bowel to slow down, and what you can do to prevent it from happening again.

The most important thing you can do is eat the right foods and watch out for your gut health! Here’s our pick of what to eat when constipated.

1. Pure Water

For some reason, the most obvious cause of constipation is also the last to be considered: hydration!

When you don’t drink enough water, your body quickly becomes dehydrated. This means any waste in your intestines will become slow and ‘stuck’ because your body can’t add enough moisture to your stools. If this is the case, your stools will be small, hard, dry and lumpy.[3]

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Try to drink at least 2 liters of clean, filtered water daily. The easiest way to do this is by carrying a drink bottle with you everywhere, so you can sip it regularly. This will help to move food and waste through your body and keep everything flowing naturally.

After all, you wouldn’t try to clean a drain without turning on the tap!

2. Fermented Dairy Products

Yogurt and kefir are two types of fermented dairy products that can be invaluable to a constipated gut. They both contain probiotics, which are a type of ‘friendly’ bacteria that helps to break down food that you eat.

Probiotics have been shown to improve digestion and elimination by supporting a healthy gastrointestinal environment and maintaining bowel regularity.

Numerous studies have shown that adding probiotics to your diet can help to reduce constipation. One study found that when patients with chronic constipation drank an unflavored probiotic yogurt every day for two weeks, their bowel transit time was significantly shortened. This specific yogurt contained Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.[4]

3. Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are tiny black and white seeds from the plant, Salvia hispanica L. They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

The great thing about chia seeds is that they form a lubricating gel-like consistency when they absorb water. This gel can help to improve stool formation, keeping them moist and making them easier to pass. The omega-3 fatty acids are also renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties, which is highly beneficial to an irritated gut.

As well as their amazing lubrication effects, chia seeds are packed with soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is the type that most people find much gentler on the gut, and it’s should be top of your list of what to eat when constipated. It’s easy to add chia seeds to cereals, baked goods, smoothies and yogurt for a fiber-rich snack or meal.

4. Legumes

When you’re wondering what to eat when constipated, your best bet is fiber-rich foods. Lentils, beans and chickpeas are great for preventing and treating constipation.

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Fiber is an important macronutrient that should be included in your daily diet in order to keep your bowels healthy. It works by adding bulk to your stools, which causes waste to press against your intestines and stimulate peristalsis – the wave-like movements that push waste along to be excreted.

Research has shown that just 100 grams of cooked beans or other pulses provides around 26 percent of your recommended daily intake of fiber.[5] What’s more, these foods are packed with plenty of other nutrients such as potassium, folate, zinc, and vitamin B6, which also help support the health of your gut.

5. Broth

Broths have been a dietary staple for centuries – and for good reason. The rich mineral content of bones and other ingredients makes a broth highly nutritious and easily absorbed by the gut.

Most importantly, bone broth provides a good dose of moisture to an inflamed or dehydrated gut. This can help to soften any hard stools in your intestines and make them easier to eliminate. You’ll also be supporting your nutritional intake if your appetite has diminished, which can happen during bouts of constipation.

It’s easy to make your own bone broth from chicken bones, beef bones or other animal carcasses. Bone broth is particularly beneficial for an irritated gut because it’s rich in gelatin, which can soothe the lining and help repair damaged cells. The warmth of bone broth makes it very easy to digest and very appetizing!

6. Prune Juice and Prunes

Prunes have long been hailed as the king of ‘keeping you regular’! These dried fruits are absolutely packed with fiber, that important macronutrient that keeps waste moving through your gut.

Prunes also contain a type of sugar called sorbitol. Because sorbitol can’t be broken down by your body, it passes through your colon undigested and draws water into your gut. This helps to bulk up your stool and stimulate a bowel movement.

Studies show that sorbitol is a safe and effective remedy for constipation, and it’s often a favorite with older adults.[6] Prunes can increase the frequency of your bowel movements and improve consistency.

If you really have no idea of what to eat when constipated, a handful of prunes could be the easiest remedy in the book. Take care not to overdo the prunes though, as they can also cause some gas and bloating!

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7. Bran

Eating bran for breakfast is often associated with older folk – and it’s probably the first thing you’ll be told to eat when constipated!

Bran is a fantastic source of insoluble fiber, also known as ‘roughage’. Bran helps to push stools along the intestinal passage, allowing for better regularity.

Bran is not a grain itself, but actually the tough outer layers of the grain. It’s an integral part of whole grains, and is often eaten as a cereal.

One study showed that eating wheat bran for breakfast each day for two weeks reduced the incidence of constipation in women who previously lacked a fiber-rich diet.[7] The bran also helped to improve their bowel regularity.

If you don’t like the taste of bran, you can try adding it to smoothies or yogurt. It also adds delicious texture to baked goods.

8. Broccoli

Eating your greens was never so important as when your bowels need some stimulation. Broccoli is a good source of fiber, like other foods mentioned above. But it also contains a valuable nutrient called sulforaphane, which can help to protect the gut and improve digestion.

Research suggests that sulforaphane may even help to ward off ‘unfriendly’ gut bacteria that can upset normal digestion. One study showed that when participants ate 20g of raw broccoli sprouts every day for 4 weeks, they had fewer symptoms of constipation than those who ate alfalfa sprouts. The broccoli also seemed to improve their bowel transit time and the quality of their bowel motions.[8]

9. Green Kiwi

Also known as kiwifruit and Chinese gooseberry, the kiwi is a very helpful remedy for a sluggish bowel. One medium-sized kiwi contains around 2.5 grams of fiber, along with a variety of nutrients.

The most important benefit of kiwis for constipation is due to a protease enzyme called actinidine. Actinidine has been found to stimulate motility in the upper gastrointestinal tract, which helps to push waste along the intestines.

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Another valuable nutrient in green kiwi is a peptide called kissiper, which promotes healthy digestion and peristalsis. One study showed that when adults with constipation ate just two kiwis a day, their bowel movements increased in regularity.[9]

Kiwi is also a rich source of natural phytochemicals that can support the health of the gut. Because it’s technically a berry, you can even eat the hairy outer peel for extra roughage!

10. Pears

Like prunes and kiwi, pears are an excellent source of fiber. This fiber is known as pectin, and it’s contained in the peel of the fruit. To get the most benefit from pectin, you really have to eat the pear raw and with the skin on.

Pears also contain a number of compounds that aid digestion, such as sorbitol and fructose. Their high water content is also helpful in hydrating a sluggish bowel, providing extra moisture for hard stools.

A great way to eat pears is to add them to Bircher muesli. Simply grate the pears and add to oats, seeds and other fruit, then cover with water and refrigerate. The fiber-rich goodness and flavor of the pears will soak into the muesli overnight, creating a delicious breakfast!

So here they are, 10 everyday foods that can improve your digestion and fix your constipation.

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Featured photo credit: Toa Heftiba via unsplash.com

Reference

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