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BCAA’s : Connecting The Mind To The Muscle To Improve Performance


It is important to remember, fatigue doesn’t just occur in the muscle.
                                         Dr . S. C. Gandevia
                                             University of South Wales

When you read the quote above it implies that there is a place and or co-existing site in the body were fatigue sets in long before it is felt within the muscle. If that is true three questions come to mind. First, what causes fatigue to occur at this separate cite? Second, how is that fatigue transferred to the muscle, and third, can this process and or the transference of fatigue be neutralized or somehow delayed to extend muscle stamina and power? Physical fatigue also referred to as peripheral fatigue can be felt and quantified by muscle weakness and soreness.

The other aspect of fatigue and almost  100% of the time that isn’t given any consideration in the recovery process were fatigue begins its ascendance , is within the central nervous system. Researchers refer to this down-regulation or disruption to normal internal metabolic protocols as negative alterations within the central nervous system. The central nervous system comprises the brain and the spinal cord. It controls the flow of all of the information transmitted by the body. It is the spinal cord that collects sensory information from the peripheral nervous system which reports it to the brain. Upon receiving those instructions the brain sends them to the skeletal, smooth and heart muscles.

Based on past, current and emerging data, sports nutrition and physiology investigators now know that fatigue is accelerated as a direct result of disruptive changes to the normal innate operations of the central nervous system (CNS).  In fact, researcher findings indicate that when central nervous system drive isn’t in sync with working muscles, is a key factor that causes fatigue in most individuals during normal activities.

However, there is now conclusive evidence that a trio of proteins known as the branch chain amino acids play a critical role in preventing and reversing disparaging alterations within this system. There are 22 known amino acids commonly referred to as the building blocks of protein. The BCAA’s comprise the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.  They exert there anabolic superiority by acting as anabolic traffic cops, enhancing the body’s ability to extract circulating amino acids from the bloodstream , thus accelerating recovery, growth, and repair of muscle tissue.

What Causes Central Fatigue

Current research indicates that during periods of intense physical training  production and metabolism of the brain chemical 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) increases. This brain chemical depresses central nervous system processes resulting in diminished glycogen stores. As you know without this backup fuel sustained muscle stamina and power is greatly comprised.

Hydroxytryptamine  also increases free circulating tryptophan  and serotonin levels in the brain. These two brain chemicals or neurotransmitters have been shown to cause depression, sluggishness , sleepiness and exhaustion when proper levels and balance are compromised.

This imbalance occurs  due to what could be described as a traffic jam caused by 22 amino acids converging on one specific cellular pathway that will allow them entry into the brain. What follows is described as a  diminished serotonin effect. According to Dr Judith J. Wurtman of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Serotonin Solution, periods of physical and emotional stress will increase the brains need for serotonin. In sustained periods of exercise this need is further exacerbated due to the large amounts of BCAA’s utilized by the muscle. Ironically, tryptophan  is responsible for making and increasing brain levels of serotonin. However, Dr Wurtman discovered  that eating protein actually inhibited  tryptophan’s  entry into the brain, while carbohydrates which do not contain a ounce of tryptophan accelerated the production of it.

According to the well known registered dietician Elizabeth Somer, the author of Food and Mood the dilemma here is related to  insulin’s dual role of escorting digested carbs (which are converted to glucose for energy )  and protein to amino acids ( for repair and growth of muscle tissue ) into the muscle cell. As insulin  pulls amino acids from the bloodstream as a result of carbohydrate metabolism, insulin for reasons still unknown leaves tryptophan behind in the bloodstream freely circulating all by itself. The other 21 amino’s are cleared from the blood and absorbed by the body, but not the brain. The bottom line here, poor mental and physical recovery occurring not only after a workout, but during one, as  there isn’t enough tryptophan in the cell to naturally stimulate and maintain proper serotonin levels in the brain, hence the term negative alterations.

In retrospect, what researchers observed in subjects as serotonin levels declined were slower recovery periods, accelerated physical and mental fatigue, anger, brain fog (mental confusion/lack of concentration ),  depression, anxiety, uneasiness and heightened periods of binge eating Similar  observations ushered in classes of anti-depressant drugs like Zoloft and Prozac to boost serotonin levels when doctors discovered low levels of this brain chemical were found in patients suffering from depression.

The Amino Acid Traffic Jam

 As stated earlier when protein is eaten and broken down into amino acids, tryptophan has to compete with  the other amino acids to enter the brain.  Although within the bloodstream amino acids are generally found in somewhat steady amounts,  except that tryptophan  exists in much smaller quantities than the others. Consequently, it doesn’t have the same moxie or fortitude as the other amino acids in a manner of speaking. In more common terms, it gets kicked to the curb. This incomplete physiological cycle brings us back to the opening comment above which says that fatigue doesn’t just occur in the muscle. In fact current research shows that because of this improper interaction between tryptophan and serotonin in the brain, the onset of the negative factors described above in reference to low serotonin levels begin to appear at a accelerated rate. In fact, current data shows that after a strenuous workout, CNS recuperation can take several days to occur. This can seriously impair your psychological and physiological ability to muster up enough energy to workout at your normal or expected maximal capacity.  This mishap can put and leave you in what could be described as a state of anabolic suspension, much like hitting the wall many bodybuilders encounter and have difficulty getting thru.

The Hat Trick

There is now a substantial amount of scientific evidence which shows that BCAA’s enhance and up-regulate CNS processes. Recent studies conducted by J. Mark Davis at the Department of Exercise Research at the University of South Carolina with BCAA’s , clearly showed  improvements in CNS revitalization in subjects by directly inhibiting  the release of the brain neuron 5HT during exercise. Dr. John D. Fernstrom, a Professor of Psychiatry, Pharmacology and Behavioral Neuro-Science at the University of Pittsburgh  discoverd that BCAA’s causes the body to produce less concentrations of  the brain chemical tryptophan.

Also , in a related study conducted at the University Department of Biochemistry at Oxford, scientist there reported that when BCAA’s were administered prior to exercise up to exhaustion, there was a decreased uptake of the amino acid  trytophan by 22% and 5- hydroxtryptophan ( 5-HTP-the precursor of trytophan ) by 20%.  These researchers concluded that the development of central fatigue was prevented as a result of  BCAA’s causing a serotonergic  effect (elevated  levels of serotonin )  by regulating the influx of tryptophan into the brain. Dr Fernstrom states that by increasing concentrations of  BCAA’s in the bloodstream , you are in essence tricking the body into making less tryptophan. This was further substantiate by  researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. These investigators reported that the ingestion of  BCAA’s prior to exercise reduced concentrations of trytophan in the blood ,with subjects  having less perceived exertion and mental fatigue.
Some Related Benefits of BCAA’s

Another important discovery concerning BCAA’s is their ability to enhance gluconeogenesis. Intense workouts causes the body to release stored glycogen( glucose/blood sugar) from the liver and muscles to make new adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP), your primary fuel source. Anaerobic exercises like resistance training will rapidly deplete stores of  muscle ATP. BCAA’s are intimately involved with utilizing non- glucose substances to stimulate glyconegensis – the biosynthesis or making of new glucose.  This is critical to improving exercise-induced mental and physical muscle fatigue. Also emerging data shows that BCAA’s have a direct impact because of its high leucine content on activating the mammalian target of rapamycin protein kinase pathway (mTOR) , referred to as the biological key to human function. It (mTOR) influences not only cell growth and protein synthesis, but also modulates innate processes that are responsible for cell survival.

Classified as a regulatory protein mTOR acts as an energy and nutrient sensor or guardian that receives directions from the body regarding cellular nutritional status, levels of cellular energy and hormones, including the bodies most anabolic hormone insulin. Lastly, but certainly not least, in a recent study appearing in the journal Cell Metabolism researchers revealed that BCAA’s  modulate a process known as mitochondrial biogenesis. Simply put these guys build new mitochondrial cells. As you know this is were energy and fat burning take place. Researchers have been looking for ways to preserve mitochondrial cells and enhance there function as they are truly our internal youth factories , in a manner of speaking. They are however constantly under attack by cellular molecules  known as free radicals. This aggression de-energizes mitochondrial cells and will not only increase muscle fatigue and wasting, they are implicated in the manifestation of over 60 age related diseases, as well as the acceleration of the aging process. By inducing mitochondrial biogenesis BCAA’s not only derail free radical aggression, they have shown the ability to extend life.  Researchers attribute BCAA’s new found capabilities to their ability to  power up expression (functionally ) of a  pro-longevity gene called sirtuin-1. This is the same gene you may recall that  researchers found in the powerful antioxidant and anti aging nutrient resverstrol.

Suggested dose: 7 to 12 grams divided equally before and after workouts.

Last Words

It is important to remember to consume enough carbohydrates as well as your BCAA’s prior to workouts, not only for fuel, but to insure that you assist the brain in its efforts to maintain and enhance your serotonin production. Remember it is the carbs that directly impact serotonin- not protein. By doing so you can delay fatigue at its original cite of inception. Also as a added benefit re-load those carbs( complex ones) at post-workout with your protein and BCAA,S to spike insulin and drive those amino acids to your muscle tissues. This will speed up recovery and tissue repair. However, it is important to utilize complex carbs at post-workout. New research shows that simple carbs will inhibit the release of growth hormone( GH ) that is naturally secreted as a direct result of  being exercise educed at post-workout.

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