Branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, when present in adequate concentrations, are supposed to maintain plasma glutamine concentration and cytokine (interleukin-1) production, while attenuating lymphocyte proliferation. This corresponds to maintaining the integrity of the immune system. Cytokines regulate immune and inflammatory responses and glutamine maintains skeletal muscle protein when the body's need for glutamine exceeds its natural production.
Prolonged, exhaustive exercise may cause the activity of the immune response cells to be suppressed. During such periods of metabolic stress, increasing the amount of glutamine made available would increase protein synthesis, maintain glutamine production, thereby maintaining activity of the immune response cells. If glutamine is not available, muscle catabolism (degradation, breakdown) proceeds and reductions in plasma glutamine concentration are likely, leaving the body's immune system more susceptible to invasion.
BCAAs also compete with tryptophan for transport across the blood-brain barrier. If tryptophan wins, it is converted to 5-hydroxytryptomine, leading to an increase in serotoninergic neurotransmitter activity. It is well known that serotonin-like activity causes central fatigue (the "Central Fatigue Theory"). Theory has it that if BCAAs are present in concentrations high enough to win the BCAA-tryptophan battle, BCAAs could reduce the exercise-induced tryptophan uptake by the brain, thus delaying fatigue. This would allow the athlete to continue to perform.
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