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Do You Need to Take an Amino Acid / BCAA Supplement?

One product we sell a ton of are amino acids or BCAA's. This is a very popular category for manufacturers and there are a ton of them to choose from. Seems every company has their own patented ratio of BCAA's which can make it hard to choose. But, the big question is, do you really need them? Does every one need to take a BCAA supplement? John and Glenn decided to dive into this question. The answer may surprise you.

Do You Need to Take Amino Acids?


John:              Hello everybody, this is John and Glenn with, today we're going to talk to you guys about BCAA's. We've done videos on BCAA's or branched-chain amino acids in the past, you know, specific products. We get a lot of questions all the time so we just decided, let's just make a video to clarify our position on BCAA's, what they are and what three amino acids are the branched-chain amino acids. They're three of the nine essential amino acids.

Glenn:            Leucine, isoleucine and valine.

John:              Yeah, then leucine is ketogenic, isoleucine is both ketogenic and glucogenic, and valine is glucogenic, which basically means if it's ketogenic, it can be converted to ketone bodies, and if it's glucogenic it can be converted to glucose via the process of gluconeogenesis. So, that's those three amino acids. They make up about a third of muscle tissue in humans, so of the protein within humans, if you were to look at the amino acid sequence, about a third of it is made of BCAA's, so they're pretty abundant in muscle tissue. That's part of why it has become so popular. What are some rich sources of BCAA's?

Glenn:            Whey protein, casein protein, those are probably the two highest.

John:              So we get a lot of questions, "Hey guys should I take BCAA's, or why should I take them?" and so on and so forth. It really depends on what you're doing, what your goals are, and things like that. So real quick, let's just run through some of the actual benefits that we know of from BCAA's, obviously we covered the fact that it makes up a large percentage of muscle, so whey and casein are good results. Now, there's some evidence that shows that leucine, which seems to be the heavyweight of the three amino acids, we know it's basically what's responsible for activating the mTOR pathway, but specifically it may decrease appetite.

Glenn:            There are some studies showing it can decrease appetite. Also, going back to the leucine thing, you notice a lot of the BCAA formulas list the highest amount of leucine, like this is a 2:1:1 ratio of pure BCAA powder. There's some that are 4:1:1, 8:1:1, but the larger number is generally the leucine.

John:              What they've been used on is burn victims and people in hospitals, and they've had some success with people being able to take that sometimes intravenously, depending on the condition of the patient, but today we're just here to focus on otherwise healthy individuals, athletes, you know if you're trying to put on muscle, things like that. So, the real question is with BCAA's, this is the best way that I can explain it; we know that there's nine essential amino acids, this makes up three of them, let's say we're building a house and we have nine different bricks that we're building the house with, and we have a certain pattern that requires that of those nine bricks, three of them tend to occur more than the rest of them. So, we build our house and we get to the end, and we have all these extra of these three bricks, BCAA's, that we don't need because we decided to supplement or buy a bunch of extra bricks. It's rate-limiting, you only need so many of them; at some point you reach a critical mass. The question is, by supplementing a bunch of extra BCAA's, does that mean that the purported effects are just going to go up exponentially? Well, no, there's a limit. It's like priming a pump without fuel, there's only so much priming the protein pump without protein, you're just not going to get that benefit.

Glenn:            Exactly, plus you aren't getting the rest of the bricks needed to build that house, or let's say building muscle, you need those other essential amino acids to build the muscles.

John:              Exactly, and we know through research, if you peel through it, you tend to see that we know what the best remedy is, it's protein. It's peptide-bonded amino acids. Rather than trying to put together your own formulas, we know that peptide-bonded amino acids are what seems to benefit the most. Now, this isn't to deny benefits of branched-chain amino acids, because there's a ton, we know that, we can read the studies. We're not saying that, "Hey, cut branched-chain amino acids out of your diet, find proteins without them." That would be stupid because obviously you still need them, they are still essential amino acids, in other words. and your body can't make them, you have to get them from an exogenous source; aka your diet. So, we're not denying that, we're not saying leucine doesn't activate the mTOR pathway, which basically it's a cell signaler. It tells your body to turn on protein synthesis, basically. Well, other things do that, too. Insulin, so you take in some calories. We get a lot of questions, hey I'm on this weight gainer, serious mass or something, should I be taking BCAA's? Well, no, you're sucking down calories left and right, you're not in a hypocaloric state, a low calorie state where your body needs those extra calories, or needs to have the mTOR pathway turned on from BCAA's.

Glenn:            Yeah, because you're getting all these calories, you're getting all this protein coming into your body. Like we had said, rich sources would be whey and casein, and most people taking supplements are probably taking in whey and casein powder and getting a lot of protein and a lot of branched chains from that, their food sources. So, if you are in a hypercaloric, meaning excess calories, there's really not a need for BCAA's, whereas a hypo-, meaning you are taking in less calories, yes, maybe you're not getting in enough protein or maybe you're going long periods of time without meals, so there maybe some benefits there.

John:              Yeah, you can use them at that point, that would be one of the routes where we'd say "Hey, you're on a low-calorie diet, then that makes sense, if you want to use BCAA's that's fine." Now that's not your only, you have alternatives, you could also use some whey protein or something like that, but I could also understand why if you're about to go work out you might not want to suck down protein because you don't want too much blood allocated to your guts. So maybe the little bit more rapid absorption from the free-form amino acid may make sense, or you find some kind of hydrolyzed protein. So, that's one group that would benefit from BCAA's. Again, that's not the only thing you could take, like we said. Another couple groups would be vegetarians or vegans. You're probably not getting a very good amino acid profile in your diet if you're just vegan or vegetarian. Although a lot of those powders have improved, you may not even be using those powders so supplementing with BCAA's would probably be a good idea for those people.

Glenn:            Yeah, it gets you in the branched-chain amino acids. A lot of those are lacking in the plants

John:              A lot of their sources are not enough, because a lot of vegans or vegetarians they find that they piece together things to make complete proteins.

Glenn:            Yeah, a lot of vegan or vegetable protein sources you see are piecing together three or four different vegetable bases.

John:              A lot of them are actually fortifying with BCAA's on top of that, too, so you'll see that as well. So, we're not saying that those benefits don't exist, so we don't want to read comments, we're not denying that. We're trying to explain this is when they're useful, and there's a lot of hyperbole about research out there, like "Hey, I read that leucine does this." I'm sure it does, but you're also getting leucine in your protein, too, and it's best handled when you're getting all twenty amino acids, ideally. We tend to underscore the value of non-essential amino acids. Just because they're not essential doesn't mean you shouldn't get them in your diet. So taking in protein, and the protein shake, casein, things like that, we know there's a lot of benefits to that, and that's the most beneficial. You're better off doing that than saying "I'm just going to take the nine essential amino acids," and then forcing your body to have to make those other amino acids, which it can do, but why do that when you could just ingest them?

Glenn:            Another thing, too, is a lot of people think they're just going to take BCAA's and build all kinds of muscle, and like John had said earlier, taking BCAA's by themselves or in addition to everything else, you're not giving yourself all of the amino acids needed to build muscle. Like John had said, with a hypocaloric diet, low calories and things like that, while it stimulates the mTOR pathway it's not actually out there building the muscle. You need the other amino acids to build the muscles. So, it is something that yes, it can halt ketabolism, or muscle breakdown during workout, but if you're consuming a lot of calories, again, you're getting enough of these BCAA's.

John:              You're got it covered, and if you're on a desert island and we gave you water and BCAA's, you'd die because there are six other essential amino acids. You need the other ones. So, yeah, that pretty much covers it. We've covered all you guys' questions. When to take it, that's another one, as you said, sometimes throughout the day for somebody who's on those lower-calorie diets or vegetarian/vegan, you could throw it in with maybe your food, maybe you just want to mix it up. There's good flavored ones, and it doesn't hurt, by the way, just to throw them, if it is in your pre-workout or something you like to drink intra-workout, it doesn't hurt to have in there. So, you don't have to be like "Hey, I'm not going to get this because it has it in there." Don't let that be part of the criteria, just understand when you need it and when you don't. So, pre-workout, sometimes people like to sip on it during their workout, if you're on those lower-calorie diets, again if you're the guy who's going to come home and drink weight gainer after your workout, then don't bother. Just save your money. If you guys have any other questions on this, please, I know it's kind of a broad topic, I know we tried to go through it on more of a topical level but we're happy to answer more detailed questions. If you want to post them in the comments section of the video or in the blog, we're happy to answer them. Also you can check us out at We really appreciate you guys watching, thank you.

Glenn:            Thank you.

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