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Branched-chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?


Branched-chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?

Robert R Wolfe. J Int Soc Sports Nutr.


The branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, valine and isoleucine. A multi-million dollar industry of nutritional supplements has grown around the concept that dietary supplements of BCAAs alone produce an anabolic response in humans driven by a stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. In this brief review the theoretical and empirical bases for that claim are discussed. Theoretically, the maximal stimulation of muscle protein synthesis in the post-absorptive state in response to BCAAs alone is the difference between muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis (about 30% greater than synthesis), because the other EAAs required for synthesis of new protein can only be derived from muscle protein breakdown. Realistically, a maximal increase in muscle protein synthesis of 30% is an over-estimate because the obligatory oxidation of EAAs can never be completely suppressed. An extensive search of the literature has revealed no studies in human subjects in which the response of muscle protein synthesis to orally-ingested BCAAs alone was quantified, and only two studies in which the effect of intravenously infused BCAAs alone was assessed. Both of these intravenous infusion studies found that BCAAs decreased muscle protein synthesis as well as protein breakdown, meaning a decrease in muscle protein turnover. The catabolic state in which the rate of muscle protein breakdown exceeded the rate of muscle protein synthesis persisted during BCAA infusion. We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted.

Keywords: Anabolic response; Humans; Isoleucine; Leucine; Valine.

Conflict of interest statement

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not Applicable.

Consent for publication

Not Applicable.

Competing interests

Dr. Wolfe has received research grants and/or honoraria from the National Cattleman’s Beef Checkoff program Abbott Nutrition, Danone and PepsiCo. Dr. Wolfe owns shares in Essential Blends, LLC, and has been a consultant for Axcella LLC.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Schematic representation of the recycling of essential amino acids (EAAs) from muscle protein breakdown into muscle protein synthesis in the post-absorptive state. Arbitrary units are used for simplicity and are based on measured rates of each pathway in post-absorptive human subjects [10]. a Normal circumstance in the post-absorptive state. Approximately 70% of EAAs from muscle protein breakdown are recycled into protein synthesis [10]. There is a net efflux of approximately 85% of EAAs released from protein breakdown, which can either be taken up and incorporated into protein in other tissues or oxidize. About 15% of EAAs from protein breakdown are partially oxidized in muscle and unavailable for protein synthesis. The figures for outward flux and intracellular oxidation of EAAs are averages, since some EAAs, such as phenylalanine, are not oxidized at all in muscle. b Representation of a 50% increase in efficiency of recycling of EAAs from muscle protein breakdown into protein synthesis. In this example there would be an increase in synthesis from 70 to 80 units, or 20%. Protein synthesis can never exceed protein breakdown in the post-absorptive state, since protein breakdown is the only source of EAAs

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