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The Importance of Protein for Your Brain

12/22/2021 | 5 min. read

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There’s a growing dietary trend that, if it continues, could lead to an epidemic of cognitive decline and dementia in younger populations.

If you remember, type 2 diabetes used to be a disease of the elderly. But dietary trends changed so much that the disease began to affect younger people to a greater degree. This same scenario appears to be occurring with dementia.

A couple of issues are fueling this phenomenon.

Lack of High-Quality Protein

Under the banner of social and environmental responsibility, many young people have decreased their consumption of traditional protein sources like beef, chicken, seafood, and dairy. In their place, plant-based substitutes have become popular.

Food purveyors (I’m using the word “food” here rather loosely) and their marketers have responded with the creation of “plant-based meat” products. I’m sure you’ve seen these at your local grocery store.

The long-term health effects of these products haven’t been established. Just because something is plant-based doesn’t make it healthy. I think we’ll eventually discover that many of these products are simply examples of highly processed foods with good marketing campaigns.

You’d need a chemistry degree to understand some of the ingredients in these products. One major “fake meat” brand lists 18 ingredients, among them methylcellulose and potassium chloride. Another well-known brand has 17 ingredients, including konjac gum and leghemoglobin (a protein derived from genetically modified yeast). 

Leghemoglobin gives fake meats their meat-like texture and makes them appear to bleed when cut. Some studies found that when leghemoglobin was fed to rats, they gained weight and experienced a reduction in blood-clotting ability, which can indicate inflammation, kidney disease, or anemia.

Additionally, many of these fake meats contain food dyes such as Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which have been linked to cancer. They also have more carbohydrates and up to twice the amount of salt as real meat. And the level and quality of protein in these fake meats are significantly lower than traditional meat sources.

Consumption of Processed Foods

Another troubling trend that could help usher in a wave of dementia is the ever-increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods include ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook foods like cereals, French fries, lunch meats, frozen pizza, and packaged snacks and desserts. These foods contain high amounts of sugar (simple carbohydrates), salt, hydrogenated oils, and flavor enhancers, and low levels of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals compared to whole, unprocessed foods.

According to one study, the calories that children and adolescents consumed from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% to 67% of their total caloric intake between 1999 and 2018.

Other research shows that highly processed diets accelerate brain inflammation and can prompt memory loss in just four weeks.

Only four weeks! You can imagine the brain inflammation and potential damage caused by years or decades of following a highly-processed diet.

There was one positive finding, though. When the researchers supplemented the diet with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, memory problems and inflammatory effects were almost completely eliminated. This isn’t to say the remedy to eating a highly-processed diet is simply taking a fish oil supplement. It does, however, highlight the important brain benefits of omega-3s.

Protein and the Brain

Protein isn’t important for just old people. It’s a critical macronutrient for kids and adults of all ages. I think this will become apparent as we see more “old-age” diseases mysteriously appear in younger populations, like sarcopenia (the loss of skeletal muscle mass and function) and dementia.

Dementia progresses in various stages and can take on many forms.  Alzheimer’s disease is one of the more extreme forms that afflicts 10 million individuals worldwide each year.

Certain amino acids, however, have been shown to slow down and even help prevent brain degeneration.

Where does protein fit into this? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When the diet lacks proteins that contain adequate amounts of amino acids, there’s a reduction in energy metabolism in the brain. Brain cells can’t properly utilize glucose to produce the amino acid L-serine. Without enough L-serine, communication among nerve cells is disrupted, neuronal connections are lost, memorization ability falters, abnormal protein clusters form, and nervous tissue degenerates.

A study out of Japan found that supplementing with a product called Amino LP7, which contains seven amino acids (leucine, phenylalanine, lysine, isoleucine, histidine, valine, tryptophan), could reverse these effects and inhibit brain damage.

These amino acids reduced brain inflammation by stopping kynurenine, a pro-inflammatory compound, from entering the brain. Restricting kynurenine prevented the body’s immune cells from attacking brain cells, which lessened neuronal death and improved connectively and overall brain function.

In a nutshell, by consuming the right amino acids, this study found that older adults without cognitive impairment could improve brain function. It could also help those who are already experiencing cognitive dysfunction.

The Easiest “Whey” to Increase Protein

You can easily obtain the same amino acids from a nutritious, balanced, whole food diet. Or you can do as I’ve done for the last 30 years and consume whey protein powder every day.

Even if you have a generally good diet, supplementing with whey protein helps ensure that you’re getting the full spectrum of amino acids.

Whey protein becomes even more important if you suffer from a health issue that makes it difficult to consume traditional protein-rich foods. For instance, a lack of digestive enzymes can make many food sources of protein difficult to tolerate. Lack of appetite is also a common problem with increasing age. Difficulty swallowing, reduced muscle strength that impedes chewing, periodontal disease, and gastric reflux are other problems that can affect protein levels and consumption.

However, taking whey protein powder is an easy, affordable, and tasty way to compensate.

Most people associate whey protein with weightlifters and bodybuilders. But it’s an excellent source of amino acids for everyone. Along with the amino acids mentioned above, whey protein provides several other very important amino acids, including alanine, arginine, glycine, proline, serine, tyrosine, and cystine.

Tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine are the biosynthetic precursors for making the compounds necessary for transmitting nerve impulses, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Cystine raises your levels of glutathione, the body’s strongest antioxidant. Glutathione levels typically decrease with age and have a direct correlation with overall health. Healthier individuals, and those who live longest, have the highest glutathione levels.

The importance of protein and brain function may be one of the most overlooked factors in healthcare today. Hopefully, it’s not something you’ve overlooked. If you have, now you know an extremely easy and cost-effective way to fix it.

Dr. David Williams

Meet Dr. David Williams

For more than 25 years, Dr. David Williams has traveled the world researching alternative therapies for our most common health problems—therapies that are inexpensive and easy to use, and therapies that treat the root cause of a problem rather than just its symptoms.

More About Dr. David Williams