Thursday, January 10, 2013

Power-Packed Protein Perks

Protein is one of the macronutrients that the body can’t do without. Everyone needs it because it supplies energy, supports growth—including the building of muscles, new cells and tissues—increases stamina, supports a healthy weight and immune system, and fuels most bodily biochemical activities. Likewise, enzymes, antibodies and hormones are mainly composed of protein.  What’s more is that proteins catalyze most of our livings cells’ reactions and control nearly all of our cellular processes.

While I’m on the topic of protein perks and cells. . . there are trillions of cells in the human body, but you need to know about some cells called orexin cells and how protein influences them. A study published in the scientific journal Neuron says that orexin cells are responsible for wakefulness and energy expenditure because they secrete a stimulant called orexin/hypocretin in the brain.

Orexin cells are types of neuropeptides—chemical signals in the brain—and researchers have determined that orexin cells have primary functions in brain metabolism and are also involved in the stimulation of food intake.

Speaking of food intake . . . orexin cells seem to really like protein. University of Cambridge scientists compared the effects of various nutrients on orexin cells and found that proteins—particularly the amino acids in protein—stimulate orexin neurons more than any of the other nutrients.

Lead study researcher Dr. Denis Burdakov says, “Electrical impulses emitted by orexin cells stimulate wakefulness and tell the body to burn calories. We wondered whether dietary nutrients alter those impulses.”

Their curiosity led to actions. Orexin cells were somewhat elusive, but the scientists discovered that amino acids stimulate orexin cells, which could very well shed light on previous observations indicating that protein meals can make people more alert than carbohydrate meals can. Interestingly, they also found that glucose blocks orexin cells, but that amino acids stop glucose from blocking orexin cells.

Simply put, this leads them to believe that protein negates the adverse effects of sugar on the cells. Additionally, because of its amino acids, protein doesn't have much sugar in it and will, therefore, not adversely mess with blood sugar levels—and when your blood sugar is stable, then your energy levels can remain stoked.

Dr. Burdakov adds, “What is exciting is to have a rational way to ‘tune’ select brain cells to be more or less active by deciding what food to eat. Not all brain cells are simply turned on by all nutrients, so dietary composition is critical.”

Read about protein’s effects on orexin cells here.

There is a caveat, however:  not all proteins are equal, so choose the healthiest, most nutritious complete protein possible.  I say complete because if you don’t get complete proteins, then your body will take the missing protein components—amino acids— from the rest of your body, including muscle.  And since protein and its amino acids can’t be stored by the body, you have to have complete proteins daily.

Fortunately, you can eliminate the guesswork on what is or isn't a complete protein by choosing animal protein, which is a complete protein.

So, go ahead. Enjoy the power-packed perks of protein from the healthiest sources possible.