What is protein and why is protein important for our health? August 24, 2015 15:38 14 Comments

Everything in the human body is either made of protein or is dependent on protein for its function. Everything! You could easily make the case that protein is the most important nutrient. But why is protein so important?  

No other nutrient has such widespread uses in the body. Healthy fats, like omega 3’s, are used in lots of places in the body, but not everywhere. The same is true of vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. All of these nutrients are extremely important for our health, but their uses in the body are not as all-encompassing as protein. 

You may have heard that DNA controls the building blocks of life, and this is true. But proteins ARE the building blocks of life. Here is why. DNA has a very simple job; it decides which type of protein gets created, and when and where that protein is created. That is all! Everything in life, even your DNA is based around protein.      


What is protein? 

Proteins are made up of a combination of building blocks called amino acids. Different combinations of amino acids result in different proteins that can be used for all of the different structures and functions in the body. 


Structure- You are literally constructed of protein. Muscle, skin, bone, nerves, organs and even blood cells are made of protein. If you want youthful skin, good muscle tone, strong bones and healthy organs you need to have adequate protein in your diet. If you restrict your protein intake, your body will wear out quickly and fall apart. Restricting your protein intake would be like asking a car manufacturer to build a good car without enough metal (or plastic these days). It just wouldn’t work. Your body can't work well without protein either because protein is the "metal" of all of the different structures of your body.    


Hormones- An important group of compounds that keep you healthy and feeling good are hormones. Many hormones such as thyroid hormone, melatonin, insulin, growth hormones and adrenaline are made of protein. Other hormones that are not made of protein such as testosterone, estrogen and cortisol require certain proteins called enzymes in order to be manufactured in the body. So, without protein, you could not make any of your body’s vital hormones.   


Mood and Craving Control- Other important chemicals in the body are the neurotransmitters or as I like to call them, our "brain chemicals". Serotonin and dopamine are two common brain chemicals that help you feel good and give you motivation and a stable mood. Both of them, along with many other important brain chemicals, are made of protein. Without adequate protein intake, you might experience anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue or uncontrollable cravings due to low production of these important brain chemicals. 


Aging- In order to protect our bodies from damage, you rely on a group of nutrients called antioxidants. Basically, antioxidants protect you from undergoing the same process that causes iron to rust. It is called oxidation and it is one of the primary causes of premature aging and chronic disease. The single most important antioxidant in the body is called glutathione and it is made directly from protein.  Restrict your protein and you risk excessive aging due to low antioxidant production. And here is an important fact- you can’t replace glutathione with other antioxidants like vitamin C. Glutathione has a specific role in protecting your body and only it can perform that protective role. 


Cleansing- Another role of glutathione is to help your body cleanse itself of toxic materials. That by itself is enough reason to make sure to consume adequate protein. But glutathione is only a small piece of the detoxification process. And, you probably guessed it, the other pieces of the detoxification systems in your body requires protein as well. In fact, your liver requires at least 25 grams of protein a day just for its functions alone. So if you ever hear someone use the words “fasting” and “detoxing” in the same sentence, you know they are only harming themselves. You cannot cleanse or detoxify the body without adequate protein intake.  


Immunity- Your immune system helps fight infections and to do this it uses specific types of immune-boosting proteins. Consuming high-quality protein can be a nice boost to your immune system. Without it, your immune system would shut down and you would likely become ill from bacterial or viral infections. 


Energy- Protein can act as an energy source for your body to burn as fuel but more importantly, protein helps control blood sugar. Those who eat more protein tend to have more stable blood sugar as well as more sustained energy levels throughout the day. 


Healing- If you cut our skin, break a bone or damage your joints, protein is required to build new healthy tissue. In other words, protein is required for healing. 


Workout Performance and Recovery- When you exercise it causes microscopic damage to your muscles and bones. As long as you have enough protein available your body will respond by rebuilding your muscles and bones stronger than they were before the exercise. This is how exercise works. It is basically just controlled injury and healing and, as I mentioned above, without protein you can't heal. But as long as you consume adequate amounts of protein, exercise can help keep you young, strong and fit for life!


-Dr. Jeremy Webster

Weight Loss and Nutrition Expert

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