7 medical uses of protein supplements

7 medical uses of protein supplements

In this article, we are going to give you the low-down on 7 medical uses for protein supplements that we’re sure you haven’t heard of.

It would seem, at least sometimes, that there is an underlying war between medicine and the food supplements industry.

One of the most attacked nutrients is protein, including its derivatives such as (peptides and various amino acids).


Protein and healthcare/medicine

The word “Protein” in the healthcare sector often evokes images of wildly proportioned bodybuilders using restricted substances.

But this shouldn’t be the case

We’re sure that at one point or another, you’ve had to listen to statements about the supposed damage that “protein” can cause you on a short, medium- or long-term basis.

And what is worse: you’ve probably heard this statement from a man or woman in a white coat, while attending a doctor’s appointment.

The goal of today’s article is to reconcile both worlds.

The general public often has little knowledge of how the healthcare sector uses protein supplements to help patients.


Wait a second, are you trying to tell me that doctors use the same protein supplements that they warn the general population against using?

That’s exactly right.

But there’s more to it. A large part of the medical community IS UNAWARE of the role of supplementation in the biomedical field.

The problem is that many doctors work so far from the nutrition speciality that they don’t realise that protein supplements are a fundamental tool in caring for many patients.

Considering all of this, we are going to take a look at 7 uses of protein, peptides and amino acids in medicine, with the aim of opening more people’s minds.

1. Before bariatric surgery

Morbidly obese patients in need of bariatric surgery often require initial weight loss before being allowed to have surgery (Surgical risk increases dramatically in cases of extreme obesity).

This is when protein throws us a lifeline when given in enteral forms that contain it (as well as containing the rest of the essential macro and micronutrients) or in the form of protein units that the patient can mix with water or milk.

Protein fulfills three essential roles during the pre-bariatric phase:
  1. Improves the state of malnutrition in which many of these patients arrive. No, being obese is not a synonym (it is often an antonym) of being well nourished.
  2. Greater weight reduction, due to the filling and thermogenic effects of protein.
  3. Conservation of the (scarce) lean mass of these patients, which is directly related to the success of the surgery and the functional rehabilitation of the patient post-surgery.

2. After Any Major Surgery

I still remember a great teacher who told us how an open heart surgery (such as an aortocoronary bypass) demands an energy usage somewhat similar to running a marathon.

That is, the energy expenditure of a major surgery can be brutal. And there is not only an increase in the necessary energy, but also in amino acids and protein.

Think of all the structures that need to be repaired by the body to make a full recovery (healing from surgical wounds) or the lowest intake at peri-surgical times.

That is why nutritional support with protein supplements and/or enteral forms is usually essential in patients facing surgery.


And if they are not administered the patient is being deprived of an obvious clinical benefit, apart from being proven and easy to apply.

3. Malabsorption syndrome

Many patients have diseases that prevent their digestive system from absorbing nutrients properly.

The classic example is acute pancreatitis, where the digestive exocrine function of the pancreas is temporarily or permanently abolished.

In this case, a complete protein intake is ideal as the patient is unable to properly absorb the nutrient.

Thankfully, we have formulas that provide hydrolysed protein in the form of peptides or even amino acids, that is, protein which is already fully digested.

This means that without the existence clinical nutrition and peptide formulas (also called elementals), these patients would quickly develop malnutrition with all of its associated risks.

Protein shake

4. Mucositis

Protein and amino acids often meet the criteria which allows them to be considered “functional foods”.

This means that they not only provide macronutrients and energy, they also modulate the risk of disease by acting directly on different mechanisms.

This is the case when looking at glutamine, an amino acid that has been shown to have a trophic effect on the intestinal mucosal barrier, which proves to be of great help for:

  • Conditions such as mucositis induced by chemotherapy in cancer patients;
  • Inflammatory bowel disease; or
  • Intestinal permeability associated with many other conditions.

5. Digestive system conditions

Lactoferrin, another protein present in whey, has trophic effects on the intestinal epithelium (in the same way as glutamine).

It has been shown to improve digestive function and intestinal dysbiosis.

It is not uncommon for patients with conditions such as Crone’s disease, bacterial overgrowth or irritable bowel syndrome to improve and see a reduction in symptoms when taking whey supplements.

The strongest hypothesis that could be put forward for this improvement is that proteins like lactoferrin have the ability to improve intestinal dysbiosis by binding to iron (which many dysbiotic bacteria use to survive).
An antioxidant and immunomodulatory effect carried out by peptides contained in whey has also been proven.

6. Oncological conditions and cancerous cachexia

Cancer patients often have high calorie and protein needs.

These needs are often linked to two factors that further worsen the situation:

  1. The aggressiveness of cancer treatments (surgical, chemotherapy, radiotherapy).
  2. The hyporexia (lack of appetite) caused by the disease itself.

This means that an extra supply of protein in the form of protein modules or enteral formulas is frequently needs to be used on any oncology ward.

Furthermore, it would seem that whey protein could have a direct anti-cancer effect by stimulating immunity and acting as an antioxidant due to the increase in glutathione synthesis that it provokes.

Two key enzymes require glutathione for their synthesis: glutathione peroxidase-dependent selenium and glutathione transferase.

Both enzymes eliminate mutagenic compounds directly related to cancer (1).

Protein powder

7. Infectious diseases

We have known for a number of years whey or whey protein has immunomodulatory properties, which are thought to occur due to its high content of cysteine , a predecessor for glutathione (which works as a powerful antioxidant).

For this reason, the use of whey has been applied in the treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV and viral hepatitis

In many of these patients glutathione levels are in fact found at drastically decreased levels as shown (2).


Lack of trust within medical sector will continue to occur, often revolving around “unofficial” sources of supplements, meaning those regulated as supplements which don’t come under legal regulations applied to medicines.

We partly understand their worry…

On the one hand, there is past evidence of malpractice and misconduct within the supplement industry that has even led to the presence adulterated products and unreliable labelling, among other problems.

However, the supplement industry has really woken up to this, resulting in quality controls becoming more stringent and exhaustive and fostering the systematic and categorical lack of trust of any product that does not carry the name of a huge company seems illogical.

As you have seen in this post, protein supplementation, often very similar to the ones you use to gain muscle mass or lose fat, is used in many areas within hospital and outpatient treatment.

In the future, we will see a reconciliation between these two worlds: the world of supplementation and the world of medicine and healthcare.

In the meantime, the Medicine field must understand that foods, supplements and nutrients involve more than just calories, or macro and micronutrients. As a matter of fact, they can directly impact disease risk factors and outlook.

Sending you all a big hug! See you for next post and let’s keep empowering!


  1. Marshall K. Therapeutic applications of whey protein. Alternative Medicine Review. 2004.
  2. Micke P, Beeh KM, Buhl R. Effects of long-term supplementation with whey proteins on plasma glutathione levels of HIV-infected patients. Eur J Nutr. 2002.

Related articles

  • Find out everything aboutWhey Protein go to this link.
  • An interesting article about the link between Protein and Life Expectancy. Click here.
  • What’s better: Taking Protein Supplements or Amino Acids? We answer this question in this article.
Assessment: 7 medical uses of protein supplements

The importance of protein - 100%

Medical uses - 100%

Protein supplements - 100%

Amino acid supplements - 100%


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About Borja Bandera
Borja Bandera
Borja Bandera, a young doctor dedicated to the areas of nutrition, exercise and metabolism, combines his clinical activity with his vocation for dissemination.
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