Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have garnered a massive amount of interest in the sports nutrition realm over the last decade. What started out as theoretical benefit from dosing BCAAs during training has rapidly transferred to real-world results for many gym goers.
Yet, research suggests that the actual benefits of using BCAAs are rather minimal, especially in individuals who consume adequate amounts of protein from whole foods. Moreover, there are some flaws to the protocols in which many fitness enthusiasts utilise their BCAA supplements.
But not all hope is lost for free-form amino acid supplements, as essential amino acids (EAAs) have plenty of merit to them, especially for people who train hard. Read on to learn the difference between just BCAA supplements and full spectrum EAA supplements. It’s important to note that all BCAA’s are EAA’s but not all EAA’s are BCAA’s. In fact BCAA’s are only 3 of the 9 Essential Amino Acids required for human protein regeneration. So by supplementing with the 3 BCAA's you are missing 6 EAA's that you absolutely must have.
Terms to Know
Before we dive deep into the battle of EAA and BCAA supplements, you’re going to need to know a few key terms. Don’t worry, they seem a little technical at first but they’re really not that complicated. Also, you need to know that Amino Acids are the simplest and fastest absorbed form of protein, much the same way sugar is the simplest and fastest absorbed form of carbohydrates (with some exceptions).
- Skeletal Muscle – Muscle tissue that attaches to bones and creates movement.
- Skeletal Muscle protein synthesis (MPS)—refers to synthesis (building) of protein in skeletal muscle tissue only.
- Muscle protein degradation—refers to breakdown/degradation of skeletal muscle tissue only. Otherwise called catabolism.
- Protein turnover—a measurement that detects that balance between protein synthesis (building) and protein degradation (catabolism).
- Whole-body protein turnover—this is a measurement of the synthesis and breakdown of protein in all organs, skeletal and non-skeletal tissue.
- Skeletal muscle protein turnover—this is a measurement of the synthesis and breakdown throughout skeletal muscle tissue only.
- Muscle protein anabolism—refers to a state in skeletal muscle tissue where synthesis (building) exceeds degradation (breakdown), and thus lean tissue is being built.
- Muscle protein catabolism—refers to a state in skeletal muscle tissue where degradation (breakdown) exceeds synthesis (build up), and thus lean tissue is being broken down.
- Hypertrophy—growth of tissue (generally in reference to skeletal muscle).
- Atrophy—tissue shrinkage or loss; opposite of hypertrophy.
Naturally, gym goers who want to build lean mass are looking to maximise muscle protein synthesis and minimise muscle protein catabolism. This will result in a net protein synthesis or muscle gain. The consensus in media and gyms across the world has been that BCAA’s, in particular L-Leucine, will get the job done.
However, a recent paper published on the 7th June 2017  concluded… “The present study demonstrated that ingesting of all three BCAAs alone, without concurrent ingestion of other essential amino acids (EAA’s), protein, or macronutrients, stimulated a 22% greater response of muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance exercise compared with a placebo."
This sounds great but then the researchers went on to write…
"The magnitude of this increased response of muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis was approximately 50% less than the previously reported muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis response to a dose of Essential Amino Acids containing similar amounts of BCAAs."
That's right!! EAA's are at least 50% MORE EFFECTIVE at building muscle than BCAA's in isolation.
The Connection Between Protein Synthesis and Essential Amino Acids
Most gym goers assume that a constant intake of amino acids is ideal for maximising muscle protein synthesis throughout the day. However, research demonstrates that traditional bodybuilding wisdom of eating protein/amino acids frequently throughout the day is shortsighted and sub-optimal.
Studies have found that the increase in muscle protein synthesis after consuming protein/amino acids reaches an apex (peak) within one to two hours and then drops significantly, in spite of elevated amino acids in the blood [1, 2]. The image below demonstrates these findings:
Furthermore, several studies confirm that the essential amino acid L-leucine appears to be the “metabolic switch” for muscle protein synthesis. [3, 4] Even more noteworthy is that leucine stimulates muscle protein synthesis independent of elevations in the anabolic hormone insulin (i.e. leucine causes insulin levels to increase, but that is not the mechanism by which it turns on muscle protein synthesis).
However, turning on the engine (muscle building) is only part of the equation. You must have gas in the tank. In this case EAA's are the gas to draw on to make or repair muscle tissue.
In terms of maximising muscle protein synthesis, what these findings ultimately tell us is that it’s more prudent to space meals out about 4 to 5 hours; then halfway between those meals, supplement with EAA’s to reignite muscle protein synthesis.
EAAs are essential (thus the name) for synthesising new muscle tissue. Research cited herein contends that as little as 20-30 grams of a leucine-rich, complete protein source (such as whey protein) provides maximum stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Given that whey protein is roughly half EAAs and half NEAAs (non-essential amino acids), this suggests that 10 grams of pure free-form EAAs, in the proper human skeletal muscle ratio, will also maximise muscle protein synthesis (with a much lower caloric value).
The key to note here is that BCAA supplements only contain three (3) of the nine (9) EAAs necessary to carry out muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, the missing 6 will be stripped from other muscle tissue to repair the damage caused elsewhere. You are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Remember, as plasma levels of EAAs drop, muscle protein synthesis drops as well. Therefore, if your body is lacking nominal amounts of one or several EAAs, then muscle protein synthesis cannot proceed (i.e. your growth potential is only as good as the lowest levels of any EAA). As such, free-form L-leucine (and the other BCAAs) are rather inferior to a complete EAA supplements for muscle growth and recovery.
What About Non-Essential Amino Acids?
You are probably wondering, “Don’t we need NEAAs as well?” In short, yes, but NEAAs are rarely depleted due to muscle and whole-body protein being broken down and re-assimilated. The only exception of when NEAAs may be necessary to make sure MPS is not inhibited would be during periods of long-duration, intense exercise since glycine and alanine are gluconeogenic (convert to glucose) NEAAs. Which means they can be broken down for energy in extreme circumstances. Basically, if you consume adequate protein throughout the day and aren’t torturing yourself with tons of exercise, your body will have sufficient NEAAs available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Why is the Right Ratio of Essential Amino Acids Key?
As alluded to earlier, EAA supplements need to be dosed in the proper ratio to maximise net nitrogen utilisation (absorption). This is precisely why you should look for a product that contains the Perfect Human Ration (PHR) of essential amino acids according to our skeletal muscle profiles.
This ensures that you provide your body with adequate amounts of each EAA so muscle protein synthesis can proceed optimally. Be wary of EAA products that simply dump a sizeable proportion of BCAAs in their product with minimal amounts of the remaining EAAs, as that is far from efficacious for muscle growth and recovery and as described above, the MPS that occurs will be limited by the lowest EAA present. This is called a rate limiting amino acid.
EAA's rely on transporters to cross the gut membrane into the blood stream. Loading up on L-Leucine or BCAA dominant blends can prevent other EAA's from absorbing and you wont get maximum benefit.
Often many plant proteins that have all the EAA’s present do not produce the same increase in MPS as Whey, EAA blends or animal sourced protein. This is because they may have low levels or rate limiting levels of a certain EAA. This may be overcome by combining various protein sources or adding EAA’s like to the product or meal.
What Sort of Results Can You Expect from EAA’s?
There have been multiple studies supporting the benefits of EAA’s for MPS and muscle anabolism. In fact, Luca-Moretti and his team conducted many studies using a perfect human ratio of EAA’s. They discovered not only was this ratio superior to other EAA blends, but their participants were able to build muscle and burn fat at the same time .
In addition, a second study was conducted by Luca-Moretti and his team looking at the performance boosting benefits of a perfect human ratio of EAA’s with virtually no calories. In the conclusion the authors noted…
“Comparative results of this study have shown that athletes, by taking the Master Amino acid Pattern (MAP) as a dietary protein substitute and performing physical activity, have had (1) increased body muscle mass, strength, and endurance; (2) decreased fat mass; (3) increased basal metabolism rate; (4) greater improvement in performance of the non-prevailing muscles compared to the prevailing ones; and (5) improved muscular and hematologic lactate clearance, which allows for better muscle performance and faster muscle recovery after physical activity. It was concluded that the use of MAP as a dietary protein substitute in conjunction with physical activity can provide a safe and unprecedented way to optimise the body's protein synthesis, thereby improving anthropometric characteristics and physical and physiologic performance .”
Due to the amino acid ratio and the complete rapid absorption of the MAP ratio it is of particular benefit during and after training for athletes who wish to improve performance, speed recovery, increase MPS while simultaneously reducing body fat.
Finding a product with the addition of key electrolytes and water-soluble vitamins can make a great rehydration / recovery drink in between meals or sporting events. In fact, if you have a physical job that causes you to sweat then this type of product may provide the ultimate way to stay hydrated in summer. You can also make your amino supplements into Ice Blocks, Jelly or just add it to soda water as a diet soda alternative. We have some cool recipes on our website.
Having a formula that also contains Schisandra chinensis which may enhance Nitric Oxide resulting in greater blood flow to and from your working muscles which may improve the transportation of EAA’s and other nutrients giving you a performance advantage and assist in faster recovery.
It's time to swap your BCAA’s for a complete FULL SPECTRUM EAA supplement that contains electrolytes and Schisandra to stay hydrated, build muscle, recover faster and burn fat.
The research supports EAA's, common sense supports EAA's and now you need to support the product that supports your results!!
Disclaimer: The above article is merely a guide and is in no way a recommendation or a treatment protocol for any health conditions or diseases. You should always consult with a qualified health care provider before changing your supplement, training or nutritional strategy. Supplementation should not be attempted by pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone on prescription medication or children under the age of 15 unless advised by your qualified health care provider.