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Navigating Protein Deficiency Diseases: A Functional Medicine Approach

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Raj is a software developer. He understands that his lifestyle is mostly sedentary. Being conscious about his health, he is dedicated to jogging every morning. But despite a seemingly healthy lifestyle, he has been battling unexplained fatigue, frequent muscle soreness, and a general sense of sluggishness that has become a hindrance in his hectic daily schedule.

Raj initially thought that these symptoms may be due to jogging too much or work stress. He tried to make some changes, but to no avail. Finally, he decided to consult us at Wellfinity, after numerous failed attempts at self-diagnosis.

Upon delving deeper into Raj’s diet and lifestyle during our consultation, a pattern emerged that pointed towards a potential nutrient deficiency. Raj had been committed to a plant-based diet. While that was commendable for its ethical and health benefits, it had inadvertently led to a significant gap in his protein intake as he was not focusing on protein rich vegetarian sources. This revelation was the turning point in Raj’s health journey.

Many of us suffer from the same symptoms that Raj had faced. And it is due to lack of knowledge that most of us cannot rectify it. Therefore, in this blog we explain the importance of protein in our diet, symptoms and causes of deficiency, the diseases caused by protein deficiency, and the functional medicine approach to treating protein deficiency.

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The Importance of Protein in Our Diet

Protein is crucial for everyone; whether you are a casual exerciser, a weight watcher, and athlete, an office-goer, a housewife, a school student, or a retired pensioner. Proteins are the building blocks of our body. It is an essential element for the growth, development and upkeep of various bodily components such as the vital organs, muscles, tissues, hormone production – including haemoglobin and immune system antibodies.

These components undergo continuous breakdown and that necessitates replenishment. Since the body cannot produce amino acids (building blocks of Proteins) on its own, it is dependent on dietary intake.

Moreover, specific proteins play critical roles in aging. Studies have indicated that insufficient protein intake might slightly elevate the risk of all-cause mortality in older adults. Thus, it can be said that proteins are the cornerstone of life and indispensable for existence. We cannot afford to be protein deficient.

Optimal Protein Requirement

balanced diet

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is a set of guidelines that provide recommendations for the optimal intake of essential nutrients. According to it, a healthy adult with minimal physical activity should optimally consume 0.8 grams or proteins per Kg of body weight.

That means, if your body weight is 70 kg, you should consume at least 56 grams of proteins. However, this is the minimal requirement to merely prevent deficient protein diseases. It is not enough to optimize our body functions.

In order to optimize body functions, at least 1.0 – 1.3 grams per Kg of body weight is recommended on a daily basis, depending on age, type of job, and health status. For instance, elderly people will require higher amounts of protein due to anabolic resistance.

Likewise, athletes require 1.5 – 2.0 grams of protein per Kg of body weight to build and maintain a higher lean body mass.

Protein Deficiency and its Causes

In layman’s terms, protein deficiency or Hypoproteinemia is a condition when a person has very low levels of protein in the blood. It usually occurs when we consume less proteins, or the body is not able to absorb the proteins we consume.

There are multiple reasons for the low consumption of proteins. Some of the major ones are as follows:

  • General protein deficiency in our food: In developing countries like India, we have a general protein deficit of around 30-50%, even though there is sufficient food for the population. This is because the food we have is generally low in micronutrients and proteins, and dense in refined carbs and fats.
  • Poor sources of proteins: Vegans and vegetarian suffer from inadequate intake of proteins as compared to non-vegetarians, as plants have limited amino acids. Non-vegetarians who eat quality meat diet, consume enough protein. However, those non-vegetarians who do not eat low quality sources of protein (like farm chicken), may be deficient in certain essential amino acids.
  • Demonization of cholesterol and fats: Protein always comes with varying degrees of fats in animal sourced foods. Fats are essential as they increase the digestibility and nutritional efficacy of proteins. The diet-heart hypothesis (the idea that saturated fat causes cardiovascular disease by increasing serum cholesterol) has been repeatedly proved wrong. Yet the demonization of cholesterol and fats continues at the behest of big pharma and the food industry.

However, off late a much bigger cause of concern as far as the absorption of protein is concerned, is gut health. A person who suffers from low stomach acid, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). Gut Dysbiosis, or any such condition that hampers the digestive system, will not be able to digest and assimilate the protein he consumes.

Symptoms of Protein Deficiency

So, what can protein deficiency cause?

The first noticeable symptoms of not enough protein are weakness, increased hunger and fatigue, as we saw in the case of Raj. However, there may be other signs as well. Some protein deficiency disease symptoms are as follows:

  • Skin, hair, nails and belly: Splitting and brittle nails, faded hair colour and hair loss, flaky skin and depigmentation are all signs of protein deficiency. Severe protein deficit can lead to swollen and puffy skin and bloated belly due to oncotic pressure which encourages water to cross the barrier of the capillaries and enter the circulatory system.
  • Muscle mass: Our body tends to take protein from skeletal muscles when dietary protein is in short supply. This leads to loss of muscle mass.
  • Bones: Bone is wrongly associated with Calcium alone. In fact, Protein, Magnesium, Calcium, Vitamin D and Vitamin K2, all have a role to play in the formation and maintenance of healthy bones. Insufficient protein intake is associated with lower bone mineral density and can make you more prone to the risk of fractures, especially in old age.
  • Growth: Insufficient protein intake may delay or prevent growth in children and cause stunting.
  • Immune system: Even marginally low protein intake may impair immune function with increased susceptibility to infections.
  • Liver: Fatty liver can occur in case of protein deficiency due to impaired synthesis of lipoproteins.
  • Brain: Neurotransmitters (chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other) rely on amino acids. When there is fluctuation in them, it leads to emotional changes. Proteins are also essential for synthesizing hormones such a dopamine and serotonin, which affect calmness, excitement and positivity. Chronic deficiency can lead to protein deficiency diseases in adults such as brain disorders like mood swings, depression, and even dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Inadequate protein impacts neurological function, causing brain fog, reduced concentration, and learning difficulties.
  • Athletic performance: A low-protein diet can lead to muscle wasting, fatigue, and weight gain, impacting physical results. In case of female athletes, it can also contribute to irregular periods and bone loss.
  • Sleep: Sleep disturbances are often caused by unstable blood sugar levels and altered neurotransmitter production. Protein consumption before bed aids serotonin production and stabilizes glucose levels, unlike carbohydrates that require more insulin.

Diseases Caused by Protein Deficiency

Now that you know about the symptoms, let’s explore what happens when your body is low in protein?

Severe protein deficiency may result in Kwashiokor and Marasamus. Both these diseases affect children under 5 years of age, but there are some differences between them. Kwashiokor causes growth failure, loss of muscle mass, generalised swelling, decreased immunity and a large, protuberant belly. It is a result of protein deficiency only.

On the other hand, Marasmus is caused by the deficiency all macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins), and is characterised by visible wasting of fat and muscle under the skin that gives the body an emaciated appearance.

Impact of Protein on Weight and Obesity

Protein aids metabolism and enhances fat-burning capabilities. Unfortunately, the ultra-processed foods that we consume today, is low in proteins, fibers and micronutrients and loaded with carbs, refined oils and sugars. So, consumption of ultra-processed food gives us less satiety per calorie and hence, we eat more. Protein has high satiety and helps prevent over consumption. Thus, it helps us to build and maintain a lean body mass.

How to Treat Protein Deficiency Through Function Medicine

Balanced nutrition can not only prevent, bur also disrupt disease progression and foster health optimization. Therefore, functional medicine sees food, including protein, not just as body fuel but also as medicine. How to cure protein deficiency by making diet changes?

At Wellfinity, we usually see protein deficiency or insufficiency in most of our chronic disease cases. For such people, we offer customized and personalized diet plans that ensures proteins are included in all three meals, but particularly in their breakfast and lunch. Personalization of the diet plan obviously depends on the individual tastes and preferences, but generally speaking, there are certain protein sources for both vegetarian and non-vegetarians. They are as follows:

  • Vegetarian: Spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and beans are good sources of amino acids for vegetarians, along with nuts and seeds like almonds, chia, and hemp. Vegetarians can also consuming dairy products like paneer, cheese, whey proteins, yoghurt and pulses. Ancient grains such as buckwheat, amaranth, millets, or quinoa are also beneficial. Additionally, consuming sprouted nuts, legumes, and grains enhances amino acid absorption upon ingestion, offering an added advantage.
  • Non-vegetarian: Meat, eggs, dairy and seafood (MEDS) are good sources of protein for non-vegetarians. Optimal sources include eggs, grass-fed beef, organic chicken and turkey, and wild-caught salmon, pomfret, kingfish, or mackerel. Lower income groups can focus on regular consumption of eggs which is a perfect example of complete protein.

Equipped with the right knowledge about our diet, we can avoid all kinds of nutritional deficiencies, including that of proteins. However, in today’s digital word, a lot of misinformation is being peddled for the sake of likes. This has led to a confusion regarding health and diet, among other things.

For the right guidance and help with respect to health and nutrition, feel free to contact us at Wellfinity.in. We have a specialized team of doctors and nutritionists with vast knowledge and experience in the field of clinical nutrition. Our team has helped thousand of patients reverse their chronic diseases with simple changes in their lifestyle and diet.

Protein is a unique macronutrient that beautifies and strengthens your body inside out. Ensure optimal protein intake to avoid diseases caused by protein deficiency and lead a better quality of life.

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