Some time ago, I was asked by a visitor about whey protein’s possible role in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. This person had been “introduced” to this possible benefit by an independent Immunocal distributor (Immunocal is a high priced whey protein supplement) and, given her husband has Parkinson’s, she was interested to learn more. At the same time, she was extremely wary of the self-serving and aggressive pitch made by the distributor.
It sounded too good to be true.
What she asked can essentially boiled down to this…
“Can whey protein play a role in the treatment of, and possible reduction in or alleviation of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?”
To answer this question, we first have to look at the relationship between whey protein supplementation and one of the body’s most important antioxidants—glutathione (GSH). It is often referred to as the “master antioxidant” and if you’re lacking it, you may be in trouble; deficiencies have been associated with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, various cancers, suppressed immune response, asthma, HIV, chronic fatigue and more.
Your body normally creates glutathione naturally from three amino acids; cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine. Because cysteine is not readily available in the North American diets, it is the rate-limiting substrate for the production of this vital antioxidant.
So if a glutathione deficiency is responsible for a certain disease or degenerative condition, is there any way to elevate the level of this vital antioxidant?
But not in a direct manner as you might assume. For instance, clinical data suggests supplementing with oral glutathione is simply not an effective means to increase plasma glutathione levels.
But what about elevating glutathione levels indirectly? What if you were to add an amino acid rich source to your diet—especially a highly bioavailable one that contained a significant amount of cysteine like whey protein—can you elevate plasma glutathione levels then?
Assuming a high quality whey protein isolate can elevate plasma glutathione levels, how does that tie-in to Parkinson’s disease? Or, in other words, is there a definitive, proven relationship between reduced GSH levels and Parkinson’s disease?
Again, there appears to be. This study concluded…
“…emerging evidence suggests that GSH depletion may itself play an active role in PD pathogenesis.”
This study, entitled “Oxidative stress and Parkinson’s disease” states…
“The underlying mechanism of cell death in substantia nigra of Parkinson’s disease patients remains unknown. Biochemical changes occurring in substantia nigra in Parkinson’s disease (increased iron levels, inhibition of complex I activity and decreased reduced glutathione levels; GSH) suggest that oxidative stress and free radical species may be involved. In particular, a decrease in GSH levels may be an early component of the process…”
And this one states…
“Replenishment of normal glutathione levels within the brain may hold an important key to therapeutics for PD.”
So to reiterate; yes, it appears that reduced glutathione levels do play a role in Parkinson’s, and elevating those levels may be beneficial. Ergo, since whey protein supplementation elevates GSH levels, whey protein supplementation may indeed prove beneficial for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease.
However, the last thing I want to do here is provide false hope for the sufferers of Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones.
The fact is, if you spend enough time checking the clinical data, you’ll notice that the abstract conclusions (there are many other similar studies but the results are all similar) all make use of the words “may hold”, “is consistent”, “emerging evidence”, etc, etc.
In other words, there are no scientific studies that I know of that suggest whey protein isolate is some sort of magic bullet for Parkinson’s.
However, preliminary data indicates it may be helpful (via the increase in glutathione levels) and it certainly is not going to be harmful in any way.
For that reason, it falls into the “worth a try” category (whey protein also offers additional benefits which make it worth adding to your daily regimen).
If there is a caveat, it comes from Elissa, our scientific and technical advisor who commented…
“… the first caveat that occurred to me was that different cells/tissue compartments may respond differently to the availability of GSH precursors – particularly if synthetic mechanisms are affected.
Thus, replenishing the GSH within various brain cells/tissues may not be as simple as increasing plasma and/or lymphocyte GSH levels. I guess the thing that concerns me is the age of the papers discussing this link… if this were currently a “hot” topic, there’d be a lot more recent stuff on it.
Rather, the focus appears to have shifted to trying to understand the mechanisms behind the oxidative stress and inflammation that takes out dopaminergic neurons (i.e., stuff like this: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/2/453.short ), than attempting to buttress antioxidant defenses to fight it.”
In other words, increasing plasma GSH by supplementing with whey protein may not necessarily have the desired effect on the appropriate brain cells and tissues.
Nevertheless, should you decide to incorporate a whey protein supplement into your diet, I see no reason to spend outrageous amounts of money on a supplement like Immunocal. While it does elevate GSH levels (see clinical data here and here), its benefits are consistent with whey protein isolate, and I’ve seen no clinical evidence to indicate that it outperforms high quality, commercially available products which can be had for a fraction of the price.
I prefer Allmax’s Isoflex, which can be had for just under $40 for a 2-pound jug at a reputable online retailer. To duplicate the results of this study, you’d need to take two scoops per day, possibly divided into 2 single scoop doses taken at different times during the day. At this dosage, a 2 pound tub will only last 15 days, so keep that in mind if you decide to experiment.
What About Other Protein Sources?
It’s important to recognize that the above referenced studies were all performed using whey protein isolate. You can buy whey protein in varying degrees of quality, and an “isolate” is one of the highest. It contains the greatest percentage of protein, and is usually processed without heat, which can “denature” protein, yielding its beneficial polypeptides inactive. So if you’re planning on experimenting, don’t cut corners – be sure to buy a “complete” whey protein isolate (some proteins will contain a blend of isolates and cheaper concentrates).
And do not substitute soy, egg, casein or other protein sources as an alternative; remember, all studies were performed with whey.
If you or a loved one is suffering with Parkinson’s and decide to experiment with a whey protein isolate supplement, please follow up with us and let us know how it went.