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Whey protein: from muscle to medicine

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Protein structure in whey
 Key learnings: 
  • Commercial processing of whey: are all wheys equal? 
  • Therapeutic applications of whey: 

                  - Muscle building
                  - Brain health
                  - Immune health
                  - Skin health


Whey protein is among the top supplements used by athletes and gym goers due to its high protein content, ability to improve muscle protein synthesis and increase lean mass. But research is showing that the applications of whey protein are much wider than a post-gym shake. Ever thought of taking whey protein to prevent illness? Here’s why you should…


Not all whey is created equal

Milk is mostly made up of a protein called casein (80%); the other 20% is made up by whey. Whey is traditionally separated out during cheese production, where the fatty parts of the milk coagulate, leaving the whey behind. After going through various processing steps, the separated whey becomes the whey protein powder that is commercially available and marketed for the sports community. From this kind of whey, there are three types easily found on shelves:

    • Whey protein concentrate. Low fat and low carbohydrate. The concentration of protein can vary between 30 and 90%.
    • Whey protein isolate. A further processing step removes all the fat and lactose making whey protein isolate at least 90% protein.
    • Whey protein hydrolysate. A whey protein concentrate or isolate in which some of the bonds between amino acids have been broken down, almost like a pre-digestion step. This means that this type of whey protein is rapidly absorbed.

Most of these commercial whey proteins go through biochemical heating processes which causes proteins to lose their structure, making them denatured. But there is a special kind of whey that is not usually talked about, and perhaps needs a bit more attention:

Non-denatured whey protein.

Non-denatured whey is a type of whey protein concentrate, but the whey is taken directly from the milk of 100% grass-fed cows. After impurities are delicately removed, there is no processing, denaturing or hydrolyzing of the whey protein. This makes it more bioavailable so that your cells have the best chance of utilising it.

      The research on this type of whey offers a better insight into the potential of whey proteins as a therapeutic agent. Let’s break down the research:


      Whey builds muscle

      Whey protein supplementation is a convenient way of boosting protein intake and is commonly used by those wanting to gain or preserve lean muscle mass. Taking whey protein also has other exercise-related benefits, including improved recovery from training sessions and enhanced performance in subsequent training sessions (1). However, increasing research is showing that whey protein supplementation has much wider benefits that lie outside of exercise. For example, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy typically experience extreme losses in body weight and muscle mass. Maintenance of muscle mass is important in improving quality of life and the outcome of cancer treatment, but normal dietary protein is inadequate to preserve muscle in these patients. Therefore, supplementation with whey protein can improve the nutritional status of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (2).

      Protein intake is most commonly associated with muscle, but undenatured whey protein supplementation can benefit many other tissues and systems in the body:


      Whey protein for brain health

      One of the main contributing factors to neurodegenerative diseases is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress leads to the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which can attack and damage cells and neurons. This is combatted by antioxidants, which neutralize harmful ROS. Unfortunately, many neurodegenerative diseases are associated with depleted antioxidant levels that ultimately leads to cell death. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that has neuroprotective properties and neutralizes ROS found in the brain. Supplementation may be beneficial, but many oral glutathione supplements are poorly absorbed and may even interfere with your body’s own glutathione production. Some studies (3) have found that a cysteine-rich whey protein can enhance glutathione synthesis in neurons, highlighting its potential in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, the best way of boosting glutathione production is by getting enough of the key amino acids required for its synthesis: cysteine, glycine and glutamate. You might not find these listed on nutritional labels when you’re in the supermarket, but these amino acids are found in high quality undenatured whey proteins.


      Whey protein for immune health

      Proteins and amino acids are a major part of our cells and biochemistry – we couldn’t function without them. Proteins are needed to make antibodies, which are produced by the body to recognise antigens on foreign bodies such as bacteria and viruses. Without an adequate antibody response, we are prone to illness.

      An easy way to boost the antibody response is by getting enough protein in your diet; for example, by taking easily digestible whey protein. One study found that mice fed with whey protein had elevated levels of antibodies against illnesses including the flu, tetanus and polio (4). However, researchers also found that there was a greater antibody response associated with a “pre-feeding” period of whey protein, as opposed to mice fed whey protein only when they were vaccinated with disease-causing bacteria. This means that dietary supplementation with whey protein before you feel a cold coming on will have the best effect on your immune system function when it comes to fighting off sickness.

      Whey protein supplementation can also support the immune system in other diseases. Asthma is a hypersensitive immune response to allergens entering the airways. One study found that whey protein supplementation in asthmatics can safely decrease the production of hypersensitive antibodies that drive the asthmatic response (5).


      Whey protein for skin health

      Long-term exposure to UV radiation is damaging to skin and leads to “photoaging”, caused by enzymes that break down the structural collagen proteins in our skin leading to wrinkles and skin damage. A study that exposed hairless mice to UVB radiation 3 times a week found that supplementation with whey peptides prevented the actions of some of these collagen-destructing enzymes (6). This means that whey protein-fed mice retained skin elasticity and showed less wrinkling. They also found that whey supplementation prevented DNA damage and reduced the expression of tumour-causing proliferative cell types. However, it’s important to remember that whey protein provides a supplemental effect on UV protection – it does not completely block the effects of the sun’s rays on your skin, so it’s not worth scrapping the sunscreen!



      Research is continuously showing the therapeutic potential of whey protein – so why isn’t everyone taking it? Many people have reservations about ingesting dairy, but high quality undenatured whey proteins contain minimal amounts of lactose, which are not enough to cause digestion or skin inflammation. Thus, whilst there are benefits of mass commercial types of whey protein, a high quality undenatured whey protein will have many more beneficial effects (not just in muscle!) for the average person, making it a great dietary supplement for total body health.

      A carefully processed, non-denatured whey protein has a greater biological ability, as the proteins and amino acids in the whey retain their structure so that your body can use them properly. This means that undenatured whey enhances the benefits you see with regular whey protein powder, as well as providing other benefits such as boosting natural immunity. Undenatured whey protein is rich in immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, which are important in supporting your immune system. This type of whey also provides the building blocks for synthesis of the antioxidant glutathione. The benefits of this master antioxidant are covered in another article.



      1. West, D. W. D., Abou Sawan, S., Mazzulla, M., Williamson, E., & Moore, D. R. (2017). Whey Protein Supplementation Enhances Whole Body Protein Metabolism and Performance Recovery after Resistance Exercise: A Double-Blind Crossover Study. Nutrients, 9(7).
      2. Deutz, N. E. P., Safar, A., Schutzler, S., Memelink, R., Ferrando, A., Spencer, H., … Wolfe, R. R. (2011). Muscle protein synthesis in cancer patients can be stimulated with a specially formulated medical food. Clinical Nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 30(6), 759–768.
      3. Ross, E. K., Gray, J. J., Winter, A. N., & Linseman, D. A. (2012). Immunocal® and preservation of glutathione as a novel neuroprotective strategy for degenerative disorders of the nervous system. Recent Patents on CNS Drug Discovery, 7(3), 230–235.
      4. Low, P. P. ., Rutherfurd, K. ., Gill, H. ., & Cross, M. . (2003). Effect of dietary whey protein concentrate on primary and secondary antibody responses in immunized BALB/c mice. International Immunopharmacology, 3(3), 393–401.
      5. Lothian, J. B., Grey, V., & Lands, Larry C. (2006). Effect of whey protein to modulate immune response in children with atopic asthma. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 57(3–4), 204–211.
      6. Kimura, Y., Sumiyoshi, M., & Kobayashi, T. (2014). Whey Peptides Prevent Chronic Ultraviolet B Radiation–Induced Skin Aging in Melanin-Possessing Male Hairless Mice. The Journal of Nutrition, 144(1), 27–32.


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