Proteins are vital to every part of the human body. They are found in bones, muscles, skin, and nearly every vital organ or tissue.
Protein must be consumed through food, as it is needed by the body for proper functioning and survival. The body cannot store protein long-term for future use, as it does fat, so it requires an adequate protein intake each day.
Hypoproteinemia is uncommon in developed countries where people eat a normal, well-balanced diet. But, it can affect people who have certain health conditions or have diets lacking in protein.
- The condition is when someone has too little protein in their blood.
- Signs of hypoproteinemia can show quickly.
- It is usually a symptom of a particular health problem or poor diet.
- There is no one standard treatment for hypoproteinemia.
What are the causes of hypoproteinemia?
Health conditions that affect the body's digestion or absorption of proteins from food, or the processes that allow the body to use protein, are often to blame. In other cases, undereating or very restrictive diets can be the cause.
Malnutrition and undereating
Hypoproteinemia is a condition where there is an abnormally low amount of protein in the blood.
Hypoproteinemia can be related directly to a person's diet. This is especially so if calorie consumption is too low or certain food groups are eliminated.
Diet-related hypoproteinemia may occur in the following instances:
- When someone has inadequate income to buy food and does not consume enough calories from protein.
- In pregnant women, who need much more protein than normal for development of a fetus. Those who are unable to eat enough calories from protein-containing sources due to extreme nausea and vomiting are especially at risk.
- With eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which often result in a diet that lacks enough protein.
- In those who follow a very restrictive diet, such as one that eliminates nearly all sources of plant and animal proteins.
The liver plays a key role in processing proteins in the body. If the liver is not functioning properly, the body may be unable to get enough protein for its vital functions. This can happen in a variety of liver disorders, including hepatitis or cirrhosis.
The kidneys help filter waste products out of the blood to be excreted into the urine. When functioning properly, the kidneys allow protein to stay in the bloodstream. But when the kidneys become injured or are not working as they should, they may leak protein into the urine.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack itself within the small intestine. This reaction occurs when a person eats foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
The autoimmune damage to the small intestine from celiac disease leads to an improper and deficient absorption of many nutrients, including protein.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Some forms of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, cause inflammation in the small intestine, which is where many essential nutrients are broken down and absorbed by the body.
With a damaged small intestine from IBD, a person may be affected by many different nutrient deficiencies conditions, including hypoproteinemia.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of hypoproteinemia vary and can range from mild to severe. They include:
- feeling fatigued or weak
- having repeated viral or bacterial infections
- thinning, breaking, or falling out hair
- brittle nails and dry skin
- mood changes and irritability
- cravings for protein-rich foods
These symptoms can also be signs of other health conditions, such as iron-deficiency anemia or an immune system problem. So, identifying hypoproteinemia must be done through medical tests.
A blood test can reveal whether a person has enough protein in the body. One blood test set that can be done is known as a total protein, albumin, and albumin/globulin (A/G) ratio. Albumin and globulin are two proteins that are made in the liver.
This test can reveal whether total protein is low and if albumin and globulin proteins are at the correct levels. If these two proteins are out of balance, it may signal a medical problem, such as a liver disorder, kidney disease, or autoimmune condition.
Treatment is tailored directly to the cause of the low protein. Additionally, treatment can vary depending on a person's diet, health status, age, and medical history.
A thorough medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests may be needed to determine what is causing someone's hypoproteinemia. From there, an individual treatment plan can be developed for them.
- A person with an eating disorder may need to be treated for that so they can work toward a healthful, balanced diet that includes enough protein.
- Someone with celiac disease will need to follow a gluten-free diet, to allow proper absorption of nutrients, including protein, in the small intestine.
- Liver and kidney disorders often require extensive medical treatment and further monitoring with regular follow-ups by a doctor.
- Pregnant women with extreme nausea and vomiting may need treatment to alleviate their symptoms so they can consume enough calories and protein for their baby's healthy development.
How much protein is needed?
At least 10 percent of daily calories should come from protein.
Eating a balanced diet that includes high-protein foods each day will enable most healthy people to get the protein they need.
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that, on average, most people are within the recommended range of total protein intake, based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2007–2010, though variations occur.
In most cases, however, being slightly below the recommended dietary protein intake for a short time will not cause lasting or severe hypoproteinemia.
This measure equates to about 56 g a day for the average man and 46 g for the average woman. To calculate how much protein someone needs each day, they can multiply 0.36 by their body weight in pounds.
At least 10 percent of daily calories should be from protein. People who are very active, pregnant, or are trying to build muscle mass may need more than these recommended amounts.
Choosing the right proteins
Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet should ensure that they consume a variety of plant-based protein foods each day.
Proteins are made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of tissues. The body needs many different amino acids for its various functions.
Animal proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs, and poultry, offer "complete" proteins.
Soy, a plant-based protein, is also considered a complete protein source. So, these products contain all the essential amino acids the body needs.
Many plant-based proteins, including nuts, seeds, and beans, offer only some of the necessary essential amino acids. So, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet should ensure they are getting all the amino acids by eating a variety of healthy, plant-based protein foods each day.
Although animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids in adequate proportions, many of them have drawbacks, as well. Red meat, for instance, often contains high amounts of saturated fat and calories.
Fish may contain mercury or other contaminants, so it should be limited to 2 servings a week for children or those who are pregnant.
In general, eating lean meats, poultry, and fish in moderate amounts is the best way to get a variety of complete proteins.
Which is best?
Consuming a variety of proteins from animal and plant sources is usually recommended for a healthful diet. And, although most plant-based foods are not complete proteins, they offer other nutritional benefits that are vital to your health.
Hypoproteinemia often requires medical care due to its variety of complicated causes. The long-term outlook depends upon what is causing the protein deficiency, and whether someone is receiving the medical care they need to address that cause.
But, hypoproteinemia is frequently treatable and curable if a person is getting proper medical treatment, and they are eating a balanced diet that includes a good amount of protein.