Recently I penned an article for Paleo Magazine Insider. I was curious regarding the effects of branch chain amino acids on women over 40. This is the article that emerged from that curiosity. 

 READ THE PRETTY VERSION OF THE ARTICLE HERE – Flip forward a few pages of the online magazine. Page 6. 

The words “branch chain amino acids” ring like a bad flashback from college organic chemistry. But if you are a woman, and you are over forty, you are going to want to know about these little chains of power.

To understand branch chain amino acids (BCAA) for women, we need to start with women’s protein needs; it is more chicken breasts than you think. The general recommendations for protein intake are 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, but that is simply a baseline. If you exercise regularly you likely need to be consuming more. The National Academy Of Sport’s Medicine (NASM) suggests that if you are active, getting 1.2-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight is more effective for optimal functioning (1).  But what is the connection between protein and branch chain amino acids?

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids can be divided into two groups: “non-essential” are the amino acids our body can make itself and “essential” are the amino acids we need to receive from our diet. Of the nine essential amino acids, three of them, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, fall into the category called branch chain amino acids.  

BCAA’s are found in high protein foods like chicken, beef, eggs, salmon, and whey. The biggest coup of BCAA’s is you get immediate access to their power. BCAA’s bypass the digestive system and are immediately available in the bloodstream. This makes them a readily accessible source of energy (2).

But what makes BCAA’s essential for women over forty? Just north of that 40th birthday celebration women contend with impending hormonal shifts that accompany the grace of age. Quality of sleep, weight gain, wonky metabolism, mental fogginess, and moodiness are just a few of the complex conundrum of variables our bodies have the opportunity to endure.

Equally concerning, are the following changes after forty: slowing ability to build or even maintain muscle tissue, ready access to energy, inability to quickly recover from exercise, and poor capacity to avoid injury.

These are serious considerations as women work to protect an active lifestyle.  BCAA’s may be able to help. Branch chain amino acids’ basic job is to trigger protein synthesis and inhibit the breakdown of muscle cells. But they possess so much more talent. They can be a key player in improving lean body mass, encouraging weight loss and fat burning, and providing doses of energy during and after workouts. Wait; did I just say weight loss after forty? The branch chain amino acid, Leucine, has been shown to suppress hunger and boost metabolism. So yes; good news, you read correctly (3)(7).

BCAA’s can also reduce muscle soreness post-workout.  That may not seem like a big deal but consider this. When you have post-workout soreness, it can result in decreased intensity and frequency of subsequent workouts. Long-term, that decrease in frequency and intensity will reduce lean body mass and strength.  For women in their fourth, fifth, and decades beyond, remaining strong and active is potentially the most elemental factor in late-stage independence and quality of life. The positive effect of BCAA’s on post-workout soreness is a gem.

Many women over forty also complain of not being able to push their workouts as hard as they would like. Lack of energy over the course of a harder or longer workout is often the cause. There are a few reasons we “poop out” earlier as we age. One is our inability to transport oxygen to the muscles. Oxygen transport decreases 10% per decade after 30! (11).

Low circulating BCAAs is another reason.  BCAAs are broken down during exercise and used as an energy source.  A decline in circulating BCAAs leads to an increase in serotonin concentration in the brain, which is thought to partially contribute to fatigue during exercise (10). BCAAs, taken before or during a workout, provide immediate energy to the muscle cells and the result is  “How many more?” not “Are we done yet?”

Blood serum levels of BCAA’s might also be important on a cellular level.  A recent study revealed that the amount of BCAAs circulating in your blood is a direct indicator of longevity. It appears that BCAA’s potentially affect the health of the mitochondria. You can think of mitochondria as little predictors of lifespan. Their health is a clear indicator of the health we will experience in our later years (4). This is exciting preliminary research that warrants further study.

So although the benefits of supplemental BCAA’s in women over forty is clear, you might ask, “Can’t I just increase my whole food protein intake?”

If you are sedentary or only workout very infrequently, I say yes. Just focusing on increasing your whole food, branch chain amino acid-containing proteins, is sufficient.

However, if you have an active lifestyle (and you should!), consuming a BCAA supplement before a workout might make more sense than trying to digest a big turkey leg. Remember, free-form BCAA’s are an immediate source of energy. If you take them as a complete protein in food, they may take longer to access as your digestive system sorts through the different amino acids and shuttles them to their individual processing pathways. For energy, muscle strengthening, and recovery, taking the supplemental version of BCAA’s can make excellent sense (5). But remember, no supplement takes the place of real food. BCAA supplementation is in addition to lots of healthy, complete, protein-rich foods.

So you have decided to supplement with BCAA’s. How do you know when to take them for the best results? Recommendations regarding the timing of BCAA supplements for women vary. Most theorists agree that consuming BCAA’s before, during, and after a workout are all excellent choices. If you want to boost the availability of energy during a workout, I recommend consuming 5-8 grams before your activity. If you are looking for recovery help, 5-8 grams after exercise may be better suited to your needs (2)(6).

If the introduction of supplemental BCAAs cause women over forty to maintain their lean muscle, have more energy for workouts, lose weight, and recover from exercise more quickly than the likelihood is a more consistent fitness regime.  That’s good news! Guess what? A more consistent and intense workout routine creates a positive cascade of effect on all those other pleasant physiologic shifts that occur after the big 4-0.

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