Many people worry whether using protein powder accelerates kidney damage, hair loss and acne. Here’s a look at what the science tells us about these questions:
00:30 Kidney Damage
People who already have kidney disease are often advised to follow a low protein diet. This is because eating protein can increase the filtration rate, and therefore put extra pressure on the kidney. In the long term, there is some research that suggests that a high protein diet may make kidney damage worse in people who already have kidney disease. But just because something is true in people who already have kidney disease, doesn’t mean that it also applied to people who are healthy.
Healthy kidneys have an incredible ability to adapt. We know that people can live with one kidney because a healthy kidney is easily able to adapt to a higher workload without any consequence.
A recent study specifically that looked at the impact of a high protein diet in healthy people, found no negative effect of a high protein diet on kidney function:
02:10 Hair Loss
Hair loss in men occurs because of a combination of genetics and the effect of testosterone. In men, testosterone is converted into DHT in the hair follicles. In men who are genetically at risk, testosterone converts large hair follicles into to small hair follicles that produce thin hair.
I couldn’t find any direct research into protein intake and hair loss. So to answer the question, I looked for indirect evidence that would link protein and hair loss. Since testosterone is a major driving factor for hair loss, if a high protein diet increases testosterone levels, that could link protein intake and hair loss. A couple of small studies suggest that protein intake doesn’t increase testosterone levels, so as far as the research goes, it is unlikely that protein powder causes hair loss.
Acne occurs due to a combination of genetics, normal skin bacteria, immune function and sensitivity to hormones. Sebaceous glands in the skin produce an oily substance called sebum, that normally lubricates the skin. In people who have acne, excess sebum clogs up skin pores and leads to inflammation.
Hormones such as testosterone, DHT and Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) all increase the activity of sebaceous glands, and could therefore make acne worse. As I mentioned earlier, protein intake probably doesn’t increase testosterone levels. There is some low quality evidence that dairy products may increase IGF levels and therefore accelerate acne in those people who are at risk. To further support this claim, there are case reports that whey protein made acne worse in a handful of patients.
So it is possible that whey protein may make acne worse. A possible remedy for this is to use soy or plant based protein if you have severe acne.
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References and Further reading:
Changes in Kidney Function Do Not Differ between Healthy Adults Consuming Higher- Compared with Lower- or Normal-Protein Diets: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6236074/
History of dietary protein and Kidney Damage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1262767/
Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology 12ed (p321)
Androgens and Alopecia: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=12573818
Dietary protein intake and testosterone 1: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2129168/
Dietary protein intake and testosterone 2: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3778704/
Prevalence of acne: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=17945383
IGF and Pathogenesis of acne: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5318522/
IGF-1, DHT and Acne: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15781674
Case reports: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5350548/
Case reports: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900340/
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