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 candies, 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 your blood sugar is still erratic and you’re still suffering from fatigue?
Too much protein could be a hidden source of your fatigue.
I’ll explain how below!
What is protein?
Proteins are long chains of macromolecules that consist 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 to be a lego house. The amino acids are the individual blocks of lego that make up the house. You can build many different shapes 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.
Nine of the twenty-one amino acids are what is called essential. This means that your body cannot make these amino acids on its own. It needs to obtain these amino acids from the food you eat. These essential amino acids are the reason why your diet can’t consist solely of popcorn and potato chips.
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 deconstructing your lego house into the individual blocks. Protein digestion begins in your stomach. Here, a digestive enzyme known as pepsin breaks the long protein chain 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 (trypsin, chymotrypsin, etc) break the polypeptides down into individual amino acids. Amino acids are tiny molecules. They’re 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.
How can carbohydrates cause 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’re wanting more detail, check out the above article.
Cortisol (you may know it 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 the cortisol hormone. 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 muffin) your blood sugar will go up. This happens because when carbohydrates are broken down (digested), they become sugars. As you know, sugar raises your blood sugar. Too much sugar in your blood is dangerous. So, your body excretes insulin to move the sugar from your blood into your cells. This causes a rapid drop in blood sugar. You may know this feeling as being hangry. This could be why you get hungry shortly after consuming a meal high in refined carbohydrates.
In response to the low blood sugar, your body then excretes cortisol. Cortisol is excreted to help raise blood sugar levels so you don’t feel so hungry. This is the start of the yo-yo effect on your blood sugar. 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. But because you will now be eating a smaller number of calories each you’re going to need to replace them from somewhere else. This is where protein comes in.
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. 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 irregularities in its blood sugar. 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 access to carbohydrate (sugar) sources at all times of the year. To ensure their survival, the human body adapted a way to ensure its brain received fuel (sugar) even when there was no sugar to be found.
This process is called gluconeogenesis. In gluconeogenesis, your body is able to take protein (let’s say a chicken breast) and instead of breaking it down into amino acids, it’s able to transform the protein into sugars. These sugars behave just like what happens if you ate a doughnut, muffin, or rice cake. Gluconeogenesis is a way for your body to ensure it has enough glucose to power its brain.
FYI: the human brain weights ~2lbs but consumes roughly 20% of your daily calories. That’s about 400 calories every day!
Gluconeogenesis occurs after you have decreased the number of carbohydrates consumed. For most people, carbohydrates are the main fuel used to power the body. When that fuel source starts to run low (by consciously decreasing the number of carbs in your diet) your body needs to a new way to refuel. Enter gluconeogenesis.
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.
It turns out that when you combine a decrease in dietary carbohydrates (like most diets advocate) and increase protein to the above levels, gluconeogenesis is probable. If your blood sugar was imbalanced before, your new high protein diet is not going to help the situation. This is how protein causes fatigue.
A healthy protein intake that helps balance blood sugar would look like 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. This lady then has a lean body mass of 120 lbs. Therefore, her protein intake should be somewhere between 72 and 120 grams of protein each 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. This is filled in with healthy dietary 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 the mouth. Proteins start being digested in the stomach. Fats have to wait all the way to the 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 the pancreas) break long fat chains down into smaller molecules called free fatty acids.
If you start feeling fatigued, your body needs to increase its energy through the food it eats. If you start lowering 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 ATP or energy.
Did you notice how much work it is for your body to break down a fat and turn it into a useful form of energy?
Carbohydrates are the opposite, they 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 likely feel full much longer after having bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of a coffee and a muffin.
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.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What foods make you feel tired?
What foods energize you?
Want to know more about how to naturally overcome chronic fatigue? Click here.
Also published on Medium.