Common Health Concerns With Many Protein Supplements
New research suggests some potential health concerns over certain proteins such as aminoacidemia and allergies. Below is a brief explanation of the potential problems with whey, dairy, and soy protein supplements.
Dairy Protein Digestion Problems–The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimates that 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. These are people who cannot digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. According to the FDA, symptoms include gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, etc. However, many others are also allergic to dairy products, specifically the proteins found in milk and whey. Either way, poorly digested bovine antigens (substances that provoke an immune reaction) like casein become "allergens" in allergic individuals. Dairy products are the leading cause of food allergy, often revealed by diarrhea, constipation and fatigue. Many cases of asthma and sinus infections are reported to be relieved and even eliminated by cutting out dairy. The exclusion of dairy, however, must be complete to see any benefit.
Protein Milk Allergies
Whey Protein Allergies
Health Problems With Whey & Dairy Allergies and intolerances
Protein digestion begins in the stomach. If the food you eat is not cooked or processed, enzymes present in the food itself will actually break down some 70% of the protein in the first hour in a process called autolytic digestion. After the first hour, pepsinogen and hydrochloric acid are introduced to the process (the hydrochloric acid converts the pepsinogen into pepsin). Pepsin further breaks down the protein into amino acids and their derivatives, a process that is completed (theoretically) by the enzymes trypsin and chymotrypsin produced in the pancreas and released into the small intestine. The amino acids and related molecules derived from the dietary protein are then absorbed through the walls of the gastrointestinal tract. The absorption rate of the individual amino acids is highly dependent on the protein source. For example, after whey protein is broken down, some 90% of it is absorbed quickly -- perhaps too quickly -- whereas soy protein is absorbed much more slowly and much less completely. A rice and pea protein combination, on the other hand splits the difference -- sharing soy's longer absorption time frame, but whey's high level of ultimate absorption.
This process, however, is not equal in all people. How the food is cooked, whether or not the protein is denatured by processing and heat, the presence or absence of enzymes (natural or supplemented), and the presence of other substances such as pectin can all affect the ultimate break down of the proteins and whether or not they trigger allergies or are responsible for intolerances. Which brings us to the question at hand.
Technically speaking, food allergies and food intolerances are two different things. A food allergy, or hypersensitivity, is defined as an abnormal response to a food triggered by the immune system. Common symptoms, according to medical authorities, usually appear within minutes to a couple of hours after eating the food in question and include:
- Tingling sensation in the mouth
- Swelling of the tongue and throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Abdominal cramps
- Drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness, and death.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, does not involve the immune system (theoretically), occurs in the digestive tract, and is characterized by symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, and dark circles under the eyes.
In truth, food allergies and intolerances are two sides of the same coin (the inability to break down the food in question) manifesting in different parts of the body. If the protein in question is so large that it can't pass through the walls of the intestine and the symptoms they cause manifest in the intestinal tract without involving the immune system, they are called an intolerance. On the other hand, if the protein breaks down enough to pass through the walls of the intestine and enter the bloodstream, but allows for relatively larger proteins (larger than its constituent amino acids) to enter the bloodstream and be targeted as antigens by the immune system (or affect mast cells in the intestinal wall), you have a food allergy. Two parts of the immune response are involved:
- The antibody, immunoglobulin E (IgE), that circulates in the blood.
- And mast cells, which can be found in all body tissues but especially in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.
The most common food allergies are shrimp, lobster, crab, and other shellfish, nuts of all kinds (peanuts, walnuts, and tree nuts), wheat, corn, dairy, fish, and eggs.
The official line is that only about 1.5 percent of adults and up to 6 percent of children younger than 3 years in the United States -- about 4 million people -- have a "true" food allergy, according to researchers. But the reality is most likely quite different. Setting aside for a moment the 150 or so people who die every year from food allergies in the US, you can make a case that virtually 100% of people have a low level allergic response to foods such as wheat, corn, and dairy. By low level, we're talking about almost immeasurable systemic inflammation in the body and chronic mucous production -- either seen in the stools, or experienced as constant throat clearing, sniffling, and high susceptibility to allergy triggers such as dust and pollen.
Ultimately, allergies are not restricted to proteins. Almost anything can trigger an allergic response in a susceptible individual -- for example sunlight (solar urticaria) and water (aquagenic urticaria) can trigger responses in a small number of people. But dig deep enough, and a protein may still play a prominent role -- as can be seen in solar urticaria.
However, our focus is on dietary proteins and protein allergies. With that in mind, the primary culprits are:
- Dairy and whey
- Shell fish
- And wheat gluten meat substitutes for vegetarians
But concerns about protein consumption do not end with food allergies and intolerances. There are a couple of other conditions that need to be mentioned:
- Intestinal toxemia
Aminoacidemia may sound like a disease, but it's not. It is a condition in which excessive amounts of amino acids are present in the blood. If there is nothing in the diet, for example, to account for it, it could be indicative of missing or defective enzymes in the liver, which are essential for the breakdown of nitrogen containing amino acids in the body. If your body can't sufficiently break down amino acids, it can lead to generalized hyper-aminoacidemia, and ultimately to neurotoxicity and early death.
For years bodybuilders have claimed that excess amino acids dumped quickly into the bloodstream is a helpful condition for building muscle. Unfortunately, new studies now indicate that not only is this not necessarily true, but that aminoacidemia may be a contributing factor in the onset of diabetes. Specifically, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has confirmed that whey’s high Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score actually ensures a rate of amino acid delivery that is too rapid to sustain the anabolic requirement during the postprandial period (the period right after a meal).
Again, we're talking about intentionally induced aminoacidemia through diet. For years bodybuilders have claimed this is a helpful condition for building muscle, and for several years now, this has been one of the main selling features of whey protein in the bodybuilding community. The rational is that muscle growth is about staying in a positive nitrogen state. Exercise damages muscle, stresses it, and throws your body into a negative nitrogen catabolic (breakdown) state. And the best way to take yourself out of a catabolic state and into a positive nitrogen anabolic (building) state is to consume the fastest absorbing protein you can get your hands on -- whey. And there is no question that whey protein induces a short term dramatic increase in blood levels of amino acids -- i.e. aminoacidemia. Unfortunately, new studies now indicate that this rational, taken as a whole, may not necessarily be true.
Specifically, studies have confirmed the "paradox" of the highly soluble proteins found in whey and whey isolate, which, despite their high Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, ensure a rate of amino acid delivery that is too rapid to sustain the body's anabolic requirement during the minutes and hours after consuming it -- thus being counterproductive for the development of muscle. Or in simple terms, aminoacidemia may not provide the benefit many bodybuilders think it does.
But even worse, aminoacidemia may actually have long term health consequences. One example is diabetes. Interestingly enough, short term aminoacidemia can actually lower blood sugar levels since it stimulates higher beta-cell secretion and a concomitant increase in insulin levels (by as much as 40%). This, of course, significantly lowers blood sugar levels. However, over time, this constant stimulation may overstress and degrade the ability of beta-cells to produce sufficient insulin when called for and may ultimately, over time, contribute to pre-diabetic and diabetic conditions in the body.
In addition, excess amino acids are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and ammonia. Ammonia is toxic to the body and is a primary cause of premature fatigue. Normally, the body handles excess ammonia by converting it to urea then filtering it through the kidneys. But if the ammonia level is too high, it overburdens the kidneys. This is why doctors will insist on lower levels of protein intake in cases of kidney disease. And finally, although you can find studies all over the map on the question of high amino acid levels in the blood (i.e., high protein consumption) and bone loss, by far, the most convincing studies indicate that there is a problem.
For bodybuilders, the paradox of aminoacidemia says that the main virtue of whey, its high Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, probably produces a rate of amino acid delivery that is too rapid to sustain the anabolic requirement during the immediate hours after consuming it – thus making it counterproductive for the development of muscle.
Whey and Intestinal Toxemia
Intestinal toxemia is not a medical condition. It is more of a catchall phrase used in the alternative health community to describe a set of conditions that can arise in the intestinal tract as the result of improper dietary choices. It has three primary manifestations:
- Putrefaction, which is caused by bacterial action on undigested proteins. Guanidine, histamine, mercaptans, indol, phenyl, skato, and other organic toxins may be formed as a result.
- Rancidity refers specifically to the spoilage of fats. This can actually occur in the digestive tract itself -- not just from the consumption of rancid fats in the diet. The primary concern is that rancid fats promote the production of peroxide free radicals in the body.
- Fermentation is caused by the action of bacteria and yeasts on carbohydrates. Excessive gas, increased blood alcohol levels (that's why excess sugar can give you a hangover), and Candida hyper-growth are just three problems associated with intestinal fermentation.
Intestinal toxemia occurs when large particles of undigested food enter the small intestine and colon. Since these parts of the digestive tract were not designed to handle excessive amounts of undigested food, the partially digested food mass becomes a fertile breeding ground for bacteria and yeast fermentation. Each nutrient degrades in its own unique way. Proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment, and fats become rancid due to the workings of intestinal bacteria. These bacteria then produce harmful by-products that damage the intestines, reduce nutrient assimilation, create excess gas and bloating, and lead to persistent diarrhea. On top of that, mild to intense stomach pains (the result of muscle cramping and excessive gas) accompany this process. Prolonged intestinal toxemia may be a major contributing factor in the onset of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn's Disease.
For a number of reasons, whey protein can be a major factor in promoting intestinal toxemia. Whey contains no fiber, which is necessary to keep things moving consistently through the intestinal tract. Because it is highly processed, whey protein contains no live enzymes to break down the large whey proteins. The human body actually has a hard time breaking down the three primary proteins in whey. Taken together, these problems provide an optimum environment for non-beneficial intestinal bacteria to thrive in. In addition, whey is very acid forming, which lowers the pH of the normally alkaline environment of the intestinal tract, thus favoring the growth of unfriendly bacteria over beneficial bacteria.