Branched chain amino acids harbor distinct and often opposing effects on health and disease

Commun Med (Lond). 2023 Nov 28;3(1):172. doi: 10.1038/s43856-023-00382-x.


Background: The branched chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are essential nutrients that have been associated with diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular diseases. Observational studies suggest that BCAAs exert homogeneous phenotypic effects, but these findings are inconsistent with results from experimental human and animal studies.

Methods: Hypothesizing that inconsistencies between observational and experimental BCAA studies reflect bias from shared lifestyle and genetic factors in observational studies, we used data from the UK Biobank and applied multivariable Mendelian randomization causal inference methods designed to address these biases.

Results: In n = 97,469 participants of European ancestry (mean age = 56.7 years; 54.1% female), we estimate distinct and often opposing total causal effects for each BCAA. For example, of the 117 phenotypes with evidence of a statistically significant total causal effect for at least one BCAA, almost half (44%, n = 52) are associated with only one BCAA. These 52 associations include total causal effects of valine on diabetic eye disease [odds ratio = 1.51, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.31, 1.76], valine on albuminuria (odds ratio = 1.14, 95% CI = 1.08, 1.20), and isoleucine on angina (odds ratio = 1.17, 95% CI = 1.31, 1.76).

Conclusions: Our results suggest that the observational literature provides a flawed picture of BCAA phenotypic effects that is inconsistent with experimental studies and could mislead efforts developing novel therapeutics. More broadly, these findings motivate the development and application of causal inference approaches that enable 'omics studies conducted in observational settings to account for the biasing effects of shared genetic and lifestyle factors.

Plain language summary

The three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are important building blocks of muscle proteins that are obtained from the diet. Many studies in human populations have examined whether BCAAs affect health and disease. These human studies report results that are inconsistent with results from highly controlled animal studies. Because interest in the therapeutic targeting of BCAAs is growing, we wanted to better understand these discrepancies. Briefly, we used data from a large database that captured many diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancers, and respiratory disease) and new statistical methods. Our results showed that discrepancies between human studies and animal studies may reflect errors in the ways human studies were designed and conducted. As a result, these human studies may provide a flawed picture of BCAA effects that could mislead efforts developing novel therapeutics.