Whey protein is one of the two types of protein found in milk. It is an excellent source of nutrition, high in amino acids, immunoglobulins, minerals and vitamins. It contains a large amount of essential and non-essential amino acids, which are commonly referred to as the building blocks of life. These proteins comprise nearly every tissue and organ in the body, which means that whey protein benefits are extensive for your body’s repair, metabolism and general health.

Whey Protein Nutrition

The nutritional value of whey protein lies in its abundance of amino acids. For example, the typical whey protein contains up to 18 amino acids, which represents almost all the amino acids the human body needs. It is also an excellent source of the nine essential amino acids the body cannot get from the diet.

Here are the highlights of whey protein nutrition:

  • Alanine helps the body use blood sugar.
  • Arginine assists in the release of growth hormones, maintains a healthy immune system, increases muscle mass and reduces body fat.
  • Aspartic acid increases stamina and aids in RNA/DNA synthesis.
  • Cysteine is a precursor to the body’s most potent antioxidant, glutathione.
  • Glutamic acid is a neurotransmitter commonly referred to as “brain fuel” since the brain converts it to a compound that regulates brain cell activity. It is also a precursor to glutathione.
  • Glutamine helps with cognitive ability and maintaining a healthy digestive tract.
  • Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are essential to tissue growth and repair, and also help regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Phenylalanine is a precursor to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, and it also aids in memory.
  • Lysine is an essential building block for all protein and helps to maintain proper nitrogen balance.
  • Methionine is used to make a critical brain nutrient called choline, aids in digestion and helps the body use fat.
  • L-Tryptophan acts as a sleep aid, is necessary for the production of niacin and is used by the body to make the neurotransmitter serotonin.

But, whey protein nutrition doesn’t just stop at individual amino acids. It also contains biologically active immune-modulating proteins. These include:

  • lactoferrin
  • immunoglobulins
  • bovine serum albumin
  • alpha-lactalbumin
  • beta-lactoglobulin

The combination of all these nutrient-dense components is what is responsible for the many whey protein benefits.

Whey Protein Benefits

With all of this whey protein nutrition, what are the whey protein benefits for your health?

Whey protein for body building

A large number of weightlifters and bodybuilders use whey protein during their training regimen. A 2014 literature review evaluated the effect of whey on muscle mass. For the studies reviewed, the addition of whey protein to the diet significantly decreased body weight and body fat. Subjects also gained a significant amount of lean muscle, particularly if the whey protein was paired with resistance training.

Whey protein for weight loss

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning that the more protein you eat, the fewer calories you will eat overall. This could then lead to weight loss. A 2011 study compared the effect of soy protein versus whey on weight loss. Ninety subjects were given either a whey protein, soy protein, or a placebo beverage, and they did not make any other changes to their diets. After 23 weeks, the whey protein group lost approximately four pounds, whereas the other groups did not lose any weight. Body fat in the whey group also decreased by five pounds. Researchers noted that ghrelin, a hormone that regulates appetite, was lower in the whey protein group.

Whey protein for wound healing

Whey could become a standard treatment for chronic wounds, especially from diabetes and hypertension. Whey contains a number of natural growth factors that help cells regrow. It also contains high levels of amino acids, including arginine, glycine, and the branch-chained amino acids, which are essential to promote healing of bones, skin, and muscle tissues.

Whey protein for skin
Whey protein doesn’t just heal damaged skin, it also helps maintain skin health. Proline, one of the amino acids in whey protein, aids in the production of collagen. The gradual loss of collagen is the reason skin wrinkles as we age. Using whey protein for skin can help the body naturally rebuild and repair collagen, leading to fewer wrinkles.

Whey protein works against free radicals

Some of the amino acids in whey protein are precursors to the body’s most important antioxidant, glutathione. Many theories of aging and disease are based upon the interaction of the formation of free radicals and the subsequent reduction in glutathione levels that occurs to fight off these damaging compounds. This causes an accumulation of free radicals to remain within a cell which are then free to cause cellular damage, DNA damage and even cell death.

Whey protein and immunity

Whey protein boosts the immune response by replenishing the building blocks of glutathione in the body. It has been theorized that the immune cells’ ability to repair damage by free radicals is determined by their ability to regenerate glutathione. Additionally, the immune system needs protein to make new immune cells to fight against disease and infection.

Tapping into Whey Protein Benefits

Whey is an original complete protein food. It is considered optimal for building and regenerating our bodies and maintaining a strong immune system.  

Even Hippocrates, the Greek physician of the 5th century B.C., the “father of medicine”, knew about whey protein benefits. He stated that the body has an inner adaptive or healing power, and that to strengthen this healing power, he prescribed liquid whey to his patients. This was true non-denatured, native whey. It provided full biological activity and numerous health benefits.

In order to tap into these whey protein benefits, you want to look for a natural protein powder also sometimes referred to as native protein. This is the naturally occurring conformation of a protein. Unaltered by heat, chemicals, enzyme action or processing.

Presently, the various commercial methods of processing whey do not maintain the fragile immune modulating, regenerative components or biological activity that was originally in the protein. Most are overly processed and damaged during the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, the fragile vital protein components (immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, serum albumin, etc.), which determine the biological activity of the protein, are not retained.

Whether you are using whey protein for skin or for body building, the key point to whey’s quality and effectiveness is making sure that the full range of biological activity and the proportion of the protein components are preserved in their original native form as nature provided. Only whey that is minimally processed and maintained can achieve that goal. Additionally, the health of the milking cows and the quality of the milk is the foundation of this type of product.

There are many whey products available, and therefore it is highly advisable to have information from the manufacturer, the treatment of the cows and the processing the milk undergoes.

The public is now becoming more aware of the value of quality protein and is choosing whey protein for many good reasons. Whey protein benefits are numerous and can yield a wide range of immune-enhancing properties.

Kade Brittain