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BCAAs prevent muscle loss at high altitude

Athletes and backpackers who spend longer periods in the mountains lose muscle mass, probably because of the lower air pressure and lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Taking a daily supplement containing about 12 g BCAAs can help prevent this, and may even result in an increase in muscle mass, according to a study published by Italian sports scientists in 1992 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

The Italians did an experiment with 16 participants, who trekked through the Andes mountains for three weeks at heights of 2,500 to 4,000 metres.

Every day during the trek half of the participants were given a placebo and the other half took a supplement containing BCAAs. That meant they ingested 5.76 g leucine, 2.88 g isoleucine and 2.88 g valine daily.

The researchers examined the participants before they set off on their trek and just after they finished.

The participants who took BCAAs gained a little lean body mass while they were in the mountains – whereas the placebo group lost a small amount of lean body mass. The BCAA group gained a little muscle mass in their arms and legs, while the placebo group lost muscle mass.

BCAAs prevent muscle loss at high altitude

Both groups lost large amounts of fat.

"The present study confirmed previous reports describing loss of mass and muscle loss during high altitude exposure," the researchers wrote. "In addition, it was shown that these changes can be prevented with a supplementation of BCAA."

"Taking extra BCAA was found to be beneficial during trekking at high altitude, but may be of greater value during climbing at extreme altitude. Whether BCAA supplementation could play a relevant role in hypoxia-related muscle loss at sea level is still matter for investigation."

Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1992;65(5):394-8.

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