The Best "Whey" to Recover from Exercise & Build Muscle
Written By Nicole Crane, B.S., NTP
Working out is hard work! Whether you get up early, hit the gym during lunch, or pound the pavement before or after dinner, exercise takes time and dedication. That hard work also comes with significant rewards and health benefits. Just like there is a right way to exercise, there is also a right way to recover. After you are done sweating out toxins, burning fat, building muscle and strengthening bones, the body needs to refuel to heal torn muscle fibers and regenerate energy. Proteins contain amino acids, which repair and rebuild the structure and biochemistry of the body. When it comes to repairing and maintaining muscle, whey protein is the way to go.
Muscle loss is a major health obstacle for many people as they get older. Beginning at about age 30, 0.5% of our muscle mass is lost per year, and the rate of muscle loss can accelerate when you reach ages 60-70. By age 65, approximately 30% of muscle mass is gone, especially in those who are inactive.i Weak muscles and loss of lean muscle mass can make individuals more vulnerable to a number of health issues. From increased risk of falls and bone fractures, and loss of mobility to weight gain and other metabolic issues, losing muscle comes with serious consequences. With a little exercise and good intake of high-quality protein (two common missing factors in many older individuals) muscle mass can be maintained. Muscle mass can also be restored with weight baring exercise and a particular type of protein called whey.
The Scoop on Whey Protein
Whey protein is a dairy protein and it ranks very high in terms of quality and digestability. Whey is considered a “perfect” protein, which means it contains all of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make and must get from dietary sources. Whey protein is rich in two amino acids, glutamine and leucine, that make it particularly helpful for rebuilding muscle. Glutamine helps to support muscle in a significant way. Glutamine makes up about 60% of the amino acids in our muscle and serves as an essential source of fuel for muscle cells, giving them energy, power and strength. Glutamine puts the body in a state of positive nitrogen balance, which fosters a biochemical environment that is optimal for muscle building.ii Glutamine also drives a different hormonal pathway that fosters muscle building and slows the rate at which muscle is broken down.iii This makes glutamine and whey protein especially helpful for older adults who are looking to combat age-related loss of lean muscle mass. Glutamine becomes important when the body is stressed, injured, infected or energy-depleted and the biochemical demand for glutamine increases. iv Glutamine is just one reason why whey is such a nourishing protein.
Whey protein also contains the essential amino acid leucine, a branch chain amino acid with powerful muscle stimulating properties. Leucine is the only amino acid that activates mTOR, a protein that directly stimulates muscle synthesis.v This makes leucine and whey protein a powerful ally in the fight against muscle loss. As it is an essential amino acid, leucine must be obtained from food sources, since the body cannot make it on its own. With many older people struggling to eat, digest and absorb quality protein every day, a whey protein shake is a delicious and nutritious way to boost both the intake of easily assimilated calories and much needed protein – no chewing required!
The research on whey protein is quite impressive and reflective of its whole body benefits. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the muscle building effects of different dairy based proteins including whey, casein and casein hydrolysate. The study examined the effect of the three proteins on a group of 48 men with an average age of 74 who did not exercise regularly and did not have type 2 Diabetes. Participants were divided into three groups and given a meal consisting of a 20 gram serving of one of the three research proteins. Results were compiled from both blood biochemistry and muscle biopsies done at multiple intervals up to 8 hours after ingestion of the meal. It was found that whey protein stimulated muscle growth significantly more effectively than casein or casein hydrolysate. Whey was also shown to increase blood and muscle concentrations of leucine more effectively than either of the casein proteins, the mark of optimal muscle building. Of the three proteins, whey was shown to be a quickly digestible protein, compared to the casein proteins which are digested slower. Whey puts the body in an anabolic state more quickly and for a longer duration, making it more optimal for anabolic muscle mass accretion. vi
Whey Beyond Exercise Benefits
The benefits of whey are numerous, beyond muscle protection, repair and rebuilding. Whey has been shown to support weight loss, especially of fat tissue, mainly through muscle building and balancing of blood glucose (sugar) levels. Research on whey protein, especially on diabetic subjects, shows that is slows down carbohydrate absorption after meals, and improves insulin secretion and insulin sensitivityvii , all factors that support healthier blood sugar levels. Further, whey was shown to be more satiating than soy protein or casein, helping subjects feel fuller for longer, leading to reduced food cravings. Whey also supported a greater loss of body weight and lead to a reduction in overall daily caloric intake.viii Whey protein may be a dieter’s best friend and an ideal replacement for sugary beverages or even breakfast.
Whey also supports healthy blood pressure levels by acting like an ACE-inhibitor. Whey and other dairy proteins contain a peptide (protein) called lactokinin that regulates and suppresses the action of angiotensin converting enzymeix , which prevents blood vessels from constricting too much. Other research shows that whey protein acts as a powerful inflammation regulator, successfully lowering levels of C-reactive protein, a blood marker of inflammation.x Research is also beginning to show that whey protein can successfully lower cholesterol levels, especially “lousy” LDL cholesterol.xi Whey is a wonderful supporter of cardiovascular health.
For people who suffer from intestinal disorders like Crohn's Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS) and need support for their intestinal tract, whey is a great asset. Glutamine, one of the amino acids found in high concentration in whey protein, is also an excellent source of fuel for the GI tract, helping to regenerate both the muscular and mucosa layers.xii Many of the other properties of whey protein, as intestinal fuel and immune supporter and more, make it one of the best proteins for intestinal health.
Lastly, whey protein helps to build one of our most important internal antioxidants and detoxifiers - glutathione. Whey protein helps to combat the decline in glutathione that is associated with accelerated aging and increased inflammatory response. Glutamine rich whey protein has been shown to effectively rebuild and maintain youthful levels of glutathione, the primary driver of detoxification pathways in the liver, brain, lungs and kidneys. Glutathione support the optimal functioning of all the body’s organs and keep us young and healthy at the cellular level.
Whether you are walking, doing yoga, pumping iron, swimming or dancing the tango, whey is the best way to refuel, no matter how strenuous the exercise. Whether you are looking to maintain or rebuild muscle, whey protein offers numerous benefits for lean muscle mass and the rest of the body as well. Whey is the way to go for muscle health and beyond.
ii Hammarqvist, F. et al., 1990. Alanyl-glutamine Counteracts the Depletion of Free Glutamine and the Postoperative Decline in Protein Synthesis in Skeletal Muscle : Ann. Surg. 212: 637-644
iii Rowbottom, David G., David Keast, and Alan R. Morton. "The emerging role of glutamine as an indicator of exercise stress and overtraining." Sports Medicine 21.2 (1996): 80-97.
iv Agostini F, Giolo G. Effect of physical activity on glutamine metabolism. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2010; 13(1):58-64.
v Kimball, Scot R., and Leonard S. Jefferson. "Signaling pathways and molecular mechanisms through which branched-chain amino acids mediate translational control of protein synthesis." The Journal of nutrition 136.1 (2006): 227S-231S.
vi Pennings, Bart, et al. "Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men." The American journal of clinical nutrition 93.5 (2011): 997-1005
vii Frid, Anders H., et al. "Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects." The American journal of clinical nutrition 82.1 (2005): 69-75.
viii Pal, Sebely, et al. "Comparative effects of whey and casein proteins on satiety in overweight and obese individuals: a randomized controlled trial."European journal of clinical nutrition 68.9 (2014): 980-986.
ix FitzGerald, Richard J., and Hans Meisel. "Milk protein-derived peptide inhibitors of angiotensin-I-converting enzyme." British Journal of Nutrition84.S1 (2000): 33-37.
x Zhou, Ling-Mei, et al. "Effect of whey supplementation on circulating C-reactive protein: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." Nutrients7.2 (2015): 1131-1143.
xi Zhang, J. W., et al. "Effect of whey protein on blood lipid profiles: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2016).
xii Benjamin J, et al, Glutamine and whey protein improve intestinal permeability and morphology in patients with Crohn's disease: a randomized controlled trial. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 2012 Apr;57(4):1000-12.
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