Your Anti-Catabolic Cornerstone
Lose Fat, Not Muscle!
By Brett Hall, RD
It has been my experience that there are very few “absolutes” in this world. Most things can be argued one way or another, depending upon your perspective. This makes for a world where we spend a lot of time in the “grey” zone, making the best decisions we can based on the information we have. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. That’s just life.
And the world of nutrition supplementation is no different; there is a lot of grey in that world. However, a few products are out there that are bright white. They have stood the test of time, been documented to be effective by multiple research institutions, offer all upsides with no risk…and they do it all for a reasonable cost. One such shining star is Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA).
The Big Bang of BCAA Research
BCAAs have been studied by dozens of the top scientific institutions in the world over the past 4 decades. It all began in 1979 when a group of scientists tested BCAA supplementation in rats to assess their ability to preserve muscle mass during sickness and injury.9 The results were so promising that research began in humans shortly thereafter. Malnourished cancer patients who were being fed intravenously were some of the first human subjects. One early study of these patients found that BCAA supplementation led to a 77% increase in whole body protein (muscle) synthesis.1 And that was accomplished in patients lying in bed, with no physical activity. Pretty impressive.
Well, it wasn’t long before knowledge of this research drifted into the sports nutrition world. One of the first breakthrough studies, applying the use of BCAAs in athletes, was performed by sports scientists at the Institute of Human Physiology in Verona, Italy. Researchers there wanted to test the effects of BCAAs on conditioned athletes trekking through a mountainous area, at an average altitude of 10,000 feet, for 21 days. Usually, due to extreme physical exertion and hypoxia (lack of oxygen), trekkers would lose lots of body mass (much of it muscle) during a trek of this length. But what the researchers found was nothing short of miraculous. Not only did the trekkers taking the BCAAs not lose ANY muscle…their lean mass actually increased over the 21 day trek. Amazingly, it seemed the BCAAs helped their bodies preferentially use fat as fuel while preserving muscle, resulting in the BCAA trekkers losing 11.7% of body fat, while gaining 1.5% of solid muscle, over the 21 days.10
Needless to say, this research opened the sports science flood gates. Over the next 4 years, no fewer than a dozen BCAA research projects were completed by sports scientists. These studies documented not only the muscle-sparing effects of BCAAs, but also their ability to enhance cognitive function during exercise11 and even suppress lactic acid formation during intense activity.12
The Expanding BCAA Universe
Fast forward to 2012, where there are now over 100 research studies documenting the ability of BCAAs to increase protein synthesis, decrease muscle breakdown and enhance fat loss.
In one of the latest studies, published only months ago in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers stated, “BCAA administered before and following damaging resistance exercise reduces indices of muscle damage and accelerates recovery in resistance trained males.”2 On top of this they found significant reductions in muscle soreness, and an increase in maximum muscle power output.
Suffice it to say, BCAAs are the real deal. If you aren’t using them as part of your fitness or physique enhancement regimen you’re leaving a lot of fat on your body and muscle in the jar. So get out there and get yourself a BCAA supplement today. Your body will thank you tomorrow.
But (and there always seems to be a “but” doesn’t there), how do you know what BCAA supplement to choose? Most people, even those who have vast experience with supplements, would answer that question by saying, “It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same.” And you know what? They would be 99% correct: out of 100 BCAA supplements on the market, 99 are going to be virtually identical. They’re going to have a 2:1:1 ratio of the three BCAAs, namely L-leucine: L-isoleucine: L-valine, and the form of the BCAAs they use will be in their “free-form.” Free-form means it’s just the plain amino acid, by itself, not bound to anything. And I’ll share a little insider’s secret with you…most of these 2:1:1 blends of free-form BCAAs, sold by 100 different companies under different brand names, come from the same exact supplier. They’re basically the same product with different names.
So what, you might ask, is the problem with just picking one of the 99? They obviously work. Why not just pick one and go? Well, you could definitely do that and gain some noticeable benefits. But if you’re going to spend your hard earned cash on a new supplement, and you’re going to take the time to consume these anabolic aminos 2 to 4 times per day (which is optimal), why not find the product that will give you the best bang for your buck? Using that 1 in a 100 product will make a difference.
But I’m not going to tell you about that product. Why? Because being 1 out of 100 is for the other guys; for the guys trying really hard, but not hard enough. Let’s take it to the next level and go for 1 in 1,000. That’s where you want to be, and that’s where I’m gonna take you.
Where No Man Has Gone Before
As a nutritional supplement product developer, with 23 years of experience under my belt, the lack of initiative I see in the supplement marketplace never ceases to amaze and confuse me. I mean, come on people – we have the internet, new studies pertaining to new sport specific nutrients are published weekly, universities are begging for research ideas and funds, new delivery methods are being developed around the clock – so why rest on your laurels and create the same old, tired products year in and year out? I just don’t get it. The excitement for me is staying on the edge, working with companies who want to be the best, offer the latest and greatest. And that’s why it’s so rewarding to work with Bio Trust Nutrition. These guys just get it.
Anyway, enough of my ranting…back to BCAAs. As I mention above, a ton of research on BCAA supplementation has been performed over the past 40 years. And if you choose to really dig into this research (and I mean ALL of the research), you can gain a very deep understanding of how these special aminos work in the body and how best to implement their use to maximize their effects, namely, preserving and enhancing muscle growth while shedding body fat. From this understanding, it is possible to improve upon the “tried and true” BCAA formula. And that is exactly what we have done. Let me explain.
For the Love of L-Leucine
You’ll remember from earlier that virtually all BCAA products on the market provide a 2:1:1 blend of L-leucine: L-isoleucine: L-valine. With this ratio, L-leucine makes up 50% of the BCAA blend. However, what might be surprising to the 99% out there is that this is not the optimal ratio. Recent research clearly indicates that L-leucine is the key anabolic driver for the BCAA trio. In order to optimize the muscle-stimulating effects of BCAAs, L-leucine must be present in a concentration higher than 50%. Bet nobody’s told you that before. Well, it’s true. And here are a few studies to back it up.
In a study conducted by the U.S. Army in 2011, researchers evaluated the effects of 2 different levels of L-leucine, in an essential amino acid blend (this includes BCAAs and other aminos…but the L-leucine is still the anabolic driver), on muscle damage and recuperation secondary to strenuous exercise. In one group they used the standard level of L-leucine and in the other group they doubled that level. They found the higher concentration to be significantly more anabolic, stimulating muscle recuperation and growth far more quickly. Researchers summed up their findings in the following statement: “These findings suggest that increasing the concentration of leucine in an EAA supplement consumed during steady state exercise elicits a greater MPS [Muscle Protein Synthesis] response during recovery.”3 The details are that muscle protein synthesis following exercise was 33% higher in the enhanced L-leucine group, and whole body protein breakdown was significantly reduced. This means you build muscle faster and lose it more slowly with more L-leucine in the picture.
Another unique benefit of enhancing the level of L-leucine in a BCAA formula is the effect it has on belly fat. It was found that by combining exercise with moderate calorie restriction…and an L-leucine enriched BCAA supplement…subjects were actually able to lose fat in their stomach region preferentially! In this fascinating study scientists stated, “BCAA supplementation (76% leucine), in combination with moderate energy restriction, has been shown to induce significant and preferential losses of visceral [belly] adipose tissue and to allow maintenance of a high level of performance.”4
It is clear that in order to maximize the muscle building and belly-fat burning effects of a BCAA supplement, L-leucine must be included in levels higher than 50%. That is why you will find a 4:1:1 ratio of L-leucine: L-isoleucine: L-valine in our BCAA Matrix™ formula. This provides 70% of the BCAAs as L-leucine, giving it a significant anabolic edge.
The Bugaboo of BCAA Bioavailability
Now let’s take a look at how BCAAs are absorbed into the body. Most people never consider how different foods or supplements are absorbed. Most of us just figure that everything we eat gets digested and absorbed 100%. Well, I’m here to tell you, this is simply not the case…especially when it comes to BCAAs. Let me explain.
Out of all 21 amino acids that make up human muscle, there are 3 different types. These are “neutral,” “dibasic,” and “acidic” amino acids. For each of these amino acid types, there is a distinct intestinal transport mechanism, which is responsible for moving the amino acids from the gut into the blood stream. When you eat a whole protein source, like chicken for example, that protein is broken down into peptides (small chains of 2 to 4 amino acids) and elemental (free-form) amino acids in the stomach. Now, the free-form amino acids tend to be fairly evenly distributed amongst the 3 different types. This allows them to be absorbed fairly efficiently, using 3 separate transport mechanisms without overloading any one transport system.
That’s whole proteins, but BCAAs are a different animal. The issue with BCAAs is that they are all “neutral” amino acids, using the same transport system (namely, the monoamino monocarboxylic system…but we’ll just call it the neutral transport system).5 When we take a BCAA supplement we ingest anywhere from 5 to 10 grams of these neutral amino acids, which can (and do) overwhelm the neutral transport system. The end result: the intestine simply can’t absorb all of the BCAAs; they go sailing through the intestine to end up creating gas and bloating in your colon, only to eventually be lost to the porcelain throne. This is one of the main reasons you have to take so much of other BCAA products to get results, and why they can cause some ugly GI effects. Only a fraction of the BCAAs are effectively absorbed into the body.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. New research shows that BCAAs in a “peptide” form (remember these from above?) use a separate transport system from the free-form amino acids. We’ll call it the Peptide Transport System. Not only that, but they actually seem to be absorbed more efficiently in this form.6 Of course, once word of this research got out, a bunch of companies started making pure peptide BCAA products. But again, they were short-sighted and unimaginative, and failed to take all of the existing research into account. If they had, they would have realized that further research conclusively shows that the Peptide Transport System can also become overwhelmed when inundated with too many peptides at one time.7 This saturation of the system causes the same problem faced by free-form BCAAs used alone…wasted aminos, discomfort and wasted anabolic opportunity.
Now let’s dig even a little deeper. Let’s get our nutritional geek on. The research behind this next form of BCAA is pretty obscure, and only the most dedicated formulating geek (a.k.a. me) would ferret this out.
This discovery came back in 1989 at the UCLA Medical Center. Apparently the doctors in the pediatric department there were faced with a very challenging case when a child was brought in with a genetic abnormality called Hartnup disease. In this disease the neutral transport system simply doesn’t work well, or at all. This child was very sick and suffering from an extreme deficiency of L-tryptophan (another neutral amino acid like the BCAAs). If they couldn’t normalize his L-tryptophan levels the child would be in big trouble. They tried supplementing the child with huge doses of free-form L-tryptophan, but to no avail. It simply wouldn’t move into the body. S, they came up with a radical idea. They decided to “wrap” the amino acid in a fat-soluble coating called an “ethyl ester.” They hoped this would fool the intestine into thinking this was a fat instead of a neutral amino acid, thus allowing it to be absorbed through a lipophilic (literally “fat loving”) transport system, totally bypassing the neutral transport system. And guess what, it worked perfectly. The child absorbed every scrap of L-tryptophan and recovered fully within the month.8
I offer this protracted explanation not only to show that there is a third form of BCAA that can be used to enhance absorption of BCAAs, but also to demonstrate that if you look hard enough you can find “out of the box” answers in the most unlikely places.
Of course, I’m not the only nutritional geek out there, so a couple of other companies noticed this research and began making pure ethyl ester BCAA products. But, the same problem occurs with these products…the single lipophilic transport system becomes overwhelmed and BCAAs are lost.
So, by now I’m guessing you’re saying to yourself, “Uh…why doesn’t someone just put all three kinds of BCAAs into one product? Wouldn’t that avoid overwhelming any one transport system and optimize absorption?” To that I say, “YUP!” So that’s what we did.
Now combine those three forms of BCAAs with an enhance level of L-leucine, and what do you have? Well, we like to call it the Holy Trinity of BCAA Bioavailability. But that sounded a bit presumptuous, so we decided on BCAA Matrix™ instead.
So, whether you’re a newbie to the power of BCAAs, or a grizzled old BCAA veteran, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what you notice using the BCAA Matrix™ product. Faster muscle growth, greater fat loss, and no GI distress…guaranteed!