The words “branched chain amino acids” may sound like part of a dull lesson from organic chemistry class. If you are a woman over 40, however, you want to know about these little chains of power and their potential to help you retain muscle, recover from exercise faster, and maintain an active lifestyle and fitness level as you age.
To understand the benefits of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) for women, we need to start with our protein needs. Baseline recommendations for protein intake are 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but women who exercise regularly likely need more. The National Academy of Sports Medicine suggests that if you are active, getting 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight is optimal.1
What is the connection between protein and branched chain amino acids? Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are used by the body as an energy source, for repair or building body tissue such as muscle, or for energy storage. Aminos are divided into two groups. “Non-essential” are the amino acids our body can make itself, and “essential” are the ones we need to receive from our diet. Of the nine essential amino acids we must consume, three of them—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—fall into the category of branched chain amino acids.
The biggest benefit of BCAAs is immediate access to their power. BCAAs are unusual in that they are primarily metabolized directly in the muscle, not the liver. This makes them a readily accessible source of energy.2
But what makes BCAAs so helpful for women over 40? Just north of that big birthday celebration, women begin to contend with hormonal shifts that can put a damper on an active lifestyle. Decreased sleep quality, weight gain, wonky metabolism, mental fogginess, and moodiness are just a few of the complex variables their bodies may begin to experience. Equally concerning are metabolic changes which intensify as age progresses: reduced ability to build or maintain muscle tissue, lack of ready access to energy, and a lengthening recovery time after exercise or injury.
BCAAs may be able to help. One job of branched chain amino acids is to trigger protein synthesis and inhibit the breakdown of muscle cells. They can also be key players in improving lean body mass, encouraging weight loss and fat burning, and providing doses of energy during and after workouts.3,7
BCAAs can also reduce muscle soreness post-workout. That may not seem like a big deal, but consider this: Post-workout soreness can cause you to think you overdid it and thus decrease the intensity and frequency of subsequent workouts. Long-term, lighter exercise will reduce lean body mass and strength. For women in their fifth, sixth, or later decades, remaining strong and active is an important investment towards late-stage independence and quality of life.
Many women over 40 also complain of not being able to push their workouts as hard as they would like. They feel they lack energy over the course of a harder or longer workout. There are a few reasons we “poop out” earlier as we age. One is a decreased ability to transport oxygen to the muscles. Oxygen transport drops 10 percent per decade after 30.11 But low levels of circulating BCAAs is another reason; these molecules are broken down during exercise and used as an energy source. This decline in circulating BCAAs leads to an increase in serotonin concentration in the brain, which is thought to partially contribute to fatigue and even muscle weakness during exercise.10 BCAAs, taken before or during a workout, both provide a source of immediate energy to the muscle cells and reduce the sensation of fatigue.
Higher blood serum levels of BCAAs may also be important on a cellular level as a direct indicator of longevity, according to a recent study. It appears that BCAAs potentially improvethe health of the cells’ mitochondria, which you can think of as little predictors of lifespan. Their health is a clear indicator of the health you will experience in your later years.4
Although the benefits of supplemental BCAAs in women over 40 is clear, you might ask, “Can I just increase my whole-food protein intake?” If you are sedentary or work out infrequently, then yes. BCAAs are found in high-protein foods like chicken, beef, eggs, salmon, and whey. Eating more of these foods is sufficient.
If you have an active lifestyle, however, consuming a BCAA supplement just before a workout might provide additional benefits. Remember, free-form BCAAs are an immediate source of energy. When you eat complete proteins in food, your digestive system must break down those proteins into the different amino acids and shuttle them along their individual processing pathways, taking longer to access the BCAAs. For quicker energy, muscle strengthening, and recovery, taking supplements can make excellent sense.5 And remember, no supplement takes the place of real food. BCAA supplementation should be used to complement lots of healthy, complete, protein-rich foods.
If you decide to supplement with BCAAs, when should you take them for the best results? Recommendations vary, but most theorists agree that your goals should determine whether you consume BCAAs before, during, or after a workout. If you want to boost the availability of energy during a workout, I recommend consuming 5 to 8 grams about 30 minutes before your activity. If you are looking for recovery help, 5 to 8 grams immediately after exercise may be better suited to your needs.2,6
If the introduction of supplemental BCAAs helps women over 40 to maintain lean muscle, have more energy for workouts, lose weight, and recover from exercise more quickly, then these women may be more likely to maintain a regular fitness regimen. And more consistent and intense workout routines will create a positive cascade of benefits that further help manage many of the physiologic shifts of aging that occur after the big 4-0.
1) Jones J. “NASM Study Guide Chapter 17 – Nutrition.” The Healthy Gamer. 15 December 2017. http://www.thehealthygamer.com/2013/06/18/nasm-study-guide-chapter-17-nutrition/
2) Forsythe C. “Should Women Take BCAAs?” Girls Gone Strong. 15 December 2017. https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/nutrition/supplements/bcaas/
3) Cheng Y, Meng Q, Wang C, Li H, Huang Z, et al. “Leucine Deprivation Decreases Fat Mass by Stimulation of Lipolysis in White Adipose Tissue and Upregulation of Uncoupling Protein 1 (UCP1) in Brown Adipose Tissue.” Diabetes. Vol 59, January 2010 .
4) Valerio A, D’Antona G, Nisoli E. “Branched-Chain Amino Acids, Mitochondrial Biogenesis, and Healthspan: an Evolutionary Perspective. Aging (Albany, NY). 2011;3(5):464-478. 5) Applegate L. “Over 40? You Need More Protein for Muscle Recovery.” Runner’s World. 15 December 2017. https://www.runnersworld.com/fridge-wisdom/over-40-you-need-more-protein-for-muscle-recovery.
6) Deer RR, Volpi E. “Protein Intake and Muscle Function in Older Adults.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2015;18(3):248-253. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000162.
7) “The Woman’s Guide to Supplementation. Oxygen. 15 December 2017. https://www.oxygenmag.com/nutrition/womans-guide-supplementation-11288
8) “The Best Time to Take BCAA: Powder and Tablets.” ICON Nutrition. 15 December 2017 https://www.iconnutrition.com/blog/the-best-time-to-take-bcaa-powder-and-tablets/
9) “11 Benefits of BCAAs.” Amino Acid Studies. 15 December 2017 http://aminoacidstudies.org/bcaa/
10) Newsholme EA, Acworth IN, Blomstrand E. “Amino Acids, Brain Neurotransmitters and a Functional Link between Muscle and Brain that Is Important in Sustained Exercise.” Advances in Myochemistry, 1987:1, 127-133.
11) Minson C. “How Does Aging Affect Athletic Performance? The Conversation. 15 December 2017. https://theconversation.com/how-does-aging-affect-athletic-performance-36051