The ABC’s of HBCD’s :How to Use Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin

It seems like there is a new discovery is made everyday that will change the face of the supplement industry forever. You want it, we got it! Fat loss, muscle gain, cure cancer, reverse arthritis, fix heart disease, and even make a man’s penis bigger. Heck, you want giant breasts? We have a miracle breast grow cream. This industry can be akin to the Wild West – little in terms of laws or regulations to keep snake oil salesmen from setting up shop and making a quick buck. So, how does a consumer find what works in this quagmire of misinformation?

First of all, we must define what a supplement is. A supplement, is by definition “Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole.” The whole is a sound nutrition program based on eating whole foods. Without the bedrock of base nutrition, supplements will do little. There is no miracle pill that will allow you to eat like a garbage can yet look great and be healthy. Put simply, proper diet based on whole foods should make up 95 percent of your regimen and supplements should account for 5 percent. Look at supplements as icing on the cake. I can’t tell you how many people approach me with a crap diet, and yet they have all the “latest”supplements. Makes me laugh at how silly it is.

Now that we defined what a supplement’s true role is,  is there something that can be used to help those who train hard and value faster recovery? In the past decade, high molecular weight starches have become more prominent. The first one I encountered was Vitargo way back in 2003. It was originally made from barley starch. It can be made from potatoes, or other plant starches.

I tried it, and I could tell a huge difference in my recovery from even the most grueling workouts. I also used to swallow 40 grams of BCAA tablets per hour session. So, what does these have to do with supplements? After Vitargo came out, many cheaper versions of waxy maize starch hit the market. True Nutrition, always a leader, brought out an affordable version that benefited many. I had all of my athletes on it. Now, in 2014, the new kid on the block is Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrins, or HBCDs for short. What is this molecule and how may you benefit from its use?  I will try to answer in understandable terms.

HBCDs are made from amylopectin (starch) molecules which are altered by enzymes so that they cross bridge and link up. This changes the shape, denaturing the original molecule, much like cooking egg whites. Egg whites are still egg whites and contain the same amount of protein – they just change structurally. Take a tree branch and make it into a circle. All the leaves, branches, and twigs would still be on it, but now it’s a circular tree branch. Circular or not, it’s still a tree branch. How does this help this odd analogy benefit me you ask? The mystery shall be uncovered soon enough!

Now that we have defined what HBCDs are, how do they benefit your body. When you exercise, you create a deficit of energy, nutrients, and hormones. How do we ascend from this self-created pit? The body needs the proper building blocks (i.e., amino acids and glucose) to repair muscle damage. in theory, we use HBCDs pre- and inter-workout so that the body has a constant supply of energy throughout demanding training sessions. You also need a protein source (BCAAs, whey hydrolysate, or a combination of the two) to fight off catabolism. A simple carbohydrate source that doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike and insulin response would be best. So, what gets one there optimally? Why not just high glycemic simple carbs? The issue with fast carbs is two-pronged: a rapid rise in blood glucose brings about a flood of insulin into the bloodstream which almost always leads to hypoglycemia. This would be bad during a workout. It’s great to do simple carbs post-workout. Simple carbs would likely cause your energy levels to crash before your lift was done.  Simple carbs also have a very high osmolality, which we will see is hugely  problematic. What is this osmolality thing anyhow ?

Let’s first define osmolality. Osmolality is the number of molecules of a given substance (solute) in a kilogram of liquid (solvent). To have high osmolality means many molecules are in solution. Imagine a bucket of water with 200,000 sugar (sucrose) grains in it. After these molecules dissociate, you would have 200,000 glucose and 200,000 fructose molecules suspended in a solution. It makes sense that this solution has a high osmolality since it has 400,000 molecules in solution. The following example should provide a simple understanding: you could have 200,000 fructose and glucose molecules in a solution vs. 4,000 one-hundred long glucose chains. Of course these numbers are made up – but they deliver the point.

So, how does this information affect you and your training? The stomach has receptors that sense osmolality of the incoming solutions. The higher the osmolality, the slower the gastric emptying rate. Therefore, the high sugar solution is actually held up longer in the stomach while the HBCDs travel like a shot put through your stomach and into the intestine for uptake by the microvilli via enterocytes. These molecules are so interlinked and complex that it takes a long time to breakdown the glucose bonds, resulting in a rapid but sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream.  Avoiding insulin spikes and resultant blood sugar crashes makes this a perfect intra-workout energy source.

Peri-workout nutrition is the rage these days. All the cool kids are doing it. John Meadows, Justin Harris, myself, Dave Tate, and a host of other knowledgable diet coaches. All peri means is “around or about” according to Webster’s Dictionary. So literally nutrition taken in before, during, and after a workout. High glycemic carbohydrates are perfect post-training. They essencially force feed the muscle glucose in a hurry as insulin drives this process rapidly, usually resulting in blood sugar dips.  This would be terrible for workout performance, but is perfect post-workout. To maximize this anabolic window, drink HBCDs before and during your workout, along with either BCAAs or whey hydrolysate to deliver nutrients to your muscles while you train. HBCDs come in alpha, beta, and gamma chains. The beta chain is currently the preferred molecule in bodybuilding as it seems to favor rapid protein uptake. Start using some today and improve your recovery and make those hard-earned gains you are seeking a reality!

As for dosing, this inter-workout drink could contain anywhere from 10 to 50% of the daily carbohydrate intake totals. It would depend entirely on how lean the person is and how much lean muscle mass he or she has. I personally dilute 75 grams in half a gallon of water. I get no bloating and it seems to fill out my muscle nicely, while not causing fat gain. Keeping the mixture high in water content, makes the mixture lower in osmolality. If you don’t dilute the solution enough, you get a rather unpleasant effect called “dumping syndrome.” It is a very real medical issue that literally feels like your colon is trying to turn itself inside out. You will pass feces like 12 gauge scattershot. At that point, you know you have a hyper-osmolality solution. Simple fix: add more water. The issue for bigger bodybuilders (240 pounds or more) is that some can utilize up to 250 grams of HBCDs. This may take three-quarters of a gallon to keep the solution with lower osmolality. Drinking high amounts of water during a workout could either force you to will pee a ton or have to get adult diapers!  Most people will have to tinker with “their” mix to find the sweet spot.

If your solution isn’t diluted properly, then you will find the solution osmolality is higher than your serum (blood); normal serum reference range of 278-300 mmol/kg or roughly a 15% solution. For the HBCDs to be absorbed rapidly, the solution must be lower than the serum. HBCDs are roughly 160,000 Daltons in weight versus dextrose at roughly 160 Daltons, which simply means that they are 1,000 times larger and infinitely more complex. We need the solution to be lower in osmolality than serum. I believe roughly 100 grams of HBCDs mixed with a half-gallon of water would provide an osmolality of around 11. This would be a good dosing for a male middleweight bodybuilder. The larger the muscle mass, the higher the gram dosage of HBCDs; therefore, the larger the muscles, the more water will be needed to dilute the solution below serum to allow for rapid gastric emptying.

Hopefully this article makes the science less complicated so that the terms Daltons, osmolality, and rapid gastric emptying are no longer a mystery. This way you know how to use HBCD’s for your own advantage and make better gains.


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