Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of essential amino acids comprising valine, leucine, and isoleucine. A low ratio of plasma BCAAs to aromatic amino acids is a physiological hallmark of liver cirrhosis, and BCAA supplementation was originally devised with the intention of normalizing amino acid profiles and nutritional status. However, recent studies on BCAAs have revealed that, in addition to their role as protein constituents, they may have a role as pharmacological nutrients for patients with chronic liver disease. Large-scale, multicenter, randomized, double-blinded, controlled trials on BCAA supplementation have been performed in Italy and Japan, and results demonstrate that BCAA supplementation improves not only nutritional status, but also prognosis and quality of life in patients with liver cirrhosis. Moreover, accumulating experimental evidence suggests that the favorable effects of BCAA supplementation on prognosis may be supported by unforeseen pharmacological actions of BCAAs. This review summarizes the possible effects of BCAAs on albumin synthesis and insulin resistance from clinical and basic viewpoints. We also review the newly discovered clinical impact of BCAAs on hepatocellular carcinoma and the prognosis and quality of life of patients with liver cirrhosis.
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