The benefits of whey protein have been researched heavily and include promotion of muscle growth, decreasing blood pressure, aiding recovery from exercise and reducing inflammation, but what happens if we are unable to effectively absorb the protein? Unfortunately, modern lifestyle and diet choices mean that our ability to utilize whey protein is sometimes diminished, however there is a simple way to ensure our muscles can optimally use whey to support their repair and growth.
We can measure how well a protein source is absorbed and utilized by the body, we call this it’s biological value (BV). The BV of whey protein is fairly high, up to 104 for a whey isolate formula such as Instant Whey; compare this to the BV of meat 80 and milk 91, we can easily see why whey protein is deemed as one of the best post workout sources of protein. However just because it has a high BV does not mean that 100% of it is absorbed and utilized. This is because digestion of protein is reliant on proper digestive enzymes which are released by the pancreas.
The majority of the protein consumed is digested in the intestines. In order for this digestion to occur the body must be able to break down protein into peptides and then further into amino acids which can be absorbed through the small intestinal wall; and in order for that to happen the body needs enzymes called proteases. These enzymes alongside, lipases which break down fat and amylase which break down carbohydrates are released by the pancreas.
Once the proteins have been broken down into amino acids they are absorbed into the bloodstream where they are circulated to the muscle tissue and other cells. When the amino acids reach the cells they can start repairing and rebuilding the tissue damaged from exercise training to make it stronger and bigger.
However, if the body cannot break down whey protein then it cannot reach the muscles and start the repair process. Symptoms of low levels of digestive enzymes include bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, constipation and diarrhoea.
Although diseases such as cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis and brush border diseases such as coeliac disease are known causes of decreased digestive enzymes, diet and lifestyle choices also have a huge impact; which is why abdominal complaints are becoming more common.
There are a few potential causes of enzyme deficiency; these include low-grade chronic inflammation in the digestive tract- this can be caused by food intolerances, infection or nutrient deficiencies. Chronic stress is probably the most common reason for low enzymes when our adrenalin is high and we are in “fight or flight” mode. This can be triggered by needing to get to school or work on time, an important meeting, a deadline or just generalized anxiety; the body reduces digestive function, including enzyme output. This is due to fight or flight mode being an essential function in prehistoric times for physical survival - the body would increase adrenaline, increasing the heart pumping and directing the blood away from non-essential organs (such as the digestive system) and towards the legs to keep them running. Ageing can also decrease enzyme production.
In modern life many people may suffer from either a nutrient deficiency, which could impair digestion or chronic stress (which can also impair digestion). This means our digestive enzyme production is low and our ability to absorb amino acids is low; causing a decreased recovery from training, reducing the chance of increasing muscle strength and size.
However, this does not mean supplementing with whey protein is useless, as it is important in the recovery process due to its BV, especially if training twice per day; it simply means we need to supplement with a digestive enzyme. Ideally combining a digestive enzyme with whey protein will yield the best results to ensure absorption and maximally support recovery.