Love them? Hate them?
Protein shakes are a useful tool at times and they are almost synonymous with working out. There’s no doubt they have huge benefits in certain scenarios but are they really necessary?
We’ll get to the perks, but first let’s discuss some of the great big downsides to the protein shake: Sensitivities Hands down the biggest issues I see with the women in my practice (those with Hashimoto’s, PCOS, low thyroid or other hormonal issues) are sensitivities to their favorite protein shake – or sometimes all protein shakes.
Whether you have hypothyroidism, have taken antibiotics, have used hormonal medications (i.e. birth control pills), have been under stress or have been eating something you’re sensitive to (known or not) there’s a good change you have leaky gut. In a nutshell leaky gut is damage in the intestinal barrier that lets in or “leaks” larger proteins into the blood stream for the immune system to react to.
There’s often a host of issues at play here ranging from insufficient digestion, disruption in the intestinal bacterial balance, inflammation from food sensitivities, etc. The outcome is often gas and bloating, problematic digestion (ranging from constipation to looser stools) or can look like skin issues or depression/brain fog, but it will always produce body wide inflammation.
It also will increase the probability that you’re reactive to multiple foods – and protein sources. So please look the other way when someone tells you that their protein source (rice is often the golden child here) is “hypoallergenic”.
You can be sensitive to anything, especially anything you eat frequently. If you’ve been using the same protein shake for years, it may have all of a sudden seemed to disagree with you – or again, you may have symptoms beyond the gut that are often difficult to tie to something you’re eating without guidance. And of course, among the most popular protein shake sources is whey.
It’s fluffy and delicious, chock full of some immune supportive nutrients like cysteine, gives a healthy serving of protein (20-30grams depending on the brand and serving size) and there are upgraded sources these days like this one from grass-fed cattle.
Dairy though is among the most common sensitivities I see in my practice – particularly in women with Hahsimoto’s. Not everyone, but it’s very common. Whey is one of the dairy proteins along with others like casein and milk butyrophollin that one can be reactive to (all of these are tested for on Cyrex Array 4). It’s often useful to look at testing here because you may feel badly when you have cheese or milk but if the reaction you’re having is to casein and not whey, then you could still use a whey protein.
So job one: listen to your body. Regardless of the benefits of whey or what your well-meaning trainer or guru says, whey is often a no go for women with hormone issues.
If you aren’t sure, get tested but listen if you get breakouts, rashes, bloating, fatigue, stuffiness, headache or brain fog after having your protein shake – these may be signs you’re not tolerating that protein source well. And remember, other proteins like rice, hemp, or pea can also be problematic. Both rice and hemp are tested for on Cyrex Array 4, pea is included on Array 10. If you seem to not tolerate your protein shake well but do have hormonal issues, autoimmune problems or are dealing with leaky gut tendencies, then my advice is to simply rotate through various protein sources to avoid developing a sensitivity.
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Switch it up every month or so – basically when a tub of one protein is gone, buy a different one the next time. Other less common protein sources that work if you’re sensitive to dairy and grains are beef protein (i.e. Pure Paleo which is beef and collagen protein and tastes much better than that sounds!) or collagen protein powders (which are lower in protein, average 7-9g per serving depending on the brand). These pull double duty as a protein source and collagen is great for the gut and skin. Some brands that I like for simplicity are Designs for Health (pea based) and Nutiva Hemp.
Vega is another brand that many of my patients love the taste of. It’s a blend of rice and pea and several delicious flavors however it can be a no-go for many of my Hashimoto’s and autoimmune patients. This brings me to my next problem with protein shakes.
Protein shakes are often not just protein but chock full of herbal extracts, probiotics, vitamins and several things that can make your autoimmunity worse. Autoimmunity by definition is an overactive immune system that is overstimulated on one side of your immune system, for simplicity sake side 1 and 2 (technically, Th1 and Th2).
And there are various natural compounds and herbs that stimulate Th1 and Th2, and unless you know your system is balanced or feel certain that you know you’re Th1 or Th2 dominate I recommend you stay clear of daily doses of stimulants to either side. I’m going to be covering this in great detail when it comes to weight loss very soon, stay tuned!
Common immune agitators that I see in many protein shakes are alfalfa, green tea, acai berry, grapeseed extract, Echinacea, astragalus, chlorella, various “antioxidant blends”, to name a few.
Easy way to rack up the calories and sugars
Often times our morning smoothie is more of a morning milkshake than a protein source. Fruit is not necessarily a big problem for everyone but it is an easy way to rack up carbs, sugar and calories right out of the gate if you have berries, a banana, maybe a dash of honey, etc. Stick with a ½ cup serving of high fiber/low sugar fruits like berries or ½ a green apple and save the bananas for a post workout option. And calories count too when it comes to making your shake. If you have some decent doses of fruit as I mentioned above as well as a lot of coconut milk, coconut oil or nut butters it’s easy to get a very high calorie shake.
They can make you hungrier
This one is a real issue for some people – like me. While I love the convenience of a shake sometimes and a good way to sup up post workout nutrition, even with fiber or fat added I am left starving far too soon so overall I end up eating more that day. And this is even I tend to my hormones and don’t add a lot of fruit. It’s simply not a food that works well for me.
Do I use them? Yes. For travel and I have them on hand in case I do need a quick protein, but for me it’s a back up and not daily habit – but again, it’s because it doesn’t work well for me, not because it’s inherently bad.
On the other hand, I have women who swear by their protein shake as one of the best ways to fill them up. So this is one that baring not a ton of fruit, some added fiber or fat, can really be a game changer. Do what works for you, and if a shake doesn’t don’t worry that it has to be part of your plan.
Few final downsides
That’s often a bigger issue with juicing than protein shakes is that loads of raw cruciferous veggies can be a hindrance to the thyroid (these goiterogenic foods are not the demon often made out to be when you Google “thyroid diet”, see more on that here. However, when taken in large enough doses – which can happen if you juice and have a kale salad for lunch and Brussel sprouts for dinner every day – you can make an negative impact on the thyroid. These veggies are best lightly steamed or lightly sautéed vs. raw. And I’ve seen this only a couple of times, but worth mentioning if spinach is your go to green for a protein shake.
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I’ve seen this in time cause calcium oxalate kidney stones (I can’t be 100% sure it was this but it was a consistent daily intake for several people with these type of stones). Also, some newer research has come out that spinach may be one pesky autoimmune food that leads to increased attack on the nervous system, more on those findings here.
OK, now good things! Easy!
If protein shakes don’t cause any of the above issues, they are a tasty, easily portable, doesn’t need to be cooked protein option – and who doesn’t need more of those? Great for travel, snacks and emergencies no doubt.
Sweet not savory
This is often a more palatable protein choice in the morning for some, especially if low cortisol which can leave you with a low appetite for protein and a craving for things like pastries and cereal for breakfast
Good post-dinner snack option
If you’re dealing with low cortisol throughout the night, you may be waking frequently and have a difficult time falling back asleep. A pre-bed protein shake with a bit if fiber powder often does the trick while we work on restoring the cortisol timing and output. It’s light, quick and readily assimilated so you don’t go to bed with a big heavy meal. It’s also low carb so you don’t get a rebound low blood sugar episode if you struggle to keep you blood sugar balanced.
Great post workout option
Quickly assimilated, and again, easy. But we also have to remember that not all of us need to immediately refuel after a training session – gasp! She did not just say that!!! This advice is originated in sports nutrition, and rightfully so, post workout is a time when hormonally your muscles are ready to receive nutrition for refueling – and a time when you better tolerate carbohydrates. But many of us aren’t training hard to enough to require this as an absolute must as soon as we leave the gym.
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I see women sometimes absolutely panicked because their trainer drilled into their head that they needed a shake post workout or their cortisol would literally eat away all their muscle in a matter of minutes…and these women worked out once or twice a week at a moderate to low intensity. Not a case for an emergency post-workout shake in my opinion. Their efforts would’ve probably been better spent finding more time to train regularly and ensuring adequate protein and veggies at all their other meals.
It can be a good way to sneak in some supplements capsule free. Many liquid or powder supplements like l-glutamine, gut repair powders, inositol (great for PCOS) or l-carnitine (a great aid to cellular fat metabolism especially on a higher fat/lower carb diet). I often use liquid turmeric and resveratrol with my Hashimoto’s patients and those can also be easily added to a shake. And I do have patients that open up a lot of their capsules and put the contents right into their shake – these don’t always taste so good, but can be done.
Some shakes, like this one, actually include a full multi-vitamin/multi-mineral right there in the formulation. There ya have it, the low down on protein shakes if you’ve got some wonky hormonal or immune or gut issues. And is it just me or is everyone really craving a protein shake right now?? 🙂