Protein Deficiency

Protein Deficiency: Overview

Alternative names: The most severe forms of Protein Deficiency are called Marasmus and Kwashiorkor.

Protein is an essential component of the body.  The organs, muscle, brain, nerves, and immune system are all, to some degree, comprised of protein.  You name the body structure, and it probably has some protein in it.  Since protein is one of the fundamental building blocks for the body, you need to ensure that you get enough in your diet.

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Some 20% of the human body is made up of protein, which plays a crucial role in almost all biological processes.  Every protein molecule is composed of amino acids.  Twenty amino acids are used in different combinations to build the protein molecules found in food and in the body's structures.  Nine of these amino acids are considered essential, and must be supplied through the diet.  The other eleven amino acids (non-essential amino acids) can either be consumed in the diet or manufactured from other building blocks within the body.

Incidence; Causes and Development; Contributing Risk Factors

There are an estimated 1 billion people worldwide who don't consume an adequate amount of protein.  The incidence is significantly higher in Central Africa and South Asia where up to 30% of children are not getting enough protein.  Protein deficiency is generally higher among vegetarians, vegans and elderly people, and pregnant women are also at greater risk.

Poor nutrition and an inadequate amount of dietary protein can lead to a protein deficiency.  The USDA states that children need 13-19gm per day, typical adult males 56gm per day, and women 46gm per day.  When pregnant, a woman's daily recommended intake will rise to 71gm.  If an individual eats less than the recommend amount they are at high risk of becoming protein deficient.

Protein Deficiency can also be a consequence of Cachexia, or Wasting Syndrome, which often occurs in cancer patients or those with certain diseases such as AIDS, kidney failure, or COPD.

The main risk factors for Protein Deficiency are poor diet, not eating enough, and pregnancy.

Signs and Symptoms

Protein is a part of nearly everything in our bodies: skin, hair, nails, bones, muscles and blood are all largely made of protein.  The symptoms of protein deficiency can therefore take many different forms, including:

  • Hair loss / splitting hair
  • Brittle nails and other nail abnormalities
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin ulcers or bed sores
  • Poor wound healing
  • Dry, flaky or scaly skin
  • Skin color changes
  • Reduced energy levels / fatigue
  • Excessive sleeping / lethargy
  • "Brain fog" (Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are needed for mental focus, and are produced from amino acids – the building blocks of protein.  Studies have shown that a balanced diet with adequate protein can improve work performance, learning and motor skills.)
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety and moodiness (proteins are involved in the synthesis of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, and these help produce positive feelings like calm, excitement and positivity)
  • Depression
  • Insomnia (consuming protein before bed can help with the production of tryptophan and serotonin, which promote sound sleep)
  • Chronic headaches
  • Blackouts
  • Nausea
  • Constipation and gas (protein deficiency can negatively affect enzyme production, muscle contractions in the GI tract, and digestion in general)
  • Diarrhea
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • High cholesterol and triglycerides (due to the liver processing fats less efficiently)
  • Growth problems in children
  • Edema (fluid retention)
  • Irregular menstrual cycle (a low-protein, high-carb diet contributes to insulin resistance, fatigue, inflammation and weight gain, which in turn disrupt the delicate balance of female hormones)
  • Mental retardation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain (High-protein foods make a person feel more full after a meal, reducing their tendency to overeat or snack afterwards.  They also stabilize blood sugar and maintain muscle mass, which helps burn more calories.)
  • Muscle soreness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle wasting

Diagnosis and Tests

A total serum protein test can easily be used to diagnose Protein Deficiency.

Treatment and Prevention

Increasing protein intake to the recommended amount can treat and prevent Protein Deficiency.  This can be achieved through consuming foods rich in protein such as soy products (tofu, soy milk), legumes (including peanuts and peanut products), grains, beans, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs, or dairy.  An alternative is to use a protein supplement, generally available at health and fitness stores.

Protein C Deficiency and Protein S Deficiency are hereditary diseases that lead to blood clotting and ischemic stroke.  Those affected should avoid activities that can lead to blood clots, such as extended bed rest, or sitting for a long time while working or traveling.

Prognosis; Complications

If the deficiency is adequately treated, symptoms should stop and the individual will return to normal health.  If left untreated, the symptoms are likely to worsen; the patient may eventually go into shock and even die.

A protein deficiency during childhood can put a child at high risk of developmental delays.  Growth may be stunted, and mild retardation may develop, as well as digestive or pancreatic disorders.  If the protein deficiency continues it can cause the immune system to become weak, making the body less able to fight infections.

Other possible conditions that may arise from a protein deficiency include:

  • Marasmus (severe malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency, usually occurring in young children)
  • Fatty Liver Disease (Hepatic Steatosis) – protein is involved in the transport of lipoproteins and cholesterol, so a lack of protein can lead to this condition.
  • Chronic kidney failure
  • Increased risk of muscle loss, falling, slow bone healing, bone weakness, fractures and osteoporosis.  Protein is required for calcium absorption and bone metabolism.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Protein Deficiency:

Symptoms - Nails

Regular/frequent hangnails

Because nails are found at the extremities, they are the last to receive oxygen and nutrients carried in the blood.  Therefore, they often show signs of deficiencies sooner than other tissues.

Conditions that suggest Protein Deficiency:

Metabolic

Edema (Water Retention)

When protein (especially albumin) levels in your blood go too low, the colloidal osmotic pressure will decrease and allow fluid to escape from blood vessels into your tissues, resulting in edema or swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, knees and/or belly.

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Risk factors for Protein Deficiency:

Lab Values - Nutrients

Medical Procedures

Symptoms - Food - Preferences

Protein Deficiency can lead to:

Digestion

Nutrients

Vitamin A Requirement

A deficiency of protein or zinc can reduce the amount of vitamin A released from the liver.

Recommendations for Protein Deficiency:

Diet

Not recommended
Therapeutic Fasting

Fasting should not be used when there is malnutrition.

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