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The New Faces Of Whey

January 2002

By Will Brink


Numerous studies on whey proteins demonstrate their potential for improving immunity, boosting glutathione and protecting against cancer. Sales of whey proteins are increasing worldwide and there has been a severe shortage of whey as producers attempt to meet the high consumer demand.

Researchers are finding possible medical uses for whey that are quite unexpected and different from whey's traditional role as an immune booster and anticancer functional food. As with all cutting edge science, the new research is preliminary but exciting nonetheless. For example, whey may be able to reduce stress and depression by lowering cortisol and increasing brain serotonin, improve liver function (in those suffering from certain forms of hepatitis) and reduce blood pressure. We cover these and other findings in this article.

One major area of research and profit for drug companies over the past decade has been examining the role of brain serotonin level and mood. Some of the most profitable drugs on the market increase serotonin levels. For example, Prozac is a well-known drug whose major effect is believed to be via its effects on serotonin levels in the brain. Prozac, as well as other anti-depressant drugs such as Paxil, Celexa and Zoloft, increase levels of serotonin. These drugs are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. None of these drugs, however, produce serotonin directly. Supplements such as the amino acid L-tryptophan, 5HTP and others work to increase serotonin by converting directly to serotonin in the brain.

Increased brain serotonin levels enable people to better cope with stress, whereas a decline in serotonin activity is associated with depression and anxiety. Elevated levels of serotonin in the body often result in the relief of depression, as well as a substantial reduction in pain sensitivity, anxiety and stress. It has also been theorized that a diet-induced increase in tryptophan may increase brain serotonin levels.

One recent study examined whether alpha-lactalbumin-a major subfraction found in whey that has an especially high tryptophan content-would increase plasma tryptophan levels as well reduce depression and cortisol concentrations in subjects under acute stress considered to be vulnerable to stress. It's important to note that levels of alpha-lactalbumin and other important subfractions can vary greatly and depend on how the whey is processed. Some whey products on the market contain very little alpha-lactalbumin and other active subfractions (i.e. lactoferrin). The researchers examined 29 "highly stress-vulnerable subjects" and 29 "relatively stress-invulnerable" subjects using a double blind, placebo-controlled study design. The study participants were exposed to experimental stress after eating a diet enriched with either alpha-lactalbumin (found in whey) or sodium-caseinate, another milk based protein. They researchers looked at:

  • Diet-induced changes in the plasma tryptophan and its ratio to other large neutral amino acids
  • Prolactin levels
  • Changes in mood and pulse rate
  • Cortisol levels (which were assessed before and after the stressor)

Amazingly, the ratio of plasma tryptophan to the other amino acids tested was 48% higher after the alpha-lactalbumin diet than after the casein diet! This was accompanied by a decrease in cortisol levels and higher prolactin concentration. Perhaps most important and relevant to the average person reading this article, they found "reduced depressive feelings" when test subjects were put under stress. They concluded, "Consumption of a dietary protein enriched in tryptophan increased the plasma Trp-LNAA ratio and, in stress-vulnerable subjects, improved coping ability, probably through alterations in brain serotonin." This effect was not seen in the sodium-caseinate group. If other studies can confirm these findings, whey may turn out to be yet another safe and effective supplement in the battle against depression and stress.

In the years of working with people taking whey, it was not uncommon for them to report that they just felt better, but I had no useful explanation as to why. This study may very well explain the anecdotal reports.

The protein alpha-lactalbumin increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan to the other large neutral amino acids, and in vulnerable subjects raises brain serotonin activity, reduces cortisol concentration, and improves mood under stress.1

Whey and HIV

Image with Caption
A major concern for people
with HIV is the loss of weight,
known as wasting syndrome.
As the name implies, wasting
syndrome involves a loss of
body weight.
One recent study concluded
a combination treatment with
whey and weight training
"provided a patient-directed,
non-pharmaceutical, low-cost
approach to augment body
cell mass in catabolic
HIV-infected patients."

One area readers are probably familiar with is whey's ability to suppress viral loads and improve immunity in people with HIV. HIV infection is characterized by increased oxidative stress and a systemic deficiency of glutathione (GSH). The importance of GSH for the proper function of the immune system cannot be overstated. GSH is arguably the most important water-soluble antioxidant found in the body. The concentration of intracellular GSH is directly related to lymphocytes' reactivity to a challenge, which suggests that intracellular GSH levels are one way to modulate immune function. GSH is a tripeptide made up the amino acids L-cysteine, L-glutamine and glycine. Of the three, cysteine is the main source of the free sulfhydryl group of GSH and is a limiting factor in the synthesis of GSH. Because GSH is known to be essential to immunity, oxidative stress and general well-being, different strategies to supplement cysteine have been used to increase glutathione levels in HIV-infected individuals. For example, NAC (N-acetyl-cysteine) and alpha-lipoic acid are well known for increasing levels of GSH. Whey also appears to be a potent GSH-raising nutrient.

A recent study evaluated the effects of supplementation with two different whey protein formulas on GSH levels and oxidative stress and immune status in HIV-infected patients.2 Using a prospective double blind design, 30 patients-25 men and 5 women-with HIV infection were randomized to receive 45 grams per day of one of two whey formulas for two weeks. The researchers looked at various indices of oxidative stress, such as:

  • Plasma concentrations of total, reduced and oxidized GSH
  • Plasma levels of TNF-alpha, Interleukins 2 and 12

Following two weeks of oral supplementation with whey proteins, plasma GSH levels increased in one group by 44%, while the difference in the second group did not reach significance. Interestingly, plasma concentrations of TNF-alpha and interleukins 2 and 12 remained unchanged in both groups. However, the short duration of the study might have found different results in TNF and the interleukins had the study run longer. The researchers concluded, "In glutathione-deficient patients with advanced HIV-infection, short-term oral supplementation with whey proteins increases plasma glutathione levels." The real question remains, Would this use of whey and increase in GSH translate into a more favorable course of the disease? The answer is it should, could, and probably would, but a long-term follow up study is needed for definitive answers. This study adds to the other growing research on the power of whey to possibly modulate HIV infection in a favorable direction.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study is the fact it confirms yet again that not all whey products are created equal, as only one of the groups had an increase in GSH. It's yet more conformation that not all whey products on the market will have this effect on GSH, and that the quality of the product matters.

Image with Caption
Increased brain serotonin levels
enable people to better cope
with stress, whereas a decline in
serotonin activity is associated
with depression and anxiety.

Another major concern for people with HIV is the loss of body weight, known as wasting syndrome. This steady loss of weight will be accompanied by significant loss of muscle mass or body cell mass (BCM), which is needed to support life itself. In fact, this steady loss of lean body mass (LBM) or BCM is strongly correlated with time of death showing just how important it is for people with HIV to maintain their LBM. Some researchers have opted to use drugs such as human growth hormone (HGH), anabolic steroids and other drugs in an attempt to prevent muscle wasting or reverse wasting in patients. These pharmaceutical strategies, although often effective and worthwhile, come with their own set of potential problems and high financial costs. One recent studied called "Effects of whey protein and resistance exerciseon body composition and muscle strength in women with HIV infection" examined the combination of whey protein and progressive resistance exercise (weight lifting) upon body composition and physical function in 30 malnourished HIV-infected women. The women were studied for a six-week control period, and then randomized to whey alone, weight training or a combination of both for 14 weeks. As expected, the combination group (weight training plus whey) had the greatest effects and increases in strength without large increases in body fat. The researchers concluded that the combination treatment with whey and weight training "…provided a patient-directed, nonpharmaceutical, low-cost approach to augment BCM in catabolic HIV-infected patients." People with HIV should employ weight training and whey as a low cost, safe treatment for preserving essential LBM.