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 I believe in balancing blood sugar to overcome fatigue. In fact, I’m such an advocate for proper blood sugar balance that I created an online course to help you increase your energy and balance your blood sugar at the same time! You can check it out here.
When you think about balancing blood sugar, you probably think about 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 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 deficiencies are 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.
However, too much protein – even if it’s plant-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 acid 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 use amino acids for many 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.
Did you read my article on blood sugar and fatigue?
This 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, dig into the blood sugar & fatigue post. And if you want to find out exactly which foods are contributing to your fatigue, be sure to check out my digital course!
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 produces insulin to move the glucose from your blood and into your cells. This causes a rapid drop in blood sugar.
Have you ever been hangry?
Being 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 too much insulin being released in response to a meal that was really high in glucose.
If your blood sugar drops too low, your body produces cortisol. Cortisol helps 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 production 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 lower your carbohydrate intake and increase protein. This is because protein helps you 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, it developed a unique way to convert protein into sugar.
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 bodies. When that fuel source starts to run low – like when you start eating fewer carbs – your body needs a new way to get glucose to your brain.
However, this converted glucose can also 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. 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 make it very easy to consume too much protein. It’s much easier to consume five smoothies in a day than five chicken breasts.
If you eat fewer carbohydrates 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 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 stabilize your blood sugar. And because of this, they are 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.
If you start lowering both your protein and carbohydrate intake, your body has to use fats for energy. And it’s a lot more work to turn fat into energy.
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 best food to balance blood sugar
The takeaway here is that eating protein and carbohydrates can cause a blood sugar imbalance. 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!
In my digital course, I guide you step-by-step through a formula used to identify exactly which food(s) increase your energy and which food(s) take it away. Get more info on the Stop Feeding Fatigue Digital Course here.
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 use nutrition to overcome chronic fatigue? Click here.
Just getting back into ketosis after an extended run of terrible eating … And now, no matter what I eat, within 20 minutes of finishing a meal, I feel like I’ve been drugged. Thinking I need to seriously decrease the protein macro and keep carbs at least under 30g … I guess the whole gluconeogenesis thing baffles me because if it’s taking place to fuel the brain, why, then, does the brain respond with a heaping dose of lethargy? 😶☹️
mark volmer says
It sounds to me like you’re in the realm of a low-carb but not quite ketogenic diet. It’s not a fun place to be!
Each of us has a unique tolerance to carbohydrates. More on that topic here.
I suspect you’re eating just enough carbohydrates to prevent you from being in ketosis. Try decreasing your net carbs to ~20g/day.
Let me know how that goes!
I came here via Google looking for answers to what Deborah asked above. I am keto and between 15-20 carbs a day. My protein is 0.6 of my LBM and my fat is double that. That all being said, I’m exhausted and irritable after I eat. What gives?
mark volmer says
Question one: For how long have you been keeping your carbs between 15-20g/day?
Question two: Have you looked at your daily calorie intake?
Assuming you are in ketosis, I see a lot of people end up with an incredibly low level of daily calories. It’s a common effect of being in ketosis because you don’t get the same intense hunger signals.
You can use a Harris-Benedict equation to get a rough estimate of your daily caloric needs. Make sure you’re relatively close to this number. If you’re way off, you’ve just found out why you’re exhausted 🙂
Let me know how it goes!
I have two boiled eggs in the morning as breakfast and all of a sudden I have ZERO energy about an hour after having them. But if I have a carby breakfast I am hungry all day! Feel like I just cant win 🙁
mark volmer says
It sounds like you need some more fat (and calories) 🙂
Check out my above comment on how to calculate your daily calorie needs.
Let me know if you’re still stuck!
Awesome stuff. I’ve been going through a roller coaster for the last 5-6 years with depression and fatigue being the number one enemy. The former has been effectively maintained for the most part by exercising, eliminating alcohol and eating and avoiding particular foods (found out my body doesn’t like dairy, gluten and dairy). Unfortantely fatigue, feeling sluggish and my brain feeling like it’s functioning at 70% capacity continues to make me lose hope for living an optimial and clear-headed life. Recently I started a high protein diet, just like you said above, a workout book said 1 lb of protein per gram of body weight. Ever since my symptoms have exacerbated significantly. I read an article about Slugish Cognitive Tempo which perfectly reflects my symptoms. It’s frustratinga and conflicting when you know something’s wrong with you and see multiple doctors/naturpoaths and still don’t feel like you should. I might see a nutritionist soon but in the meantime I’ll adapt some of these concepts and hopefully it does the trick. Thanks.
mark volmer says
I’m stoked that this info has helped!
You might find a ketogenic diet to help improve your symptoms even more (especially in the realm of brain function)! More info on that here.
Also keep your electrolytes in check, sodium magnesium and potassium. If these are not in check lethargy is sure to appear.
mark volmer says
Pro tips. You’re absolutely right!
Thanks for the feedback!
I have no idea what to eat any more. I’m so darn frustrated. But I have horrible fatigue and I don’t eat many carbs AND I eat both a protein shake and a protein bar every day. I better keep going research.
Jenny Cain says
Hi! I’ve been trying the Renaissance Periodization diet for the past few days. I do CrossFit several times and week, and I knew I needed to up my protein. Today I am experiencing extreme grogginess, which led me to here! I think too much protein is the source! So I weight 153lbs. The diet has me eating 5 meals and a protein shake a day. Each meal is 25g protein, 10g fat, 30g carbs. The shake is 10g protein, 10g carbs. But what you said about 1g of protein to how much you weigh LESS the pounds of actual fat is what needs to change for me. Fortunately, my doctor just did a InBody test on me that shows every breakdown you could think of. I have 58lbs I’d fat. Meaning I should be eating 95g of protein, not 135g, right? Based on that, what should my carb and fat intake be? Any advice would be welcome! Thank you!
Mark Volmer says
I hear you. At times, the whole nutrition thing can be so frustrating.
I suspect you may unintentionally be following a low-carb (but not quite keto) diet. And for most women, this is not a fun place to be.
Check out this article I wrote – https://fatiguetoflourish.com/keto-fatigue/ – it should help clarify!
Mark Volmer says
Eating 5x per day is common advice in weightlifting circles. What is often overlooked is the negative effect this has on your insulin levels.
Every time you eat, your body releases insulin to help lower your blood sugar. Under normal situations, this is not an issue. But when you’re eating upwards of 5 meals/day, insulin never gets a chance to come down. The instruction insulin gives to your body – “store calories”. Which leads to an increase in body fat – not the results you’re looking for!
My bias is towards a low carb, high fat – AKA keto diet – this will bring about a normalization of your insulin levels. As an avid CrossFitter myself, I love the sustained energy of the ketogenic diet.
Your recalculated protein macro looks great @ 95g. I’d recommend getting the majority of your remaining calories from healthy fats – avocados, olives, fatty cuts of fish/meat, etc. And fill in what’s left with carbohydrates. Just be sure to keep your carbs under 20g!
I’ve been eating eggs and a lower fat turkey bacon for breakfast for over a month. My trainer/nutritionist suggested taking protein shakes between breakfast and lunch to curb my snacking. After I drink a 16 oz protein shake, I’m exhausted.
Mark Volmer says
I’m thinking you might be dealing with a blood sugar issue – they’re often a hidden cause of fatigue!
More info here – https://fatiguetoflourish.com/healthy-carbohydrates-make-you-tired/
Nancy kram says
You have given the wrong information to people reading this article it is one gram of protein a day per kilogram of body weight not pound
Mark Volmer says
What you quoted there (1g protein per kg of body weight) is the RDA. That amount is the minimum amount of protein the human body needs to avoid getting sick. It is by no means the optimal or ideal amount of protein.
To keep your protein levels optimized, my recommendation stands – 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass.
hi, i have been trying to sort out my fatigue and feeling weak for nearly 5 weeks now by increasing my protien at first, then having three protien shakes a day with meals and a steak every lunch time. – it has made no difference any suggestions please? this has been going on for years and i just cant seem to sort it. Feeling really frustrated at the moment.
Mark Volmer says
Have you checked out my blog on keto fatigue? I think the information there would be of use to you 🙂
The literature says that glucagon is the primary hormone intended to raise blood sugar and the effect is instantaneous. Cortisol’s glucose effects take hours and simply a side effect, rather than its primary function. In addition,, using protein as an energy source is highly inefficient and only used when the your body goes into starvation mode, typically when body fat drops below 3%.
Hello – I just found your website today, and appreciate all the info you provide.
My doctor said I was trending towards “pre diabetic”. I went keto (carbs less than 50 g/day, protein around 125 g/day, rest fats). Now a year later, I am feeling a lot of fatigue (mainly “heavy & weak” legs). In fact, when I fast for 48-60 hours I have no difference in energy than when I eat. I also have diagnosed gastroparesis, so I know my digestion and assimilation is compromised.
Any pointers would be great!
Mark Volmer says
Are your net or total carbs <50g/day?
Make sure it's your total carbs 😉
This post will also lend some helpful info - https://fatiguetoflourish.com/keto-fatigue/
Hi there, I think you have your conversion of lbs to grams wrong. 150 grams is more like half a large chicken breast.
Jaydin Armstrong says
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Since last week, I have been noticing that my energy levels are quite low and is it because of my protein powder consumption? I have no other issues like constipation but energy levels are extremely low. ::(