By Will Brink
Many people think of whey protein as a supplement only used by athletes wanting to increase their muscle mass. But evolving research suggests the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine and other fractions found in whey can mimic the longevity benefits of calorie restriction (CR).
Searching for CR-mimetics, scientists recently investigated the life span effects of a balanced amino acid mixture high in the branched chain amino acids found in whey.1,2 In keeping with earlier studies on other organisms,3,4 they found branched chain amino acids significantly increased life span in mice.2
This “superfood” provides all 18 amino acids, naturally occurring bioactive components such as immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, and a cysteine concentration over 4-fold higher than other proteins—all in a highly absorbable form.5-8 And whey is one of the greatest foods for maximizing glutathione,9,10 the endogenous antioxidant that quenches oxidative stress11,12 to inhibit diseases of aging.10,13-15
In addition to expanding life span, whey has been found to reduce muscle wasting in the elderly, reduce the risk of diabetes, inhibit cancer development, and defend against cognitive decline.16-19
Given all these benefits, whey has now been substantiated by significant science as a powerful super food in the quest for healthy longevity.
Calorie Restriction Benefits—Without Starving.
It is surprising to learn that about 45% of older individuals in the general population—and 84% to 100% in residential care facilities—are not adequately nourished.1,20 This results from reduced appetite and food intake, impaired nutrient absorption, and age-related medical and social changes.20,21
In particular, an insufficient intake of quality protein can lead to loss of muscle mass, reduced strength, decreased bone mass, low immunity, cognitive impairment, and delayed wound and surgery recovery. Low protein intake is a strong independent predictor of mortality in aging people.1,22 This problem leads to the functional decline known as frailty, a recognized geriatric syndrome.23
A second unfortunate factor is that, although calorie restriction (CR) has been shown to have beneficial, health-and-longevity effects, long-term adherence requires a major commitment of will power—and its potential risks for the elderly have yet to be determined.24,25
These two factors together—reduced protein intake among the aging, and the unlikelihood that people will follow a CR regime—bring us to whey’s CR-mimetic effects. Providing the benefits of CR without a reduction in food intake has now become a hot area of investigation within gerontology. 25,26
Whey is a potential solution. First, whey represents a high-quality protein supplement for aging persons—with a rich source of BCAAs to stimulate protein synthesis and inhibit protein breakdown.27,28
Second, whey delivers CR benefits—playing pivotal roles in hormone secretion and action, intracellular signaling, and regulation of gene transcription and translation.1,2,29 Let’s review some of these longevity studies.
CR Mimetic: Whey Can Add the Equivalent of Nearly 10 Human Years
Scientists investigating calorie restriction mimetic compounds discovered that increasing the availability of the branched chain amino acids abundantly found in whey—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—increased life span in yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).1,3
Similarly, it was found that the most striking distinction common only to long-lived mutant varieties of Caenorhabditis elegans worms was their increased up-regulation of these same branched chain amino acids.1
Then in a breakthrough study, scientists supplemented the diet of mice with a branched chain amino acids-enriched mixture of amino acids, similar to the composition of whey. The test mice received the mixture daily beginning at nine months of age, which is middle-aged for mice. There was no significant change in maximum life span for any of the mice in the study. However, the median life span was 774 days for the untreated controls, and 869 days for the whey supplemented mice—an increase of more than 12% after starting the protocol only in middle age.2
In human terms, based on today’s life expectancy of 78.7 years,30 this median increase—even beginning supplementation only at midlife—translates to an additional 9.4 years of life.
Whey Can Prevent Type II Diabetes—A Major Aging Disease
Scientists demonstrated that whey can reduce the risk of developing type II diabetes.16 Normally, a high-fat diet produces excessive weight gain, adiposity, and metabolic complications associated with higher risk for type II diabetes and fatty liver disease. Scientists placed mice on a high-fat diet for eleven weeks and gave one group 100 grams of whey protein per liter of drinking water (equivalent to approximately 12 grams for an average 165 pound human).
With no other intervention, the whey-protein mice improved both their glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. They also maintained lower weight and greater percentage of lean body mass, compared to control mice consuming the same daily calories but without the added whey. The team concluded that whey protein boosted metabolic rate in the test group and may be beneficial in preventing the development of type II diabetes.16
Another team found that whey remarkably decreases blood sugar without increasing insulin secretion. For non-diabetic individuals, taking protein along with oral glucose would normally decrease the usual rise in blood sugar. Researchers wondered whether whey protein could still lower blood glucose in humans diagnosed with insulin-resistant prediabetes—or whether, instead, their insulin resistance would blunt the hypoglycemic effect. 31
They divided the human subjects into three groups according to level of insulin resistance. For eleven mornings, they gave 0,5, or 30 grams of protein (from whey protein concentrate) and canola oil to all participants along with doses of 50 grams of oral glucose.31
Whey significantly reduced blood glucose levels in all three categories of insulin resistance—yet the rate of insulin secretion was not affected. They concluded that, despite very high levels of insulin resistance in some of the individuals, whey was still able to decrease blood sugar levels.31
Whey Maintains Youthful Weight and Lean Body Mass
In 2013, scientists reviewed many previous studies and concluded that the evidence supports the use of whey as a therapeutic treatment for obesity.32 Specifically, the study team concluded that:
“Whey protein, via bioactive peptides and amino acids generated during gastrointestinal digestion, enhances the release of several hormones…that lead to reduced food intake and increased satiety.”32
In a host of studies—all with similar conclusions—scientists have investigated pathways through which the proteins, peptides, and minerals in whey boost satiety, influence glucose homeostasis, and optimize lean body mass.33-37
The branched chain amino acids play an essential role in supporting lean muscle mass,especially among older adults.13,38 One trial compared diets high in leucine—abundant in whey—to calorie-equivalent diets high in carbohydrate. After 16 weeks, the leucine group lost 6.8 pounds more in total body weight, 7 pounds more in body fat—but lost 1.5 pounds less in lean body mass.39
Block Age-Related Muscle Loss and Muscle Wasting
Approximately 30% of people aged 60 or over have sarcopenia, age-related muscle-wasting that increases the risk of falls and disability.40 By sparing and synthesizing muscle, whey blocks this process.41,42 (This mimics the proven sarcopenia-delaying effects of calorie restriction.43)
The most metabolically active branched chain amino acid in whey is leucine, which promotes muscle synthesis by activating a signaling pathway in muscle that modulates the body’s anabolic drive.44-48 Aging muscle becomes resistant to leucine stimulation, but taking leucine with meals (or in leucine-rich whey) can overcome this aging deficit, stimulating muscle synthesis.46-50
Cachexia is a clinical wasting syndrome characterized by progressive loss of weight, muscle, and strength.51 Increased calorie intake doesn’t help.51 Cachexia can occur with cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and various chronic or malignant diseases—and is a major cause of death.
Because whey has among the highest biological values—meaning absorption, use, and retention—of any other protein source, it attenuates catabolic wasting by boosting muscle mass.5-7,52,53
One study involving HIV-positive men given whey found dramatic increases in glutathione, with most subjects reaching ideal body weight.54
Aging individuals may also benefit from whey’s ability to promote bone formation and suppress bone resorption.55
Whey Protein Inhibits Development of Cancer Cells
Animal studies have demonstrated that whey is superior to other dietary proteins for suppression of cancer development.56-58
This benefit is attributed to whey’s high content of cystine/cysteine and gamma-glutamylcysteine dipeptides—used for synthesis of glutathione—giving whey its rare ability to raise levels of glutathione.9,10 Glutathione is well-known to destroy reactive oxygen species—but it also detoxifies carcinogens and ensures a competent immune system.56
Studies show that whey’s tumor prevention is accompanied by enhanced glutathione levels, spleen lymphocyte proliferation, phagocytosis, and activity of natural killer, T helper, and cytotoxic T cells.56
And the whey component lactoferrin powerfully inhibits tumors by various pathways, including inducing apoptosis, blocking angiogenesis, modulating carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes, and possibly by scavenging iron.56
Unique Protein Subfractions Modulate the Origins of Cardiovascular Disease
Figure 1: Whey Proteins are the Healthy Constituent of Milk.
The protein component of milk is composed of 20% whey and 80% casein. The whey fraction is made up of various protein components that each have their own unique benefits.6
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality in Western society, and the two main contributing factors are hypertension (high blood pressure) and dyslipidemia (elevated LDL/reduced HDL).59
Recent research demonstrates that whey-based peptides reduce both of these risk factors through various pathways.60,61 And food-derived peptides are considered far safer than anti-hypertension drugs.
Several whey peptides—including alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin—exhibit opioid-like activity. Endogenous opioid peptides have shown promise as blood-pressure modulators.60
And limited evidence suggests whey’s lactoferrin helps modulate platelet binding.60
Casein protein raises cholesterol—but whey protein shows the opposite effect.60,61 Two-generation feeding of rats with sphingolipids—a type of phospholipid found in whey—decreased blood cholesterol levels by about 30%.60 How? Scientists speculate whey inhibits synthesis of cholesterol in the liver.61
Research also demonstrated a marked lowering of LDL cholesterol in rats given whey, which may be mediated through a decrease in VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein) fractions.60
Extremely interesting was the fact that reduction of LDL-cholesterol was not seen in animals fed amino acid mixtures that were identical in profile to whey protein—showing the benefits of whey are specific to its unique protein subfractions as opposed to its amino acid profile alone.61
Clearly, compounds in whey have cardioprotective effects that go beyond those of its amino acid profile.
Whey Defends Against Neurocognitive Decline During Aging
Serotonin levels in the body can decline with age.62,63 The rate of the brain’s serotonin synthesis normally depends on its concentration oftryptophan, serotonin’s essential amino acid precursor.64,65 Reinforcing this, dietary intake of tryptophan has been found to relieve depression and stress.66
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study indicated that whey’s alpha-lactalbumin increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan. And in subjects assessed as highly vulnerable to stress, this whey fraction raised brain serotonin activity and coping ability and improved mood under stress.66
Memory performance can decline under chronic stress, believed to result partially from reduced brain serotonin. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, whey significantly improved memory-test performance in stress-vulnerable subjects.67
Also, because it boosts glutathione levels,9,10 whey may protect against various age-related diseases—including neurocognitive disorders.13-19, 66-68
A 2012 review suggested that the peptides and alpha-lactalbumin found in whey may help protect against age-related cognitive decline and dementia during aging.68
Whey Components Protect Gastrointestinal Tissue and Boost Beneficial Bacteria
Because whey raises glutathione levels, it protects tissue against damage caused by inflammation.69,70 Lower levels of antioxidants—including glutathione—are associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).71
Also, glutamine is a preferred fuel source for support of epithelial cells lining the small intestine. It is rapidly utilized by tissues during catabolic states, such as gastrointestinal dysfunction among children.72
Dietary components that act as prebiotics can improve balance and persistence of beneficial colonic bacteria by providing substrates (growth surfaces). Whey lactose can be converted to galactooligosaccharides—indigestible ingredients that create a substrate that specifically enhances growth of bifidobacteria.73 These and other bacteria protect the intestine by secreting antimicrobial substances, modulating immune response, and influencing metabolic activities.74,75
In rats, the whey component alpha-lactalbumin showed dose-dependent protection against gastric injury caused by alcohol or stress.76 Researchers concluded that whey may help prevent gastric mucosal injury, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal pathologies—avoiding the need for antiulcer drugs, and their risks.76
Whey Proteins Rejuvenate and Optimize Immune Function.
Figure 2: Functional Properties of Whey.
Whey proteins provide a diverse array of functional properties that produce beneficial effects on many different biological processes and organ systems.6
Whey uniquely fortifies the overall immune system—so broadly that it’s remarkable.8
Major and minor whey fractions are established immune-enhancing constituents that modulate a full range of immune functions, including destruction of pathogens and elimination of toxins.8,77,78
Whey supplementation significantly improves primary and secondary antibody responses to a variety of vaccines.79
A key immunity pillar is the cell-mediated, adaptive immune system, which—through clonal expansion (proliferation)—builds up a pool of antigen-reactive bodies.8,77 Whey was found in an array of studies to be superior to other commercially available protein sources in improving adaptive immune reactivity.14,80-82
Mice supplemented with whey produced higher levels of white blood cells, lymphocytes, and cytokines—resulting in greater immune responsiveness and reduced infection severity.8,82
The antibody-mediated, humoral immune system needs to quickly produce antibodies in response to foreign microorganisms. Several studies found that, compared to other protein sources—soy, casein, wheat, corn, egg white, fish, beef, or spirulina maxima—whey proteins much more substantially boost production of both humoral immune response and antibodies.14,82,83 In fact, in some instances, the response was nearly five times greater than with other protein sources.14
Glutathione is the centerpiece of immune protection against endogenously created oxidative stress as well as that from exogenous sources such as pollution, toxins, exercise, and ultraviolet light exposure.11 And as mentioned, whey can greatly increase glutathione levels.9,10
An example of a condition characterized by glutathione deficiency—and greater oxidative stress—is HIV infection. Fortunately, whey supplements have been shown to dramatically increase glutathione levels in those with HIV.54
Whey is often viewed simply as a high-quality protein source for athletes. However, emerging evidence indicates that the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and other fractions found in whey mimic many of the longevity benefits of calorie restriction (CR).
Studies on various organisms, including middle-aged mice, demonstrate that supplementing with the BCAAs and other components in whey can increase median life span by up to the equivalent of 9.6 years in human terms.
This effect was modulated along typical CR pathways, including increases in mitochondrial biogenesis, reactive oxygen species (ROS) defense, cell signaling, and expression of sirtuin 1 (SIRT1)—the mammalian longevity gene induced by CR.
Whey offers a method to secure some of the anti-aging effects of calorie restriction without extreme food deprivation.
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