BCAAs or Branched Chain Amino Acids are one of the most popular supplements on the market right now, but really, that doesn't mean much.
There are literally thousands of other supplements on the market all claiming to help with muscle growth, yadda yadda. Finally, after years of thinking this and only recently saying it, BCAAs by and large are not a fantastic choice, simply because there are other options that do it better.
The problem however, is that these BCAAs stimulate [protein synthesis], yet can't really maintain it. Its sort of like having enough gas in your tank to start the engine, but no fuel to actually go anywhere.
If you didn't know, BCAAs are a combination of three essential amino acids, of which some of them stimulate protein synthesis. Now, this isn't groundbreaking news. The problem is that many take this to mean that they'll act similarly to full protein sources (kind of, but not really). Certainly, BCAAs do in fact stimulate protein synthesis or the process of creating new proteins in the body (which can extend further than just muscle).
The problem however, is that these BCAAs stimulate this process, yet can't really maintain it. Its sort of like having enough gas in your tank to start the engine, but no fuel to actually go anywhere.
Certainly, a BCAA supplement could potentially help to prevent protein breakdown, such as what could potentially happen during a fast or during a workout. This is specifically advantageous for muscle growth or preservation when dieting, since by and large, muscle growth is largely due to having a greater amount of protein synthesis compared to breakdown. Theoretically, if building is higher than breakdown, you should be growing.
But really, lets consider for a moment what happens when you have a complete protein source, such as whey in the same situation. Compared to a BCAA supplement, whey certainly has more calories. On a serving basis, probably ranging from 60-100 additional calories. Which, on it's own is fairly irrelevant. However, the whey not only provides these BCAAs (at a much cheaper per serving cost, mind you) but also supplies other essential amino acids needed to actually synthesize new proteins.
So realistically, you're consuming maybe 100 additional calories, yet actually ingesting an adequate amount of BCAAs, plus the requisite additional amino acids, needed to theoretically build muscle. So what then would BCAAs be useful for?
Certainly, they may prove useful for preventing protein degradation when dieting. This could prove especially useful for a competitor on a very tight calorie budget. However, for the normal person looking to get in great shape, the use of BCAAs, in my opinion is quite useless. Surely, if you have the excess funds to purchase them because the bottle looks cool, go for it.
But if you have the ability, opting for a complete protein source is superior. For example, in this very recent study, researchers revealed that whey was far superior. In fact, when compared to a whey supplement with a similar amount of BCAAs (remember, whey includes these amino acids), just taking a BCAA supplement alone, post workouts, produced 50% less! protein synthesis.
That's a lot on an acute basis and paints a picture of just how important those other essential amino acids are. This means that if you opt for BCAAs instead of whey, you can expect significantly less benefit in response to training than you would if you took whey or another complete protein source. Certainly, if you can't stomach a protein shake before or after a workout, I get it. Take the BCAA supplement, but just ensure that throughout the day whenever possible, consume complete protein sources along with it. You and your muscle will thank you.
Bottom Line On BCAAs
If you haven't read my other full article with regards to this topic, please do by clicking the link. It's much more indepth.
As far as BCAAs go, they are quite worthless, in my opinion. The only time they would be worth purchasing is 1. you can't stomach whey around a workout and 2. Your severely restricting calories and can't afford to consume an additional 60-100 calories (which c'mon. Not too mention, it's largely protein which will probably only help you).
Otherwise, it's just not worth the extra cash. Especially when you can pic up the superior option that includes those BCAAs, plus all of the other essential amino acids you actually need to build muscle.
Oh, and if you take BCAAs for energy during a workout, a cup of coffee would probably work much better and will literally be a fraction of the cost.
Jackman, S. R., Witard, O. C., Philp, A., Wallis, G. A., Baar, K., & Tipton, K. D. (2017). Branched-chain amino acid ingestion stimulates muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance exercise in humans. Frontiers in physiology, 8.
Caffeine, Caffeine, Caffeine. The most widely used drug in world boasts many different benefits. But we all know why you're here. Caffeine helps you wake up in the morning and makes you feel good.
Although, chances are, you're hopelessly addicted to it, and it lacks the luster it once had. Fear not, there are some things that you can do to help improve your tolerance and get back the magic you once had with caffeinated products.
In this supplement short, I’ll provide a little background into how and why caffeine works, in addition to providing a no bullshit analysis and anecdotal tips to help even the biggest caffeine fiend, benefit from it on a daily basis.
What Is Caffeine and How Does It Work
Caffeine, also known as 1,3, 7- trimethylxanthine, is a xanthine compound that has three methyl groups attached to it.
Caffeine absorption begins immediately when it enters your mouth, as it can be absorbed through the lining of your mouth and enter the blood stream.
That’s why many, myself included notice an almost immediate heightening of the senses the moment that black gold touches my lips (could also be placebo, but I digress).
Additionally, caffeine absorption occurs at almost 100% making it extremely efficient and bioavailable. Also, one of the reasons why it's so popular and addicting. i.e. - it works, and works well.
Caffeine as an Adenosine Receptor Antagonist
One of the primary ways that caffeine works is by acting as an adenosine receptor antagonist.
You may have heard the word adenosine before if you’ve ever had a bio course, as adenosine is produced via the cleavage of phosphate groups from the molecule: ATP (ADENOSINE Tri-Phosphate).
As the day goes on, and energy is used, adenosine builds up in the brain and begins attaching to adenosine receptors, which promotes an increase in feelings of sleepiness.
Caffeine’s job is to attach to and block these receptors, as it has a high affinity (attraction) to the adenosine receptor. Once attached, it blocks the docking of adenosine to the receptor, preventing adenosine from making you sleepy.
Caffeine builds tolerance and addiction
If you regularly consume caffeine like a meth addict as I do, you understand that caffeine is addicting and you build up a tolerance pretty quick.
Unfortunately, caffeine is one of those drugs that has a rate of diminishing returns, meaning that eventually, no more amount of caffeine in the world will benefit you cognitively speaking, but increasing your dose WILL have an effect on your sympathetic nervous system and negatively affect your sleep quality.
Plus, if you’ve ever gotten headaches in the morning due to lack of caffeine, you understand that along with addiction comes withdrawal, creating a never ending cycle of needing to take it, despite getting fairly minimal benefit.
What can you do to benefit from caffeine again?
Be forewarned, many of this information is theoretical. But really, who cares. This stuff works. I have experimented with it all as caffeine is near and dear to my heart. Try things for yourself and let me know what you think.
For reference, I have been known to be a stimulant junkie, taking upwards of a gram of caffeine per day. In following some of these techniques, I transitioned to being able to consume 1 coffee in the morning and be fine for the rest of the day.
Abstain for a couple days
While this route sucks the most, it’s obviously one of the best ways to reduce your tolerance to caffeine. Simply take a few days when you don’t need it and either completely eliminate caffeine or reduce the amount you are consuming, significantly. Within two or three days, you will likely be experiencing more benefit from your caffeine doses. This, is my last resort.
Just be forewarned, caffeine withdrawals are real, especially if you are prone to headaches. Further, most headache medicine such as Excedrine contain caffeine, so be sure to check the label if you are participating in caffeine abstinence.
DON'T drink it first thing in the morning but DO drink at the same time
This suggestion is largely anecdotal and theoretical, but sound nonetheless. Additionally, it is the technique that works best for me. Even being a habitual caffeine user, I often feel as though it is my first cup of coffee ever, when I follow this protocol.
In order to understand how and why this works, we need a little background.
First, we’ll talk about circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle is controlled by many different factors, such as light (light actually plays a role in when and how well you sleep, in addition to waking up).
Your circadian rhythm determines many different factors and also controls when and how hormones are secreted in your body.
By attempting to go to sleep and wake at the same time every day, you can theoretically optimize your hormonal secretions, which can have immense benefit in terms of response to stressors, how your body functions, etc.
By creating this schedule, you also allow for optimized secretion of two specific hormones: melatonin and cortisol; the latter of which is of importance here.
The Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR)
According to your circadian rhythm, you actually have a secretion of cortisol by the adrenal gland(s), which begins to rise before you wake up, has a sharp increase upon waking and then peaks and decreases.
If you have a regular sleep/wake cycle, this secretion becomes aligned according to your schedule, increasing secretion at the same time and thus having a peak at a similar time each day. Ever notice how sometimes you can wake up at the same time without an alarm clock? Chances are you have an aligned circadian rhythm and optimized secretion of cortisol.
Unknown to many, cortisol actually plays an integral role in this process and sort of acts as a natural stimulant. Unfortunately, many people jump for that cup of coffee immediately upon waking. By consuming your caffeine, while cortisol concentration in the blood is high, there is a good possibility that you are masking the effect of caffeine.
If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee that just, didn’t work, there is a strong likelihood that either, you either have a high tolerance or the caffeine was masked by cortisol.
To combat caffeine being masked by cortisol
The best thing apart from fixing your circadian rhythm, is to wait at least 1 hour after waking to consume your caffeine.
I call this “riding the lightning.” Studies have indicated that cortisol peaks and then decreases anywhere from 45 to an hour and half after waking. Your goal is to consume your caffeine just as cortisol is beginning to decrease.
For me, my personal measurement goes as follows:
It is between steps 3 and 4 that cortisol for me is likely decreasing. If I take coffee at this time, I usually feel immediately better and actually often feel as though the caffeine is working very well.
For me, if I consume it too early, the caffeine doesn’t work, and won’t work for the rest of the day. If I wait to long, I usually get a headache, and no amount of caffeine will fix it.
I’d suggest playing around with it and figuring out what works best for you. That’s what I did, and it allowed me, a habitual stimulant user to actually benefit from caffeine again.
Claims of caffeine proponents
Apart from it's already known benefits with regards to cognitive ability, there is some research that caffeine can help with fat loss. It's no wonder why it's in almost every single "fat burning" supplement on the planet - It's cheap, has some research behind it and makes you feel good.
However there are two things to keep in mind:
1. The overall effect is probably minimal, and won't help you significantly if you're in a caloric surplus.
2. The effect will likely be even less if you habitually use caffeine.
As with almost any supplement the potential benefit will likely be small. Even smaller if you regularly use it.
There is certainly some potential benefit for increased performance, likely due to a reduction of fatigue (That's the purpose of caffeine in the first place).
It apparently does provide improvements in power output, but again, this may be confounded if you are a regular user.
Basically, if you are looking for a fat burning effect or improvement of performance, it's best to use it sparingly to reduce or inhibit any tolerance, in addition to a sound training protocol and diet.
So there you have it. A little background on caffeine and the cortisol awakening response, with some of my own tried and true techniques to benefitting from caffeine, even for the most habitual user.
If you end up trying to "ride the lightning" be sure to let me know of your experience and if it helped at all.
About The Author
The BCAA leucine, in particular is the most popular of the three and likely the one that you already know about. Leucine is a primary activator of mTOR or the mechanistic target of rapamycin, which is a protein in a pathway that controls muscle protein synthesis, the leading theory behind how muscle hypertrophy actually occurs.
The other two are just as important in this process in that they are essential. Isoleucine in particular may actually play a role in cellular glucose uptake (Doi, 2003), which is beneficial for a myriad of reasons, especially in that it allows for cells to use the glucose during exercise.
My issue with BCAAs
Despite the fact that these are all beneficial, there is still an elephant in the room with regards to BCAAs that must be addressed - BCAAs are expensive and also found in complete protein sources, including whey.
I often hear people wondering if they should take BCAAs and it's no wonder why. The supplement industry has literally made them out to be one of the greatest supplements around.
Supplement industries have taken something that is part of many regularly available foods, slapped a huge upcharge onto them, and then claimed that you need to have it.
We all took the bait at one point or another and I often find myself tempted still, by the cool labeling and awesome claims. The truth is, BCAAs are simply essential amino acids that can be found in other protein sources.
Whey in particular is the often overlooked, optimal source to get them from (relative to the reason you are taking them in the first place).
While whey protein includes these branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) and can thus stimulate protein synthesis; it also provides all of the other essential amino acids that can be used to actually synthesize the new proteins. Something of which BCAAs alone, cannot do.
The truth is, in terms of muscle retention (a typical use of BCAAs) if your total daily protein is adequate, there is likely little reason that you need to be purchasing and consuming free-form BCAAs. If muscle growth is your goal, you still need the other essential amino acids to actually synthesize the new proteins.
Considering, BCAAs may be necessary if you follow a restrictive diet, such as being a vegan in which your primary protein sources are not complete (containing all essential amino acids).
Additionally, BCAAs may be beneficial to you if you are on a very restrictive diet otherwise. However, if protein intake is adequate, consuming BCAAs may be unnecessary.
BCAAs do seem to spike plasma (in blood) BCAAs faster than that of whey, since the amino acids (in whey) are bound to peptides, which need to be digested. Free-form BCAAs however, do not. Meaning they can enter the blood stream much faster.
However, we must consider if long term, this is actually relevant. I would argue it is not.
For so long, the argument of a post workout anabolic window has been disputed. Yes, after exercising there is a period of increased protein synthesis that should be taken advantage of. But if you were to consume whey pre-workout, it’s safe to assume that after a 1.5-2 hour workout, plasma BCAAs would be spiked from said whey.
In fact, a study by Hall et al., 2003 (image right), revealed that around the 75-minute mark, plasma amino acid concentrations peaked after ingestion of whey. This is in contrast to a study by Zhang et al., 2011 showing that amino acid plasma concentrations peaked 30 minutes after digestion of free form BCAA.
We are talking about 35 minutes here. Unless you are an advanced athlete that needs to recover immediately, long term, this is totally irrelevant and surely not worth an extra $30+ in my book.
The argument that BCAAs are “digested” faster than whey and thus must be superior is a bad argument and certainly doesn’t convince me that I should spend additional money on them.
Frequently Asked Questions about BCAAs (some evidence and extrapolation)
Do I need to take free-form BCAAs to build muscle?
Considering that BCAAs are included with any complete protein source, as long as your total protein intake is adequate throughout the day, supplementing with free-form BCAAs is likely not necessary.
However, if you have the extra money, and don’t care, consuming free form BCAAs probably won’t cause any harm.
If I take BCAAs throughout the day, won’t I just be anabolic 24/7 and thus, build a bunch of muscle?
First of all, as mentioned prior, the BCAAs alone wont build muscle per se. They will only stimulate the process in which building muscle is theoretically possible. You still need to consume the other essential amino acids.
Additionally, research on the study of muscle protein synthesis has revealed that there is actually a refractory period, after stimulation of protein synthesis. Let me paint a picture for you.
You stimulate protein synthesis via a leucine rich protein source. After some time (around 2.5-3 hours or so) this increase in the rate of protein synthesis decreases. It continues to decrease; regardless of if there are amino acids in the blood (consuming leucine and carbs might prolong it; Wilson, 2011) because this process is so energy demanding.
After a period of time, you can then consume more leucine-rich protein and re-stimulate protein synthesis. It seems that protein should be "pulsed" or consumed in equal intervals throughout the day to maximize the response, rather than just constantly consuming it.
Based on research by Bohé, 2001 and Norton, 2009, you need these peaks and valleys with regards to increases and decreases in protein synthesis, respectively. Bottom line, consuming BCAAs might help prolong MPS, via leucine, but you still need the other essential amino acids. Further, any other energy source will likely benefit you the same (i.e. carbs).
Should I take BCAAs to prevent fatigue from my workouts?
This topic is largely subjective. There is a theory called the “Central fatigue” theory that postulates that a build up of serotonin as a result of exercise, is a primary factor in fatigue. Since BCAAs compete for the same transporter of tryptophan (which later converts to serotonin in the brain), it’s theorized that that consumption of BCAAs prior to a workout will inhibit the production of serotonin, and thus fatigue.
This idea is theoretically possible, but likely only applies to new trainees who are more susceptible to fatigue.
Additionally, using a complete protein source such as whey can provide the same potential benefit, in addition to the sustained increase in protein synthesis, rendering BCAAs an inferior choice. However, some people have trouble stomaching whey or other complete protein sources prior to exercise. In that case, BCAAs would be the optimal choice.
Should I take BCAAs while dieting?
This again, is a subjective decision. There is potential that consumption of BCAAs will help prevent muscle mass while on a caloric deficit. However, having adequate protein intake will probably do the same.
It is understandable that you may prefer to consume your allotted calories from a solid complete protein source, rather than a whey shake. Doing so is completely an individual decision.
By stimulating muscle protein synthesis often via BCAAs, you may ensure that you have less protein degradation, resulting in better maintenance of lean mass while being calorically restricted. Again, if you eat an ample amount of protein throughout the day, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
[Note: The next few are directed at BCAAs and Intermittent Fasting]
If I intermittent fast, should I use BCAAs to mitigate muscle loss?
Many studies regarding intermittent fasting, which typically aren’t bodybuilding styles of IF, reveal that a majority of mass lost via IF is from fat mass, thus sparing muscle (Varady, 2011 / Moro, 2016). (Note, some studies do show reductions in lean mass - Heilbronn, 2005).
That being said, the notion of losing lean mass due to fasting is one that will likely stick around for quite sometime for a myriad of different reasons.
The answer to this question depends on a couple factors; especially the primary reason for which you are fasting.
If you are fasting for potential longevity purpose such as increased autophagy (where cellular materials, especial damaged/unneeded ones can be degraded), then you should not consume BCAAs during the fasting period.
One of the major mechanisms through which many of the health promoting effects of fasting works is through an enzyme called AMPK. When you consume BCAAs (or most food for that matter), you stimulate pathways involved with growth and storage, which directly inhibit this pathway. In essence, if you want to fast for health, don’t consume BCAAs, at least during the fasting period.
If you are using Intermittent Fasting for its insulin sensitizing effects (i.e. you are very overweight and are borderline type 2 diabetic), you also should not consume BCAAs. Again, the BCAAs are insulinogenic meaning that they stimulate a release of insulin from your pancreas.
One of the hallmarks of fasting is improving insulin sensitivity. In order to do so, you’ll need (in the case of IF) to go prolonged periods of time without stimulating a release of insulin. Consuming BCAAs will stimulate insulin release, thus rendering the insulin sensitizing effects of IF, non-existent.
Lastly, if you are Intermittent Fasting for body composition, such as a bodybuilder, the choice is yours as to use BCAAs or not. If this scenario describes you; IF will benefit you in that it can help create a caloric deficit, and potentially partition nutrients to the tissue you want. Consumption of BCAAs will likely have a negligible effect either positive or negative. Furthermore, a complete protein source would still be superior.
Additionally, if you are practicing IF and really that concerned about losing muscle, then you shouldn't use IF. Just be in a caloric deficit.
So what’s the bottom line on BCAAs?
BCAAs are wildly overhyped and overpriced. Considering that they are included in other complete protein sources that actually provide the requisite amino acids to actually build proteins, it is my suggestion that you opt for a full source of protein, such as whey.
Further, if you do decide you want or need BCAAs, there is likely no negative benefit of doing so, unless you are practicing a fasting diet for longevity benefits.
Welcome to the first edition of the supplement series. The posts on this page will be short posts regarding supplements that I either believe in and that i believe may benefit you, or addressing mainstream supplements I think are BS.
Melatonin for circadian-rhythm re-alignment.
Melatonin is a primary regulator of the body’s circadian rhythm. Endogenously synthesized and secreted primarily by the pineal gland, melatonin steadily rises as the night progresses and eventually causes sleep; but only if your circadian rhythm is in tact. Unfortunately for all of us, according to Gooley et al., (2011) exposure to light such as from a smartphone, almost always, (99% of test subjects), halts melatonin secretion while decreasing the total duration it is secreted.
In today’s day and age, we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such as our phones, tablets and computers, which emit light, specifically from the blue spectrum that wreak havoc on our sleep as well as our circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle). Unsurprisingly, research by Leproult et al., (2014) indicated that circadian rhythm misalignment resulted in significant increases in insulin resistance and markers of inflammation, revealing the importance of having a normal sleep/wake cycle.
Fortunately, oral melatonin supplementation can aid in ameliorating these negative side effects and potentially fix a misaligned circadian rhythm. Studies such as those by Celinski et al., (2011), and Konturek et al., (2010), indicate that supplementing does increase plasma melatonin concentrations, potentially leading to an amended circadian rhythm. In addition, melatonin has not been shown to be toxic, nor does it lead to tolerance. In fact, it may increase benefits the longer you use it (Ferracioli-Oda et al., 2013).
Fortunately, melatonin supplementation has not yet been shown to cause dependency, meaning that if you stop taking it, your body won’t produce any less endogenous melatonin. However, if you take high doses (> 10mg) every night, there is still a chance that it could negatively effect sleep if you immediately cease taking it. As for dosage, it’s always a good idea to start small and increase as needed. There are also other purported benefits in terms of health with regard to supplementing with melatonin, and I will touch on those in later posts, so stay tuned.
Finally, melatonin has been shown to increase secretion of growth hormone (Forsling et al., 1999). This is compounded when taken on an empty stomach and during sleep. Anecdotally, I have found that when I am injured and take extra melatonin on an empty stomach, it seems that my injury healing is expedited. Again, this is anecdotal and hypothetical, but the increased injury repair could potentially be due to increased growth hormone secretion. Further empirical research is certainly suggested.
Even though the following is not a supplement per se, another measure you can take to help mitigate negative effects of blue light on melatonin protection is installing the application “f.lux” on both your mobile device and computer. Unfortunately, this application cannot be installed on an iPhone as of right now, but can be installed on most if not all computers (including mac) and android phones. This app takes your GPS coordinates and slowly reduces blue light emission from your devices as the sun goes down, adding a soft red hue to the screen. Most people including myself use a phone and computer into the late night hours. By taking this step you can at least potentially help your melatonin production slightly.
- Celinski, K., Konturek, P. C., Konturek, S. J., Slomka, M., Cichoz-Lach, H., Brzozowski, T., & Bielanski, W. (2011). Effects of melatonin and tryptophan on healing of gastric and duodenal ulcers with Helicobacter pylori infection in humans. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology: An Official Journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 62(5), 521–526.
- Ferracioli-Oda, E., Qawasmi, A., & Bloch, M. H. (2013). Meta-analysis: melatonin for the treatment of primary sleep disorders. PloS One, 8(5), e63773. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063773
- Forsling, M. L., Wheeler, M. J., & Williams, A. J. (1999). The effect of melatonin administration on pituitary hormone secretion in man. Clinical Endocrinology, 51(5), 637–642.
- Gooley, J. J., Chamberlain, K., Smith, K. A., Khalsa, S. B. S., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., Van Reen, E., … Lockley, S. W. (2011). Exposure to room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin onset and shortens melatonin duration in humans. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 96(3), E463–472. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2010-2098
- Konturek, P. C., Konturek, S. J., Celinski, K., Slomka, M., Cichoz-Lach, H., Bielanski, W., & Reiter, R. J. (2010). Role of melatonin in mucosal gastroprotection against aspirin-induced gastric lesions in humans. Journal of Pineal Research, 48(4), 318–323.