New research published in the Journal of Dairy Science suggests that compounds in whey protein may reduce some of the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Inflammatory bowel disease is the collective name for two diseases in which the intestines become deeply inflamed: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Unlike irritable bowel syndrome, in both forms of inflammatory bowel disease there is active pathology in the tissues. A biopsy of the tissue of someone with IBD would come back with visible, active inflammation (which would not be the case in irritable bowel syndrome). It’s estimated that as many as 1.4 million people in the US alone suffer from either Crohn’s or colitis.
The exact cause of IBD is not known, but like most multifaceted, highly complex disorders, it probably has a genetic component and is certainly made worse by trigger foods, bad nutrition in general, and stress. It’s more common among whites, and it’s higher in Ashkenazi Jews than in other groups, and slightly higher rates are seen in females.
One feature shared by both diseases is an abnormal immune system response. In people with IBD, the immune system mistakenly identifies harmless materials in the gut- such as food and bacteria- for foreign substances, and it mounts an attack on the intestinal cells. This attack involves dispatching white blood cells to the intestines which in turn produces chronic inflammation.
The present study investigated the effects of whey protein on various markers of inflammation associated with IBD.
Whey is one of the two proteins found in milk and is a product of the cheese making process. The other protein found in milk- casein- is separated out to make cheese and the remaining liquid whey goes is filtered, dried and processed into whey protein powder, a very digestible protein that provides all the essential amino acids. “Whey protein contains bioactive proteins and peptides such as lactoferrin and, in the case of whey protein obtained from the cheese-making process, glycomacropeptide that can be beneficial in preventing colitis”, the researchers said.
The researchers reasoned that whey protein might be beneficial for IBD because of its high concentration of two amino acids– threonine and cysteine—which have been found to be necessary for the production of mucin. “Mucin is the mucous like substance that allows the gut to better protect itself“, explained Joseph Brasco, MD, a gastroenterologist and nutrition expert from the Center for Colon and Digestive Disorders in Huntsville, Alabama, and my go-to source for all things having to do with digestive health.
The researchers induced colitis in rats (using a chemical called DSS- dextran sulfate sodium) and then fed them one of three diets. In one diet the main source of protein was casein, in the second it was also casein but supplemented with the two amino acids threonine and cysteine, while the third was whey protein.
The whey protein diet increased mucin secretion and protected against gut inflammation in general. In addition, the whey protein increased the production of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, two important strains of bacteria known as “probiotics”. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and help support immune function.
“The standard treatment for these diseases has been drug therapy”, Dr. Brasco told me, “with the intent of modifying the immune response in order to slow down the progression of the disease. What’s so interesting about this study is that they are trying to alter and improve the gut itself through nutrition. I’m encouraged by the fact that researchers are beginning to think that the immune system itself might be responding to abnormalities in the gut and that correcting those abnormalities might be a first order of business, one in which nutrition plays a huge part”.
But while encouraged by the decidedly nutritional approach of the researchers, Dr. Brasco stated that it was far too early to recommend that all patients with IBD start scarfing down whey protein drinks by the gallon. “This is a mouse study”, he cautioned, “and we really don’t know about dosing. Nor do we know if the amounts given to the animals in this study is in any way comparable to the amount of whey protein a human might reasonably consume.”