Could too many protein supplements or steak dinners be a hidden cause of your fatigue?
As odd as it may sound, protein can absolutely contribute to fatigue. If you’re at all familiar with my work, you’ll know how strongly I advocate that in order to overcome fatigue, you need to have balanced blood sugar.
When you think about balanced blood sugar, what comes to mind is likely avoiding candy, baked goods, or other refined carbohydrate sources. This is a great place to start.
But what if after removing junk food and other refined carbohydrate sources from your diet you’re still suffering from fatigue?
An uncommon cause of fatigue could be too much protein intake! Just like candy, too much protein could actually be causing imbalances in your blood sugar. In turn, these blood sugar irregularities will result in fatigue.
I’ll explain how your protein shakes might be making you tired below!
Do you really know what protein is?
What comes to mind when you think of protein?
- Chicken breasts?
- Whey protein shakes?
These are all examples of protein, yes. A protein molecule is composed of long chains of small molecules called amino acids. There are twenty-one different amino acids that make-up one protein molecule.
For a more tangible example, think of protein as a Lego house. The amino acids are the individual blocks of lego that make up the house. You can build many different types of Lego houses with 21 building blocks. Similarly, there are many different protein structures that can be made simply by altering the arrangement of amino acids.
While chicken breasts and whey protein powders will have the same 21 amino acids, the ways in which these amino acids are structured is vastly different. Which is why whey protein looks nothing like a chicken breast.
Nine of the twenty-one amino acids are what are called essential. This means that your body cannot make these amino acids on its own and they must be obtained from the food you eat. Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all 21 amino acids. Most plant-based proteins are missing a couple of amino acids.
This is why vegetarians need to combine foods in order to obtain a complete protein.
Vegetarian protein & carnivore protein
The question every vegetarian gets asked is:
How do you get enough protein?
In more than a decade of clinical practice, I’ve yet to encounter a patient with a protein deficiency. Regardless of whether they follow a vegetarian, vegan or omnivore diet, I’ve still never seen a protein deficiency. Protein deficiency is incredibly rare in the developed world.
Even vegetarians can easily obtain adequate protein. But there is a difference between animal proteins and most plant-based proteins.
For example let’s take a look at beans – a common protein source for vegetarians. But beans are missing an essential amino acid known as methionine, so your body needs to obtain it from food sources.
What’s a vegetarian to do?
Simple. Combine those beans with rice, nuts, or oats, all of which contain methionine. Just like that, the vegetarian has a complete 21 amino acid strain of protein. Vegan or vegetarian protein powders combine multiple plant-based proteins to construct a complete protein chain.
But as you’ll soon find out, too much protein – whether plant or animal based – may be negatively affecting your energy, cognitive performance, and ability to focus!
The strange effects your digestive tract exerts on protein
Protein digestion is the process of your body breaking the long strain protein molecule down into small amino acids. The digestion of protein is like breaking the Lego house back into individual blocks. Protein digestion begins in your stomach. Here, a digestive enzyme known as pepsin breaks the long protein chain (remember, it’s 21 amino acids long) into smaller amino acids chains called polypeptides. Polypeptides are like three or four connected Lego blocks.
The polypeptides move out of your stomach and into your small intestine. Here, digestive enzymes from your pancreas break the polypeptides down into individual amino acids. Amino acids are tiny molecules, so small that they are able to pass through your small intestine and into circulation. Once in circulation, your cells utilize amino acids for a myriad of different processes.
Now, this is just the effect of digestion. As your body is digesting protein, it also has to maintain balanced blood sugar. It’s the struggle to regulate blood sugar that is the reason why protein may be causing your fatigue.
But before you learn about protein’s effect on fatigue, let’s give you an expert understanding of blood sugar! To best understand your blood sugar, we’ll start by talking about carbs!
Carbohydrates cause fatigue! A lot of fatigue.
The above article offers a deep dive into how blood sugar fluctuations bring about stress and fatigue in your body. I’ll offer a brief overview in this post, but if you want more detail, check out the article.
Cortisol – which you may know as your body’s stress hormone – also has an impact on blood sugar. If your brain senses that it is running low on fuel (glucose) your body perceives this as a stress. In response to the stress, your body will release cortisol. Cortisol helps to raise blood sugar levels.
It’s easiest to think of cortisol and insulin as having opposite effects on your blood sugar – cortisol raises blood sugar, insulin lowers blood sugar.
If you eat a meal high in refined carbohydrates – think a double-double coffee and a donut – your blood sugar will go up. This happens because when carbohydrates are broken down/digested, they become glucose or simple sugars.
As you know, glucose raises your blood sugar. Too much glucose in your blood is dangerous. So, your body excretes insulin to move the glucose from your blood and into your cells. This causes a rapid drop in blood sugar.
You may know this feeling as being hangry. Getting hangry occurs when your blood sugar drops to very low levels. This feeling can even occur right after eating. The phenomenon causing this feeling is often due to an excessive amount of insulin being released in response to a meal that was really high in glucose.
If your blood sugar drops too low, your body excretes cortisol. Cortisol is excreted to help raise blood sugar levels so you don’t feel so hungry. Remember, cortisol has the opposite effect of insulin – cortisol raises blood sugar levels.
When you eat foods high in glucose, large amounts of insulin are needed to bring your blood sugar back down into safe ranges. When too much insulin is released, you need cortisol to help raise your blood sugar back into a healthy range. Now imagine this dance between cortisol and insulin occurring every time you eat. This is the start of the yo-yo effect on your blood sugar.
Remember, cortisol is released in times of stress. Adrenal fatigue is caused by high levels of stress. So, if your blood sugar is having large swings from high to low every time you eat, your brain is going to interpret this as stress! If this happens over the long term, the continuous secretion of cortisol can cause adrenal fatigue.
The obvious solution to this problem is to stop eating refined or processed carbohydrates. That’s why most diet plans aimed at weight loss will have you decrease your carbohydrate intake. The lowered amount of carbohydrates will likely be replaced with proteins as protein helps you to feel full for longer.
But sometimes, adding more protein to your diet can cause fatigue.
How can protein cause fatigue?
Your body hates to have blood sugar irregularities, so much so that at some point in human evolution, the human body developed a unique way to convert protein into sugar. If you think back to the time when your paleolithic ancestors roamed the globe, it’s likely that they would not have had access to carbohydrate (sugar) sources at all times of the year.
Imagine trying to find fruits or veggies in the Canadian winter! To ensure their continued survival, the human body adapted a way to ensure its brain received fuel even when there was no sugar to be found.
This process is called gluconeogenesis. In gluconeogenesis, your body is able to take protein – say a chicken breast – and instead of breaking it down into amino acids, it’s able to transform the protein into glucose.
Gluconeogenesis occurs after you have decreased your carbohydrate intake and increased your protein intake. For most people, carbohydrates are the main fuel used to power their body. When that fuel source starts to run low – like when you consciously decrease the number of carbs in your diet – your body needs to a new way to get glucose to your brain.
However, just like when you eat too many carbohydrates this converted glucose can affect your blood sugar.
Yep, the sugars from protein are treated exactly like the sugars from carbohydrates. Gluconeogenesis is a way for your body to ensure it has enough glucose to power its brain.
Unfortunately, gluconeogenesis can become problematic. Do you remember how carbohydrates cause fluctuations in blood sugar? Which then causes fluctuations in cortisol levels. Which then causes fatigue. Well, the same problem can occur when you decrease carbohydrates but increase protein. This is how too much protein intake can cause fatigue.
Are you eating too much protein?
A lot of the bro science out there will lead you to believe that you need to consume 1g of protein for every pound of body weight. So, if you’re a 150lb female, you’ll need to consume 150 grams of protein each day. That’s equivalent to eating five large chicken breasts every day!
This is where supplement companies come in. No one wants to eat five or more chicken breasts every day, so companies offer you protein supplements. This way you can get thirty grams of protein (similar to one chicken breast) in a convenient smoothie or shake. Unfortunately, protein supplements offer an easy means for you to consume too much protein. It’s much easier to consume five smoothies in a day than five chicken breasts.
When you combine a decrease in dietary carbohydrates – like most diets advocate – and increase protein to extreme levels, gluconeogenesis is probable. If your blood sugar was imbalanced when you were eating more carbohydrates, your new high protein diet might not help the situation.
A healthy protein intake that helps to balance your blood sugar is 0.6-1g of protein per pound of lean body mass. Going back to the 150lb female example, let’s say she has twenty percent body fat, meaning she has a lean body mass of 120lbs. Therefore, her protein intake should be somewhere between 72 and 120 grams of protein each day.
FYI: the human brain weights ~2lbs but consumes roughly 20% of your daily calories. That’s about 400 calories every day!
If you decrease protein, where do you get calories from?
If you decrease both your protein and carbohydrate intake, you’re still going to need to get adequate calories each day. in order to do this, I recommend you use healthy fats. Fats will bring stabilization to your blood sugar. And because of this, they are likely one of the best foods to help you overcome fatigue.
Did you know: one gram of protein or carbohydrates is about four calories. One gram of fat is nine calories.
Carbohydrates begin getting digested in your mouth. Proteins start being digested in your stomach. Fats have to wait all the way to your small intestine before they can begin getting digested. Once in your small intestine, fat digestion begins after your gallbladder excretes something called bile salts. Bile salts – and enzymes from your pancreas – break long fat chains down into smaller molecules called free fatty acids.
If you start lowering both your protein and carbohydrate intake, your body will be forced into using fats for energy. To do this, your body has to break the free fatty acids down further into smaller molecules. These small molecules are then used by the cells in your body to create energy.
Did you notice how much more work it is for your body to break down fat and turn it into a useful form of energy?
Carbohydrates are easily transformed into energy (glucose). When something is easily transformed into glucose, it will have a dramatic effect on your blood sugar.
Since digesting foods high in fat takes a long time – and a lot of effort by your body – they will have a stabilizing effect on your blood sugar. This is why you feel full much longer after having bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of a coffee and a donut.
The takeaway here is that foods like protein and carbohydrates can have a negative effect on your blood sugar. If your blood sugar is imbalanced, you’re likely to suffer from fatigue. Fats help to balance blood sugar. Therefore, they can be an amazing food source to help you overcome fatigue.
For those of you with fatigue, transitioning towards a well-formulated ketogenic (high fat) diet may be just the solution you need.
If you want to see if your protein intake is negatively affecting your blood sugar and therefore your energy, you can perform a simple test at home. Purchase a glucometer from your local pharmacy and test your blood sugar before eating, 1 hour after eating, and 2 hours after eating.
Two hours after eating, your blood sugar should be less than 6.3 mmol/L but greater than your before meal reading. If your blood sugar is higher or lower, then you’ve likely got a blood sugar issue. And that may be the root cause of your fatigue!
Now, I want to hear from you!
How much protein do you consume each day?
How has changing your protein intake affected your fatigue levels?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!
Want to know more about how to naturally overcome chronic fatigue? Click here.
Also published on Medium.