Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Issues, Supplements and Health

What Does The Perfect Post-Workout Protein Shake Look Like?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Post-Workout Protein ShakeIf you work out on a regular basis and read any of the “muscle magazines”, you’ve seen the ads. “Explode Your Muscles.” “Double Your Gains.” They all claim to have the perfect post-workout protein shake, backed by science. They all sound so tempting, but you know that some of them have to be scams.

I told you about some of the sports supplements to avoid in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor”. In this issue, I’m going to ask “What does the perfect post-workout protein shake look like?”

For years athletes have been using protein beverages containing branched chain amino acids after their workouts to maximize muscle gain and recovery. There was some science behind that practice, but the major questions were unanswered. Nobody really knew:

  • How much protein is optimal?
  • What kind of protein is optimal?
  • What amount of branched chain amino acids is optimal?
  • Are some branched chain amino acids more important than others?
  • Does the optimal amount of branched chain amino acids depend on the amount of protein?

As a consequence, after workout protein supplements were all over the map in terms of protein source, protein amount, branched amino acid amount and type of branched chain amino acids. Fortunately, recent research has clarified many of these questions.

How Much And What Kind Of Protein Do You Need?

  • Recent research has shown that the optimal protein intake for maximizing muscle gain post workout is 15-20 gm for young adults (Katsanos et al, Am J Clin Nutr 82: 1065-1073, 2005; Moore et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 89: 161-168, 2009) and 20-25 gm for older adults (Symons et al, Am J Clin Nutr 86: 451-456, 2007).
  • More protein isn’t necessarily better. The effect of protein intake on post workout muscle gain maxes out at around 25 gm for young adults and 30 gm for older adults (Symons et al, J Am Diet Assoc 109: 1582-1586, 2009).
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after a workout. Other protein sources (soy, casein, chicken) are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours.

Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

  • It turns out that leucine is the only branched chain amino acid that actually stimulates muscle protein synthesis (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006). And protein is what gives muscles their strength and their bulk.
  • Recent research has shown that 2-3 gm of leucine (2 gm for young adults; 3 gm for older adults) is sufficient to maximize post workout muscle gain if protein levels are adequate (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006).

Unanswered Questions About Optimizing Muscle Gain Post-Workout

  •  Do the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role, or is leucine alone sufficient to drive post-workout muscle gain?
  • Can leucine still help maximize post-workout muscle gain if protein intake is inadequate? If so, how much leucine is needed?

Does Leucine Enhancement Improve Low Protein Shakes?

Lrg Extension ExercisesA recent study (Churchward-Venne et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 99: 276-286, 2014) seems to answer those two questions. The authors compared the effect of 5 protein-amino acid combinations on muscle protein synthesis in 40 young men (~21 years old) following unilateral knee-extensor resistance exercise. The protein shakes contained:

  • 25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 3 gm of leucine (high protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 0.76 gm of leucine (low protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 3 gm of leucine (low protein, low leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine (low protein, high leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine + added isoleucine and valine (the other branched chain amino acids). (low protein, branched chain amino acids).

The results were clear cut:

  • The high protein shake (25 gm of protein) was far superior to the low protein shake (6.25 gm of protein) at enhancing post workout protein synthesis. This is consistent with numerous other published clinical reports.
  • Adding 3 gm of leucine to the low protein shake had no effect on post-workout protein synthesis, but 5 gm of added leucine made the low protein shake just as effective as the high protein shake at supporting post-workout protein synthesis.

In short, leucine can improve the effectiveness of a low protein shake, but you need more leucine than if you chose the high protein shake to begin with.

  • Adding extra branched chain amino acids actually suppressed the effectiveness of leucine at enhancing post-workout protein synthesis. These data suggest:
    • Leucine probably is the major amino acid responsible for the muscle gain reported in many of the previous studies with branched chain amino acids.
    • If the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role in the muscle gain, the quantities that occur naturally in the protein are probably enough. Adding more may actually reduce the effectiveness of leucine at stimulating muscle gain.

While this is a single study, it is consist with numerous other recent clinical studies. It simply helps clarify whether leucine can increase the effectiveness of a low protein supplement. It also clarifies the role of branched chain amino acids.

Also, while this study focused on protein synthesis, numerous other studies have shown that optimizing post-workout protein and leucine intake results in greater muscle gain (for example, Westcott et al., Fitness Management, May 2008)

The Bottom Line

Research on post-workout nutrition to optimize muscle gain from the workouts has come a long way in recent years. It is now actually possible to make rational choices about the best protein supplements and foods to support your workouts.

  • If you are a young adult (17-30), you should aim for 15-20 gm of protein and about 2 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are an older adult (50+), you should aim for 20-25 gm of protein and 3 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are in between you are on your own. Studies haven’t yet been done in your age group, but it’s reasonable to assume that you should aim for somewhere between the extremes.
  • If you are getting the recommended amounts of whey protein, the leucine level will also be optimal. If you are using other protein sources you may want to choose ones with added leucine.
  • The research cited above shows that you can make a low protein supplement effective by adding lots of leucine, but that’s going to require artificial flavors and sweeteners to cover up the taste of that much leucine. I would recommend choosing one that provided adequate protein to begin with.
  • While the research in this area is still somewhat fluid, I would avoid protein supplements with added branched chain amino acids other than leucine. If the paper I cited above is correct you probably get all of the other branched chain amino acids you need from your protein and adding more may actually interfere with the effect of leucine on muscle gain.
  • I’d pretty much forget all the other “magic ingredients” in post-workout supplements. If you’re a novice there is some evidence that arginine and HMB may be of benefit, but if you have been working out for more than 6 months, the evidence is mixed at best. As for the rest, the clinical studies are all over the map. There’s no convincing evidence that they work.
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after your workout. Soy and casein are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours. If you’re looking at meat protein, chicken is a particularly good choice. Four ounces of chicken will provide the protein and leucine you need to sustain muscle gain for several hours.
  • Even if you are not working out, recent research on dietary protein and leucine has important implications for your health. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared research showing that optimizing protein and leucine intake helps to increase muscle retention and maximize fat loss when you are losing weight.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (8)

  • Mikell Fuhrmann

    |

    Hi I am confused but I just listened to the State of the Union speech & I’m
    old. I have taken ESP Shaklee protein for 20 yrs. not over weight, exercise off/on still have biceps but wrinkles on my upper arms. Is this just
    another part of aging? I am 76 yo. Like your tips. Thanks

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Mikell,
      At 76 biceps are good. The wrinkles are more likely due to sun exposure and age than to protein deficiency.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Pam McDonald

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    Great article. Correct me if I’m wrong, but why doesn’t Shaklee’s Physique include leucine in their ingredients? Thanks

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Pam,
      If I had my way every company would list the amino acid composition of their products. However, it is not required. And whey protein is considered a complete protein, so amino acid composition information may not be necessary. As I said in my article, whey protein supplements that provide enough protein generally provide enough leucine as well.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • nick

    |

    Well done. Although I agree with most of your post, I disagree on the added BCAA’s having a negative impact on the Leucine Trigger. Yes some research suggest otherwise, but most good studies do not. That being said, All whey proteins are not the same. We know from the human genome project and subsequent human proteome project that “quality’ of protein, and in this case Whey, has a tremendous impact on genomic response. Most mass produced whey comes from inferior or lesser quality bovine–CAFO raised. Over 80% of the market carries this inferior whey. Most are also denatured, where the bonds are broken between the amino acid link thus distorting that proteins unique finger print or key like structure, if you will. Proteins are the environmental signal for genes to encode or make the 350k or so proteins that make up all the tissues of our body. If you denature the Whey, as with most Mass market Whey, it can’t unlock the genes encoding potentiality. Then you have to consider all the supporting cast necessary for the highest absorption and utilization possibility, such as: Prebiotic’s, Probiotics, enzymes, minerals and trace minerals. The particular transport system in the gut requires this combination in fairly exact quantities.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Nick,

      I agree that it is premature to declare that BCAA’S have a negative effect on the leucine trigger based on a single study. However, it is pretty clear from multiple studies at this point that most of the benefits attributed to BCAA’s in general are due to leucine alone. We need adequate amounts of the other BCAA’s, but it is not clear that we gain any extra benefit from higher levels of any BCAA except leucine.

      The rest of your argument is misguided. It appears to be based on the assumption that proteins can be absorbed from the intestine intact. In fact, all proteins need to be broken down to individual amino acids to be absorbed by the intestine. When that does not occur and proteins or portions of proteins are absorbed into the bloodstream intact, such as in “leaky gut” syndrome, they are recognized as foreign antigens by our immune system and can trigger inflammation and a number of serious diseases.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Jay Goodman

    |

    Dr Chaney, it was awesome to meet you this last weekend! So can you provide any updated studies on Leucine? I would love to read it!

    Reply

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Latest Article

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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