These days, there’s lots of talk about how we can naturally support our immune systems. And while the conversation usually centers around major players like vitamin C and vitamin D, your sports stack might actually offer some overlooked immune-health powerhouses.
Turns out, that protein shake you slug down after working out can have a legitimate payoff not just for your muscles, but for your immune system, too. Whey protein, in particular, contains key amino acids and other components that do your immune system good.
Here’s what to know about whey, your immune system, and how your protein routine can support those ever-important inner defenses.
The Protein-Immune System Connection
First, some important background info: “Our immune system is made up of proteins, which are made up of building blocks called amino acids,” explains Roseanne Schnell, C.D.N., nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. These aminos help form everything from antibodies and immune cells to antioxidants and the lining in the gut that keeps invaders out of our bloodstream.
Since amino acids are so crucial for the very structure and function of our immune system, falling short on them (by falling short on protein) in your diet can have a negative impact on your immunity, adds The Vitamin Shoppe dietitian Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N.
In fact, according to Schnell, insufficient protein can affect your ability to produce white blood cells, which fight off toxic or foreign substances that the body considers a threat. As a result, you may not recover as quickly from illness.
Whey And Immune Health
So, now you know how important protein, in general, is for immunity—but where does whey protein, specifically, factor into all of this?
First of all, whey, which is made from dairy, is considered a “complete protein,” which means it contains all of the essential amino acids (which the body can’t produce) and nonessential amino acids (which it can), Michels says. Basically, it’s an ideal form of protein because it provides all of the amino building blocks your immune system needs.
Nonessential Amino Acids That Support Immunity
Plus, some of the nonessential amino acids whey provides—namely, glutamine, arginine, and cysteine—have particularly powerful connections to immune health.
A few immune responses depend on glutamine to be carried out, says Michels, so without ample glutamine, immune function takes a hit. In fact, research has established this amino to the production of immune cells called cytokines and a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes.
Low levels of arginine, meanwhile, can suppress immune function, Michels adds. Research has linked this amino with supporting T cells, which are famous for their cell-regulating efforts in the body.
Cysteine, finally, is a building block for the powerful antioxidant glutathione, according to Michels. Since we need ample amounts of glutathione for the immune system to activate when it needs to kick into gear, cysteine is crucial for a healthy immune response.
Thanks to its impressive amino acid profile, research has shown that whey protein promotes immune function and recovery in athletes.
Other Components Of Whey Your Immune System Loves
Important as they are, these amino acids aren’t even the only compounds found in whey protein that have an impact on your immune system. Whey also contains a couple of other proteins that do the immune system a solid.
First: lactoferrin, a protein that binds to iron to restrict bacterial growth and also binds to harmful molecules in order to trigger an immune response, Schnell explains. (Lactoferrin is also found in colostrum and breast milk, so you know it’s important.)
And second: immunoglobulins, which are proteins also known as antibodies that help the immune system recognize foreign invaders and protect the body against them, says Schnell. Without ample immunoglobulins in your system, you’re more likely to get infections, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
How To Get The Most Immune Benefits From Your Protein Routine
In general, consuming enough protein each day is important for keeping your immune health in tip-top shape. “Aim for a minimum of 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day,” says Michels. “A 150-pound individual, for example, requires a minimum of 68 to 82 grams of protein per day.”
That said, people who exercise will need even more than this in order to support muscle growth and metabolism, as well as to ensure the immune system has ample amounts of the amino acids it needs to function well, Michels adds. Your best bet for figuring out your unique needs: Talk to a credentialed nutritionist. (You can book a free consultation with one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s nutritionists here.)
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
Since intense training (or even regular moderate-intensity training) can cause oxidative stress and impaired immunity—exercise is a stressor, after all—supplementing with whey protein post-workout can help active people recover and perform, says Schnell.
Whether you opt for a whey protein isolate, a whey protein concentrate, or some sort of blend, your supplement will provide all of the essential and nonessential amino acids needed to support the immune system, Schnell notes.
Two options that are easy to digest and offer high concentrations of immune-loving aminos like glutamine, cysteine, and arginine, according to Michels: BodyTech Whey Tech Pro24 and BodyTech Elite Hydrolyzed Whey Isolate. That said, you can always check the product labels on protein tubs in order to compare the specific amino acid profiles they contain to ensure your pick supports your goals.
The Bottom Line On Whey Protein And Immunity
Your main goal when supplementing with any protein powder should be to meet your daily protein needs. Since not all protein powders are complete proteins with optimal levels of various amino acids, whey is a great option for anyone who tolerates dairy and wants to really optimize the immune perks.