Supplements come in all shapes and sizes and they offer a lot of benefits for those trying to reach their fitness goals, whether it’s weight loss, muscle building, resistance training… There are supplements for everything! When it comes to supporting healthy muscle tissue, amino acid supplements are incredibly popular and beneficial for an active body. BCAAs have been around for quite a while and the reason why they’re still relevant is that they provide great benefits to those who are strength or resistance training. EAAs are the new kid on the block. These supplements are similar to BCAAs in that they also support healthy muscle tissue and help you get the most out of your workouts, while also playing a key role in several vital bodily functions - but they also have their differences!
So which one is better? Which one should you take in order to get improved results? Understanding the benefits of both supplements is the first step to answer these questions. But before we delve into that, let’s talk first about amino acids to better understand what they are and why they are so important to your fitness journey!
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are known as the building blocks of protein. When you eat protein, it gets broken down into amino acids, and then they get turned into whatever your body needs at the moment. Those who are working out to build muscle and increase resistance want their bodies to be in an anabolic state, which means that the number of proteins being created is greater than the number of proteins breaking down. This is when you start building muscle mass. On the contrary, if your body is in a catabolic state, the amount of proteins breaking down is greater than the proteins being created, causing you to lose muscle mass. This is typically the natural state of the body when you’re working out, and this is something you don’t want to see happen if you're weightlifting to build muscle. That’s when amino acids come in to help you out. In the case of muscle building, the amino acids turn into the protein that you need in order to build muscle mass and boost your performance.
There are 20 different amino acids that your body needs in order to function properly, but only 9 of them are what’s known as essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). Your body cannot make essential amino acids on its own, so you must obtain them through food and supplements like BCAAs and EAAs or protein powder.
You already get most of them through your diet, but if you want to make sure, here are some foods that contain all nine essential amino acids (known as complete proteins):
Incomplete proteins only contain some of the essential amino acids, but they’re still important to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. These are:
- Whole grains
A good combination of both kinds of protein will ensure that you get all of the essential amino acids for your body, and this way you will have all your bases covered so that any supplementation you take will directly help you make the most out of your workouts!
The difference between EAAs and BCAAs
Now that you know what amino acids are and their role in your body, let’s talk about EAAs and BCAAs, their benefits, and what’s the difference between them. You already know that they can help you with your workouts and overall health, so now we’re going to tell you exactly how.
BCAA stands for Branched-Chain Amino Acids. They’re a group consisting of three of the essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are the main essential amino acids involved in muscle protein synthesis as well as muscle growth and repair. That's what makes them the most important building blocks of protein.
Since BCAA supplements include the most important amino acids for muscle building many believed that taking it can help reduce muscle breakdown and improve muscle gain, but the research on that is mixed. In some cases, BCAA supplementation was said to help improve muscle growth, in others, there was no evidence to prove it.
So what are the benefits of BCAAs? Well, they can still increase muscle protein synthesis (which needs to be higher than muscle protein breakdown to increase muscle growth), but they can't do it maximally without the other essential amino acids. So it's not the most effective supplement for muscle building because it has to be a complete protein which is typically found in other supplements like whey protein.  This doesn't mean BCAA's don't work, in fact, people that consume a diet with adequate amounts of protein already have enough circulating EAA's which can make good use of the BCAAs benefit of increasing muscle protein synthesis.
Another benefit of BCAA supplementation has to do with enhancing one very important part of your training... recovery. BCAA's are known as the best supplement for recovery and to reduce muscle soreness, and there are studies to back it up. According to research, BCAAs lower creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase levels in your blood, two enzymes that are involved in muscle damage, helping you with post-workout muscle pain, aka muscle soreness.  Taking BCAA's before, during, or after your workout can speed up recovery time, which will help you get back to the gym faster to continue crushing it! If you take it pre-workout, it can even help reduce physical and mental fatigue during your workout. That's because BCAAs help prevents exercise-induced serotonin production, which is thought to contribute to fatigue development during exercise, resulting in improved mental focus and sustainable energy throughout your workout.
EAA stands for Essential Amino Acids. Yes, the same ones we mentioned before, which means that EAAs contain BCAAs as well as the other six essential amino acids that help your body perform different necessary functions. Since EAAs contain all BCAAs you can expect the same performance benefits, the most notable being that it helps increase muscle protein synthesis. It's the most notable benefit because EAA's are said to provide as much muscle protein synthesis as whey protein.  But, there is a catch... Just like BCAAs need EAAs, EAA supplements need enough BCAAs in them to provide you with all the benefits it offers.
Aside from having similar benefits as BCAAs, EAA benefits go beyond building muscle, here's what else they can help with:
- Improved mental health: EAAs help increase dopamine levels in your brain, which are known as the “feel-good” hormone.
- Improved immunity: Your body uses essential amino acid histidine to produce histamine, a neurotransmitter involved in local immune responses.
- Better mood and sleep: Studies have found that EAAs promote serotonin production, which is another one of the “happy” hormones, through the amino acid tryptophan.
- Healthier skin: They also promote collagen production, the protein in charge of repairing connective tissue and skin, helping you maintain a healthier look.
The six additional amino acids found in EAA supplements are precursors to neurotransmitters, that’s why they all play such different roles in your body. Getting enough protein from foods may be challenging for some people, so EAA supplementation works best for those who need a boost since it'll help provide them with all nine essential amino acids while promoting protein synthesis.
EAAs vs BCAAs - Which is better?
Well, that actually depends on you! Both BCAAs and EAAs provide the body with amazing benefits - workout and non-workout related. BCAA supplements are effective because most of the time your body has enough EAAs circulating through it from your diet, which can give you the same benefits an EAA supplement has. For this reason, they generally work best for those who get enough protein in their diet already, but even if a person doesn't it's still the best supplement to take for muscle recovery! EAAs can provide the same benefits as BCAAs, with a few extras that can help improve other aspects of your life outside the gym. It's also ideal for those who don't fulfill their protein needs from whole foods because it can help give them that extra boost that BCAAs can't. One thing to note is that, if you’re supplementing with EAAs, you need to make sure that you’re getting the proper amount of BCAAs to make the most of the remaining six essential amino acids - and not every EAA supplement has the correct amounts, so be careful when choosing!
As we mentioned earlier, BCAAs work best for those who get all the protein that they need through their diet, while EAAs may be better for those who find that difficult. But once again, which supplement you take depends on you. If you already take EAAs or BCAAs and you want to keep doing it because that works for you, then keep at it! But if you want to switch it up a little, or you just haven’t tried any of those, we suggest that you first consider their benefits and differences, and then choose what’s best for your lifestyle, nutrition, and fitness goals!