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There are 20 different amino acids that make up the thousands of different proteins in the human body.
Nine of the 20 are considered essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be made by your body and must be obtained through your diet.
Of the nine essential amino acids, three are the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine and valine.
“Branched-chain” refers to the chemical structure of BCAAs, which are found in protein-rich foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products. They are also a popular dietary supplement sold primarily in powder form.
Here are five proven benefits of BCAAs.
1. Increase Muscle Growth
One of the most popular uses of BCAAs is to increase muscle growth.
The BCAA leucine activates a certain pathway in the body that stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of making muscle (1, 2).
In one study, people who consumed a drink with 5.6 grams of BCAAs after their resistance workout had a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to those who consumed a placebo drink (3).
That being said, this increase in muscle protein synthesis is approximately 50% less than what was observed in other studies where people consumed a whey protein shake containing a similar amount of BCAAs (4, 5).
Whey protein contains all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle.
Therefore, while BCAAs can increase muscle protein synthesis, they can’t do so maximally without the other essential amino acids, such as those found in whey protein or other complete protein sources (6, 7).
2. Decrease Muscle Soreness
Some research suggests BCAAs can help decrease muscle soreness after a workout.
It’s not uncommon to feel sore a day or two after a workout, especially if your exercise routine is new.
This soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise and can last up to 72 hours (8).
While the exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood, researchers believe it’s the result of tiny tears in the muscles after exercise (9, 10).
BCAAs have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which may help reduce the length and severity of DOMS.
Several studies show that BCAAs decrease protein breakdown during exercise and decrease levels of creatine kinase, which is an indicator of muscle damage (11, 12, 13)
In one study, people who supplemented with BCAAs before a squat exercise experienced reduced DOMS and muscle fatigue compared to the placebo group (14).
Therefore, supplementing with BCAAs, especially before exercise, may speed up recovery time (15, 16).
3. Reduce Exercise Fatigue
Just as BCAAs may help decrease muscle soreness from exercise, they may also help reduce exercise-induced fatigue.
Everyone experiences fatigue and exhaustion from exercise at some point. How quickly you tire depends on several factors, including exercise intensity and duration, environmental conditions and your nutrition and fitness level (17).
Your muscles use BCAAs during exercise, causing levels in your blood to decrease. When blood levels of BCAAs decline, levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan in your brain increase (18).
In your brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, a brain chemical that is thought to contribute to the development of fatigue during exercise (19, 20, 21).
In two studies, participants who supplemented with BCAAs improved their mental focus during exercise, which is thought to result from the fatigue-reducing effect of BCAAs (22, 23).
However, this decrease in fatigue is unlikely to translate to improvements in exercise performance (24, 25).