You already drink whey protein for lean body mass and recovery<1> but, what about the intricacies of what whey protein is doing for you beyond building muscle and catalyzing better recovery? If we told you that whey protein supports antioxidant activity in your body, would you believe us? It’s true. One of the most under-appreciated benefits of daily supplementation of whey protein is that it increases your body’s levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that is naturally produced in our cells.
At this point, you might be thinking that you’ve opened the wrong article. Whey protein builds muscles. The end. But no, it’s the truth: Whey protein’s benefits are not limited to muscle synthesis. Research demonstrates that daily supplementation of whey protein enhances the body’s production of an endogenous (meaning made in the body, aka, homemade) antioxidant, glutathione<2>,<3>.
Let’s dive in: Glutathione (GSH) is a bio-chemical the body creates to protect itself from oxidation, aka, stress on a cellular level<4>. GSH is an antioxidant<5>, just like vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols, and carotenoids. However, those antioxidants are found in foods, whereas GSH is made in your cells, independent of dietary (aka exogenous) antioxidants. While we do not need to eat dietary antioxidants to make GSH, its synthesis (creation) does require specific amino acids (protein building blocks), cysteine, glycine, and glutamate, in order to be synthesized<6>.
One of the rate-limiting amino acids in the production of glutathione is cysteine. This means that without enough of the amino acid cysteine, glutathione cannot be made. Cysteine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that we can either get cysteine from our diet or the human body can make cysteine. If we are not eating enough foods rich in cysteine, our bodies make cysteine from the essential amino acid methionine. Here, is where whey protein comes in: Cysteine is found in high concentrations in whey protein. Supplementing whey protein supports the body’ production of GSH3,<7>,<8>.
Now that you know how glutathione, our body’s powerful homemade antioxidant, is made, let’s observe at why it’s so important for optimal health. Glutathione is a marker of resilience that decreases as we age. Glutathione acts against oxidative stress<9> by stabilizing dangerous reactive oxygen species (ROS), as it donates electrons to them. ROS are “reactive”, and therefore not stable because they are missing electrons. Glutathione remedies the reactivity of ROS by donating an electron to the ROS, hence making it stable, and no longer harmful. Thank you, glutathione.
What does all of this mean? Think of a child who just dropped their ice-cream cone on the ground. They are crying because their treat just fell to its demise. They go try to take their sibling’s ice cream cone out of frustration and desperation (we’ve all been there, right?). This frustrated, ice-cream-dropping child is our metaphorical Reactive Oxygen Species.
In comes mom, carrying her bigger portion of ice cream. She notices her child is reactive, as they have dropped their ice-cream cone on the ground, and are heading toward their sibling to steal some their ice cream. Mom picks the fallen cone up from the pile of spilled ice cream, takes a scoop of her ice cream, and puts it on the child’s cone. She hands the cone, once again topped with ice cream, back to the now-smiling child, and once more the child is stable: The child has ice cream, sibling doesn’t have to worry about a stressful “attack” on their ice cream, and Mom, still has ice cream to enjoy. Mom is glutathione. Her job is to quench the reactivity of any unstable children (aka ROS), in order to prevent more potential stress. And, that she does.
To make sure we are on the same page, altruistic Mom, is the metaphorical GSH, and the ROS is her child who dropped the ice cream. She stabilized the child with no harm to herself, and moves on, just as glutathione stabilize reactive oxygen species to prevent harm to the body.
As you can imagine, there are ROS being made in our bodies all the time. From the intense, but healthy stress of workouts, to environmental toxins, too-much processed dietary sugar, psychological stress, cigarette smoking, rancid oils in your food, and even sleep restriction, ROS are a part of life. Surely, we can practice lifestyle modifications to reduce the production of ROS, but there is no way to completely stop it. Ensuring your body can make an abundance of GSH is the perfect complement to practicing a lifestyle that prevents excessive production of ROS. Research has demonstrated that supplementing cysteine<10>, by consuming whey protein equips your body with the ability to synthesize higher amounts of protective glutathione.
Are you an athlete? Now that you know the benefits of glutathione, stay tuned for Part II of the Whey and Glutathione Series to learn how increased production of glutathione can support athletes.