Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Whey protein, BCAAs, Glutamine: How to invest the money? By Vic Goyaram

Whey protein, BCAAs,  Glutamine: 
How to invest the money?
Researched and Composed by Vic Goyaram
Exclusive for Bodybuilding Mauritius
I have very often received questions from people willing to start supplementing with protein but are confused about what to choose among Whey protein, BCAAs and Glutamine. This is because for some the differences among these products are still confusing and the reasons for this are as follows:
  • Some supplement labels are somewhat confusing to the layperson. Too much scientific jargon used as a marketing tool in an attempt to sound impressive to the consumer.
  • Commonly terminologies like "anti-catabolic", "anabolic" and "promote muscle recovery" are used on the labels, leading people to believe that these products can be used interchangeably (Fig. 1).
This article attempts to clear any possible confusion, explain the differences among these products and serve as a guide on how to spend your money.
Fig. 1: Supplement labels are sometimes confusing. Glutamine and BCAAs
are labelled as "recovery" supplements, leading people to believe that
they can drink use either BCAAs or Glutamine  as a recovery supplement
Whey protein
For a detailed description of whey protein, the reader is referred to our whey protein article (link coming soon). Whey protein is basically a collection of several proteins that are called whey microfractions. As you probably already know, proteins are chains of units called amino acids. Therefore, whey protein is a collection of several chains of amino acids (microfractions). When your body digests these proteins under the action of proteolytic enzymes, amino acids are released. These amino acids are then used by body tissues (not only muscles) for making proteins by the process of protein synthesis.

Whey protein provides the whole assortment of amino acids necessary for body protein synthesis, namely essential amino acids (those that they body cannot produce and must necessarily come from the diet) as well as non-essential amino acids. In addition, Whey protein is rich in Glutamine and the three Branched Chain amino acids (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) as shown in Fig. 2 below.
Fig. 2. The Essential Amino acids profile whey proteins and other commercially available proteins per 100g of product. 
(Graph acknowledgement: Suppversity Blog Click here to visit)
Peptide-bonded v/s free form amino acids
Glutamine and BCAAs in whey protein are peptide-bonded amino acids, meaning they are part of the amino acid chains that make up the protein (Fig. 3). When ingested, these need to be broken down by digestive enzymes to release these amino acids. Peptide-bonded amino acids therefore take more time before they can appear in the bloodstream. Of course various proteins differ in the speed at which they are digested to release amino acids. 

On the other hand, Glutamine and BCAA supplements contain amino acids in the free form. The body does not need to break down any protein to obtain these amino acids. They are rapidly available to be absorbed and this appear in the bloodstream quicker. Similarly, amino acid supplements that provide the full spectrum of amino acids (Fig. 4) also contain free-form amino acids. 
Fig. 3. Intact proteins in whey contain amino acids that are peptide-bonded, that is, part of a protein chain. Your body needs to digest the protein to liberate the amino acids
Fig. 4. Amino acid supplements contain free-form amino acids.
Your investment guide
Now that you are equipped with a basic knowledge of protein and amino acid supplements, consider the following scenarios:

Case A: A case for buying whey protein: If you struggle to obtain enough protein  
As we know, ensuring an adequate intake of protein is fairly expensive from both food and supplemental sources. It is very likely that many persons reading this are not able to meet their protein needs. Our priority should be to ensure protein intake to the best of our ability (of course, without neglecting other macro-nutrients and the proper ratio of the same). This must dictate where our money should be spent on: on solid food sources of protein, followed by supplements to top it off.  I always advise to prioritise food sources of protein like chicken, meat, fish and eggs before worrying about flashy whey protein supplements although whey protein does have its importance.

Therefore, if you are unable to get enough proteins you aren't going anywhere by taking only BCAAs and Glutamine. These, particularly the BCAAs, are important amino acids that are involved in the recovery process but they are not sufficient for protein synthesis in the absence of sufficient amounts of the whole spectrum of amino acids. As I posted recently, some people having read that BCAAs promote muscle recovery are resorting to drinking only BCAAs after workouts, much to the neglect of their need to get all the other amino acids from other sources. This practice is fine as long as you drink some form of fast carbs after workout and follow it with a meal containing protein a bit later. 

Do this: After looking into your diet, make sure you are getting enough protein from food sources at regular intervals throughout the day. Do not buy whey protein with the aim of replacing meals or thinking you will get away skipping meals by drinking it. Then invest in a protein supplement which may be whey or a protein blend. If you think you are not eating enough protein and want to supplement do not go and spend your money on Glutamine and BCAAs, invest it in a protein supplement.

Fig 5.Glutamine supplementation may have recovery benefits but it does not mean that you drink only Glutamine after workouts.

Case B: You want to get the benefits of free-form BCAAs and Glutamine
Assuming that you can ensure adequate protein through a combination of food and protein supplements, there may be added benefits of using BCAAs and Glutamine as follows:

BCAA supplementation during cutting: 
BCAAs are critical during cutting phases because you'll be eating less carbohydrates and thus have low muscle glycogen levels, the preferred energy source for bodybuilding workouts. Training on low muscle glycogen favours the breakdown of muscle protein in order to obtain amino acids for energy. The BCAAs are the amino acids that are used up the most, in particular Leucine. In this case, supplementation with free form BCAAs is warranted as a means of minimising protein breakdown and muscle tissue loss. Furthermore, during a cutting phase protein intake is increased in order to make up for decrements in carbohydrate intake and as a means of sparing muscle protein for use as energy.  Keep in mind that BCAAs do trigger an insulin response that you may think is counter-productive during a cutting phase because the release of insulin is supposed to bring fat burning to a grinding halt. However, the nature of the insulin release triggered by Leucine v/s carbs is different. There is only a single insulin response to an intake of BCAAs while carbs trigger a longer-term release of insulin. Therefore, BCAAs have more benefits than drawbacks to a bodybuilder on a cutting phase because it helps in muscle retention.

BCAA supplementation during mass training?
During a mass gaining phase energy provision is generally adequate, muscle glycogen is filled to capacity to fuel workouts and the risk of using muscle protein as fuel is lower. You can get away with not using a BCAA supplement in the presence of adequate protein intake and supplementation with whole proteins like whey protein which provide BCAAs already. 

However, there is increasing data from research showing that the BCAAs, particularly Leucine, can trigger anabolic signals inside your muscle cells and thus switching on muscle protein synthesis (Fig 6). Such findings warranted the development of supplement protocols that included supplementing with free form BCAAs in between meals in order to keep the "anabolic switch on". A dosing protocol is 5g BCAAs between meals that are spaced about 3-4hrs in between. However, keep in mind that switching on anabolism is meaningful only in the presence of adequate supplies of all the other amino acids.  There is a lot of interesting data on BCAAs which will be the topic of another article. A good protocol for BCAA intake is 5g morning, 5g preworkout, 10g postworkout and 5g at bedtime as recommended by Dr. Layne Norton who is an authority on BCAAs and muscle protein synthesis.  The above benefit of keeping the anabolic switch on relates to rapid rises to BCAA levels in blood that would follow BCAA supplementation in the free form. Whey and other proteins do contain BCAAs but these are released at a slower rate than those from free-form supplements. A rapid rise in blood amino acid levels (aminoacidemia) is needed for this particular effect. 

However, while the proposed mechanism by which BCAA triggers the anabolic switch has been elegantly laid out, it remains to be seen whether there is a long term effect in terms of lean body mass gain in humans. In other words, whether taking free form BCAAs in addition to the BCAAs you are getting from whole-protein foods/ supplements is giving you any extra muscle. Future articles will be devoted to particular aspects of BCAAs.
Fig. 6. Leucine activates the important anabolic switch "mTOR",
 providing a basis of Leucine supplementation in the free form
Glutamine supplementation
Glutamine supplementation may be important to the athlete as it is involved in a number of functions like ammonia scavenging  muscle protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis and immune functions. Based on glutamine's involvement in important physiological processes we cannot extrapolate and say that taking extra glutamine will give additional benefits. There is no evidence that glutamine supplementation even in the long term has a significant effect on muscle performance, muscle protein degradation and body composition in young healthy adults as found in a study by Candow et al. (2001).

Remember that glutamine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that it can be synthesised by the body from essential amino acids, particularly the BCAAs. With this in mind, a well fed body is well able to meet its daily glutamine demands even under stressful exercise. Your aim should be to ensure an adequate supply of essential amino acids from food sources and should you be taking whey protein then your glutamine needs would be easily covered. Future articles will deal with aspects of glutamine (research, its other functions and "benefits" and supplementation rationale).  

The take-home lesson
Your whole proteins are very important because they provide the whole assortment of amino acids. Maintaining adequate intake of the same should be your main priority. BCAAs are supplements with great merit in both bodybuilding and other competitive sports and their use in the free amino acid form is warranted in pre-contest training as well as mass training, as recent data suggest. However, the use of BCAAs will only be meaningful in the presence of sufficient proteins that provide the full amino acid spectrum for protein synthesis. Finally, if you are someone struggling with protein intake from food and want to supplement then invest in a good whey protein before considering BCAA or glutamine. Finally, there is no evidence that glutamine supplementation will lead to increased muscle mass should all your essential amino acids be met by food or a whey supplement. However, glutamine may have other benefits for the bodybuilder.

Candow DG, Chilibeck PD, Burke DG, Davison KS, Smith-Palmer T: Effect of glutamine supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults. Eur J Appl Physiol 2001, 86(2):142-9

©,2013, Veeraj Goyaram, Bodybuilding Mauritius. Any reprinting in any type of media is prohibited.

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  1. How about BCAA vs Hydrolyzed whey? Any research comparing these 2 since both are readily absorbed. Btw thanks for all these informative articles you have written!

  2. Thanks for your lovely post, the contents are quiet interesting. I will be waiting for your next post. natural whey proteins..

  3. i just wanna thank you for sharing your information and your site or blog this is simple but nice article I've ever seen i like it i learn something today...

    IV Vitamin Therapy & Natural Health Supplements