By Dr. Mercola
As you age, your body gradually loses its ability to produce critical amino acids—the essential proteins you need for energy production, immune function, and muscle building.
Your need for these amino acids also increases in times of high physical stress, like after a workout or when recovering from injury or illness.
High-quality whey protein contains all the essential amino acids, and has the highest protein quality rating among all proteins to boot, making it a valuable food for health, longevity, and fitness.
Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese manufacturing process. At one time it was discarded or used for animal feed, but researchers later discovered it had some really significant health benefits. As noted in the featured article:1
“Dr. Gustavo Bounous at Canada’s McGill University... discovered that mice fed a whey concentrate [editor’s note: not whey isolate] saw improved immunity to disease. The star player in whey’s immune-boosting power was found to be an antioxidant called glutathione.
In the 1980s, researchers discovered glutathione to be an essential component for cell development and for clearing toxins from the body.
Glutathione is so important to health that a lack of it can lead to premature aging, heart disease, cataracts, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, infertility, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, chronic fatigue, cancer, and other diseases.”
Whey is also a dietary “star player” that can help you optimize your fitness potential when consumed at the right time before and/or after strength training and high intensity exercise.
Whey—An Ideal Source of Glutathione
Glutathione has been referred to as “the master antioxidant.” It’s a tripeptide found inside every single cell in your body, and is an important ingredient for optimal health and longevity.
Glutathione is different from other antioxidants in that it is intracellular. It has the unique ability of maximizing the activity of all the other antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, CoQ10, alpha lipoic acid, and the fresh veggies and fruits you (hopefully) eat every day.
It also helps remove toxins from your cells and protects you from the damaging effects of radiation, chemicals, and environmental pollutants.
It’s not surprising then that glutathione supplementation has gained in popularity, but most oral glutathione supplements tend to be poorly absorbed, and hence a waste of money.
Even worse, glutathione supplements may actually interfere with your body’s own glutathione production.
Your body is programmed to self-produce glutathione, and synthetic supplementation signals your body to stop its own production – which leaves you dependent on synthetic supplementation.
Fortunately, there are natural ways to boost your body’s glutathione reserves by optimizing your body’s ability to produce it naturally. Foods rich in sulfur-containing amino acids are usually the best sources of glutathione, and one of the best in this category is high-quality whey protein.
It provides all the key amino acids for glutathione production (cysteine, glycine and glutamate) and contains a unique cysteine residue (glutamylcysteine) that is highly bioactive in its affinity for converting to glutathione.
It also provides critical co-factors (immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, and alpha Lactalbumin), which together help create the right metabolic environment for high glutathione activity.
The Many Health Benefits of Whey Protein
Being a high-quality, easily digestible protein, it’s an ideal complement to strength training and high intensity interval training (HIIT), promoting muscle growth and human growth hormone production (HGH). Studies show whey consumption may also:
- Help lower blood pressure if you’re overweight and/or hypertensive3
- Support normal blood sugar levels and boost insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetics4
- Reduce inflammation,5 including inflammation associated with inflammatory bowel disease.6 In the latter case, researchers have suggested its protective actions may be the result of the stimulation of intestinal mucin synthesis and modification of microflora composition
- Help normalize your weight. Not only is whey protein very filling, thereby reducing hunger pangs,7,8,9 it also boosts metabolism,10 allowing you to burn more calories, and helps maintain muscle mass while shedding excess fat stores11
Boosting Your Fitness with Whey
While conventional recommendations call for “loads of protein” to build and maintain muscle, most Americans already consume three to five times more protein than they actually need. What’s worse, the vast majority of it is inferior-quality protein, such as meats from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Eating too much low-quality protein can lead to elevated blood sugar and weight gain, and may even stimulate cancer cell growth, so quality and quantity are two key considerations when it comes to protein. As a general rule, I recommend limiting your protein to about one-half gram of high-quality protein per pound of lean body mass, which for most is 40 to 70 grams a day. Pregnant women and heavy exercisers typically need about 25 percent more.
That said, after strength training exercises, your body needs protein in order to build muscle. Whey protein assimilates very quickly and will get to your muscles within 10-15 minutes of swallowing it, supplying your muscles with the right food at the right time to stop the catabolic process in your muscle and shift the process toward repair and growth.12
There’s a crucial window of time in which this needs to be done—typically within one hour of exercise. One of the reasons whey protein concentrate works so well is that it has the highest concentration of any food of the amino acid leucine, which is typically the rate limiting protein element for muscle building.
A study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise13 showed that leucine and other amino acids found in high-quality whey protein activate cellular pathways, including a mechanism called mTORC-1, which in turn promote muscle protein synthesis, boost thyroid, and also protect against declining testosterone levels after exercise.
Other research14 has demonstrated that consuming whey protein (20g protein/serving) 30 minutes before resistance training helps boost your body's metabolism for as much as 24 hours after your workout. In practical terms, consuming 20 grams of whey protein before exercise and another serving afterward (within one hour of finishing your workout) will likely yield the double benefit of increasing both fat burning and muscle build-up at the same time.
Avoid Sugar Before and After Exercise
After an intense workout, there's an exercise recovery phase of two to three hours during which you have to be somewhat careful about what foods you choose to eat. Fructose (typically found in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is particularly detrimental during this phase, as it tricks your body into gaining weight by turning off your body's appetite-control system, and promotes insulin resistance.
Fructose has also been shown to increase the levels of TNF-α, a pro-inflammatory cytokine known to inhibit fat burning and promote muscle wasting—the complete converse of what you’re trying to achieve through your workout. Moreover, if you’re doing high intensity interval exercises with the aim of promoting the release of human growth hormone (HGH), sugar/fructose will effectively make you forfeit this benefit...
In the end, it’s important to realize that what you eat can either add to or detract from your exercise benefits, and if you're devoting the time to exercise for health and longevity, you'd be well advised to harness your meals to support your goals. So, if you’re seeking to improve your body composition and optimize health and fitness, remember to ditch the energy drinks, sports drinks, most energy bars and even "healthy" drinks like vitamin water, as these will effectively sabotage your efforts. To rehydrate, all you really need is pure water.
Choosing the Right Whey
When it comes to whey, you need to be very careful in your selection. A majority of the whey products on the market are of inferior quality and will not provide the health benefits associated with high-quality whey. Below is a quick reference chart of what to look for and what to avoid.
High quality whey is typically more expensive than lower quality whey products and I believe it's well worth the investment. However, if you can't afford high quality whey, your next-best option is raw dairy products, such as raw milk or raw milk cheese. (To find a source selling raw dairy near you, check out www.RealMilk.com.)
High-Quality Whey Products to Look For Whey Products to Avoid Whey protein concentrate: High quality whey protein concentrates have glutamylcysteine, the major precursor to glutathione. Whey protein isolates. All whey protein isolates are devoid of nutritional co-factors including alkalizing minerals, naturally occurring vitamins, and lipids, which are lost in the processing. Additionally once the fat has been removed from whey protein isolate, you lose some of the most important components of its immunological properties, such as phospholipids, phosphatidylserine, and CLA. Cold pressed, minimally processed, derived from unpasteurized (raw) milk from grass fed cows; water soluble, and highly digestible—look for medium chain fatty acids (MCTs), not long chain fatty acids. Whey proteins derived from ultrapasteurized milk and/or processed using acid. Heat and acid damages the protein and makes it insoluble in water. This is one of the key ways to differentiate high quality whey protein from inferior ones. Certified organic and naturally sweetened, with a rich, creamy, full flavor, free of hormones, chemicals, and sugar Products containing genetically modified soy lecithin, polysorbate 80, propylene glycol, ethoxylated mono-diglycerides, maltodextrin, caseinates, hydrolyzed proteins (MSG in disguise), sugar and/or artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose.