What was once a niche market has now exploded into one of the most popular fitness supplements used by virtually anyone even remotely interested in building muscle, losing fat, and boosting performance.
Like protein powder and pre-workout, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) supplements are a staple in any athlete or bodybuilder's diet—they're basically a rite of passage in the sports nutrition world.
But there's a specific reason athletes turn to BCAA supplements when they're working towards building muscle and maximizing performance, and it's an area where other supplements may fall short.
Whether you are protein-restricting, training in a fasted state, or following a ketogenic diet, BCAAs may be your saving grace when it comes to maintaining muscle.
Let's dive into the world of BCAAs, why they should be part of your training stack, and where to find the best vegan BCAA.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs are a group of three amino acids—l-leucine, l-isoleucine, and l-valine—that have been isolated from the other six essential amino acids because of their potent role in muscle growth and repair.
In contrast to the other amino acids, the BCAAs are unique in that they are largely metabolized extrahepatically in skeletal muscle 1.
If you aren't familiar with amino acids, functional proteins—the building blocks of your body—comprise various combinations of 20 amino acids.
11 of these are non-essential and can be synthesized in the body from precursor amino acids, while the remaining nine are essential (which leucine, isoleucine, and valine are part of), meaning the body cannot synthesize them. They must be obtained exogenously through either diet or supplementation.
Because the three branched-chain amino acids are said to play such an influential role in building muscle, they've been isolated to create vegan BCAA supplements that are claimed to make a massive difference in the body's ability to grow, perform, and recover.
We'll get to the benefits of vegan BCAA supplements shortly.
A Short History
In skeletal muscle, leucine, isoleucine, and valine serve as an important energy substrate during periods of intense physical activity or stress, but they also serve as precursors for synthesizing other amino acids and proteins 2.
Originally, BCAAs were researched for their anabolic role in various catabolic disease states, as well as their potential for preventing encephalopathy (damage) in liver failure, but more research into the BCAAs has promoted them as a beneficial plant-based nutritional supplement in the fitness world.
One of the interesting things that most people don't know about the BCAAs is that they significantly influence glutamine metabolism; glutamine is an important amino acid required for the health of many rapidly dividing cells, especially those of the gut and immune system 2.
The role of gut health in performance and recovery is a story for another day, but without proper gut health and immune function, you're not going to be able to achieve the results you want in or out of the gym.
However, where amino acid supplements have been popularized is due to the role in protein homeostasis in skeletal muscle 3.
Studies going back several decades observed that the concentration of leucine, one of the BCAAs, in muscle cells played an important role in regulating muscle protein turnover; higher concentrations of leucine were associated with reduced muscle protein breakdown 4. Several studies since then have also supported this finding.
But to take a step backward for a second, the reason vegan BCAAs have boomed in the sports nutrition world is because for MPS to occur, all the essential amino acids must be present.
Because leucine plays such a significant role in skeletal muscle homeostasis, it's assumed that supplementing with a blend of pure essential amino acids equates to greater availability of the ones needed to support muscle growth and recovery.
All in all, this theory makes sense, so let's dig into the benefits of BCAA supplements.
The Benefits Of Vegan BCAA Supplements
Based on their role in MPS, one of the benefits of a good vegan BCAA supplement is pretty obvious, but they actually contribute to far more than just boosting muscle growth and strength.
1. Enhance Muscle Growth
Like we said before, leucine plays a major role in regulating the turnover of muscle protein.
Studies have found that infusion of BCAAs help to enhance use as oxidative fuel, but they've also found that branched-chain amino acid ingestion appears to stimulate the synthesis of glutamine and alanine, which are then exported to the liver to form glucose (energy) and to the gut as an energy substrate.
Of the leucine taken up by muscle, roughly 40% is accumulated and enters the free amino acid pool, 20% is incorporated into proteins, and 40% is oxidized for fuel 5.
Hence, BCAAs substitute as an important metabolic fuel during periods of fasting.
Alanine, which is synthesized de novo by muscle, becomes an important precursor for hepatic gluconeogenesis; alanine is largely derived from the BCAA valine, so as expected, ingestion of a BCAA supplement helps to stimulate MPS and inhibit protein degradation, thereby contributing to the regulation of muscle protein turnover 6.
But in terms of contributing to MPS, let's jump back to leucine for a moment. Leucine plays a massive role in muscle protein turnover because it stimulates MPS and inhibits protein degradation through various mechanisms involving the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway.
According to research, the anabolic effects of BCAAs are likely to be mediated through changes in signaling pathways controlling protein synthesis.
Without getting too technical, MPS involves phosphorylation of mTOR, which subsequently activates the 70-kD S6 protein kinase (p70 S6 kinase) and the eukaryotic initiation factor 4E-binding protein 1 8.
With that said, taking just a vegan BCAA supplement alone hoping to get a superior muscle-building advantage sadly won't work because in order for your body to build functional proteins, it needs all 20 essential amino acids.
However, studies support the role of leucine-rich supplements to enhance MPS after resistance training by activating the mTOR pathway, which eventually affects translation initiation and elongation of proteins 9-11.
So, regardless of how often you take vegan BCAA supplements, consuming adequate dietary protein is also just as important.
2. Boost Performance and Stamina
Have you ever powered so hard through your workout only to fatigue during the last few sets? It sucks, and it's completely disappointing.
Having something like beta-alanine in your pre-workout can help to protect against the dreaded effects of muscle fatigue, but a vegan BCAA supplement can also play a role in maintaining strength and preventing fatigue.
When fatigue sets in, there are a few compounds you can point blame to: 5-HT (serotonin), lactate, and ammonia.
As you progress through strenuous exercise, central fatigue creeps in partly due to an increase in levels of lactic acid and ammonia in muscles, but also because of increasing concentrations of serotonin in the brain; serotonin is derived from the precursor amino acid tryptophan.
During exercise, plasma concentrations of tryptophan to l-leucine, l-isoleucine, and l-valine increase, which means that more tryptophan is taken up by the brain and converted into serotonin 12; more serotonin equals quicker onset of fatigue.
However, the theory behind how vegan BCAA supplements help to reduce central fatigue lies in transport across the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Amino acids require specific transporter proteins to enter the brain.
But because larger amino acids like the three BCAA use the same transport proteins as tryptophan to enter the brain (tryptophan is also a relatively small amino acid), increasing plasma concentrations of these amino acids increases transport competition and may reduce tryptophan uptake and the subsequent synthesis of 5-HT, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue.
A 2013 study on the effects of BCAA supplementation on fatigue and markers of muscle damage found that participants taking a BCAA supplement had lower levels of serotonin (5-HT), creatine kinase (CK), and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) 13.
Results suggest that supplementing with BCAAs pre-, intra-, and post-workout may help to attenuate the release of fatigue substances during endurance exercise that interfere with exercise performance and subsequently reduce the extent of muscle damage incurred, which is seen through decreasing concentrations of muscle-damaging substances like CK, LDH, and ammonia.
3. Accelerate Recovery
If you've ever done a harder than usual workout, you've probably paid for it for the following few days; the ease of movements we take for granted isn't so easy when every single muscle in your body is sore.
That's called DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness. While the exact mechanism isn't known, it's thought that lactic acid accumulation, muscle spasms, connective tissue damage, muscle damage, inflammation, and enzyme efflux all play a role 14.
DOMS can affect athletic performance by impeding joint range of motion, shock attenuation, and peak torque.
It may also alter muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns, which can cause unaccustomed stress on muscle ligaments and tendons, further contributing to the problem.
But that's where vegan BCAA supplements come into the picture.
For people who regularly take part in strenuous exercise and their recovery mechanisms are not up to par, the degree of damage and discomfort may compile over time and become chronic, which means that supplements to improve recovery become a make-or-break kind of deal.
Amino acids, whether they're in the form of protein, pure essential amino acids, or both, show potential as an effective intervention for enhancing recovery by reducing protein degradation and/or muscle enzyme release, decreasing skeletal muscle damage in response to resistance training, reducing muscle soreness, mitigating central fatigue, and speeding up muscle recovery post-exercise 15.
Several studies have shown positive benefits on recovery following consumption of BCAAs 15, 16:
- Reduced muscle soreness 48- and 72-hours post-exercise, which may be attributed to enhanced glutamine production from BCAA degradation
- Lower serum creatine kinase (CK) levels
- Reduced creatine kinase (CK) efflux
- Reduced residual muscle soreness
- Improved recovery of muscle function
By providing greater substrate bioavailability to enhance protein synthesis, vegan BCAAs can reduce the extent of secondary muscle damage associated with strenuous resistance training.
4. Preserve Muscle Mass
The ability of these three amino acids to preserve lean muscle mass sounds logical, but the studies to back it up aren't conclusive or consistent.
However, it's quite simple to understand that by enhancing muscle protein synthesis and reduced muscle breakdown, they would also help maintain current muscle levels.
This holds true especially for people training in fasted states who want to continue training without the risk of compromising lean mass; supplementing with BCAAs may help safeguard you against that.
While some studies support a high-quality vegan BCAA supplement to prevent muscle protein breakdown and maintain an anabolic state 17, research is still largely consistent with human trials.
Finding The Best Vegan BCAA Supplement
What To Avoid In Vegan BCAAs
- Artificial Colors and Flavors. Branched-chain amino acids are notorious for the most obscure and delicious flavors, turning some neon green or bright blue when mixed with water. But while they may taste delicious, there's nothing natural or healthy about drinking a neon-colored drink, regardless of what it is.
- Artificial Sweeteners. Just like the color and flavor issue, artificial sweeteners are in the vast majority of vegan BCAA supplements because, to be completely honest, if you've ever had an unflavored essential amino acid supplement, they're pretty gag-worthy, and they smell like cat food. Artificial sweeteners are a big problem because they trigger the insulin response in your body, and when there's no glucose to shuttle into cells, the bombardment of insulin can actually desensitize insulin receptors and increase the risk of insulin resistance. Not to mention that they contribute to altered gut microbiota and dysbiosis 18.
- Animal by-products. Keep in mind that while BCAAs are inherently vegan-friendly, some BCAA products will contain things like gelatin which are derived from animals, and are not suitable for people following a vegan diet. Be cautious of the ingredients and make sure you're scanning to look for anything you don't recognize.
What To Look For In Vegan BCAAs
- Proper BCAA Ratios. Because leucine plays such a key role in stimulating MPS, you want branched-chain amino acids that provide the appropriate ratios of l-leucine to l-isoleucine and l-valine. If it's anything less than a 2:1:1 ratio, leave it alone.
- 100% Natural. That means no artificial anything—colors, flavors, sweeteners, or anything else that can be synthesized in a lab. If your BCAA says 'natural flavors' but lists nothing else, it's probably a sign that you should avoid it.
- Pills Over Powder. As you can probably tell, there are a lot of issues surrounding vegan BCAA powders. If you want to avoid those, opt for a capsule instead of a powder. It's equally effective, and you completely avoid all the health concerns.
The Performance Lab Advantage: The Best Vegan BCAA
There are a few key areas where Performance Lab BCAA takes the top rank as the best vegan BCAA:
We'll be honest when we say that there are many ineffective vegan BCAA supplements on the market.
Whether they lack proper dosage or are filled with crappy ingredients, you don't want to waste your money and time on things like that.
At Performance Lab, we know and understand those struggles, which is why we've created a vegan-friendly product that surpasses everything else on the market to provide you with the purest, most effective, and best vegan BCAA supplement with the cleanest delivery method and the most scientifically backed dose to help you build muscle better and give you the best results possible.
Performance Lab BCAA is an ultramodern supplement designed to enhance all-around athletic performance and power.
It features the optimal research-backed 2:1:1 ratio of L-leucine to L-valine and L-isoleucine in two unique forms: Ajipure® made with Ferment-A-Pure technology and Performance Lab's own fermented NutriGenesis® BCAAs.
BCAA delivers stim-free, advanced form foundational support for all fitness and strength programs, besides being muscle-calibrated for optimal growth and recovery, helping you to bounce back faster and stronger.
All of this delivered in vegan-friendly NutriCaps®–a clean, convenient alternative to artificial flavors, sweeteners, and synthetics found in most other vegan BCAA supplements.
BCAAs are one of those supplements that has earned its ranks. Whether you struggle with building muscle training in a fasted state or experience debilitating muscle soreness after hard workouts and need some solid help with muscle recovery, investing in a quality vegan BCAA supplement may help to push your body to the next level and get you on the road to achieving the results you're looking for.
The research is there, the results are there, and all you have to do is click 'buy' on the best vegan BCAAs on the market.
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- TA VanDusseldorp, KA Escobar, KE Johnson, et al. Effect of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Recovery Following Acute Eccentric Exercise. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1389.
- G Howatson, M Hoad, S Goodall, J Tallent, PG Bell, DN French. Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9:20.
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