Some scientists wonder if whey protein may help reduce inflammation in people with ulcerative colitis (UC). But much of this research is still in its early stages.

UC is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the large intestine, causing inflammation and ulcers. Doctors usually treat the condition with medications to reduce inflammation, or surgery to remove the colon and rectum.

This article discusses whey protein consumption for people with UC. It also lists potential risks and alternatives to whey protein powder.

A scoop of whey protein for ulcerative colitis, seen from above against a pale pink background.Share on Pinterest
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Whey protein forms when the milk proteins “whey” and “casein” separate. Whey protein contains a wide range of essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own. Experts refer to it as a complete protein.

Several studies have found that whey protein may have a beneficial effect on gut health, particularly in cases of IBD.

One study from 2014 found that whey protein reduced colon inflammation in mice with a chemically-induced form of UC.

According to a 2017 study involving samples of bacteria in test tubes, whey can also significantly increase the numbers of healthy gut bacteria such as lactobacilli and bifidobacterium. These bacteria help to:

  • break down food and digest fiber
  • absorb important nutrients
  • produce vitamins essential for health
  • help prevent infection

However, there is limited research involving humans. This means that while there are possible benefits for people with UC, there is no evidence to confirm this. Further research involving humans is necessary to test the efficacy of whey protein for people with UC and IBD.

People who are interested in consuming protein powders for gut health have multiple options to choose from. Outlines of some alternatives to whey protein powder are below.

Whey with psyllium husk

Psyllium husk powder derives from the seeds of the medicinal plant Plantago ovata. Although psyllium husk powder is not a protein powder, manufacturers may add it to whey powder to improve its digestibility. So people with digestive issues may benefit from whey protein powders with added psyllium.

Psyllium husk powder may have additional benefits for people with UC. The plant helps draw water into the intestines, which can soften stools and ease constipation – a common symptom of IBD.

A 2019 study found that psyllium husk can improve the composition of gut bacteria, particularly in people with constipation.

Casein protein powder

Like whey protein, casein protein also derives from milk. The key difference between the two proteins is digestion time. Casein takes longer to digest than whey powder. As a result, it provides a slower, steadier release of amino acids.

Because of the slower digestion time, people typically take casein protein powder during periods of fasting or before bed.

Pea protein powder

Pea protein is a low-fat, plant-based protein powder that derives from yellow split peas. It may be a suitable alternative to whey powder for the following people:

  • vegans
  • people who are extremely sensitive to lactose
  • people with allergies to other types of protein

But a 2018 study found that plant-based proteins typically contain less protein than animal-based proteins such as whey powder. Protein levels may also vary across brands.

The American Institute for Cancer Research also warns that pea protein is low in the essential amino acid methionine. As such, it encourages anyone taking pea protein to consume it in combination with other sources of protein.

Certain protein powders and drinks may help restore beneficial gut bacteria, improve gut health, and alleviate symptoms of UC.

But researchers are still investigating the types and quantities of protein that will be most beneficial for people with IBD. Importantly, a 2017 review states that while protein appears beneficial for gut health, a diet that is too high in protein could adversely affect IBD.

Specifically, it may impair the healing of the intestinal mucosa following a flare-up of the disease. Further research is necessary to determine a safe and effective quantity of protein for people with IBD.

People with UC should speak with their dietician or healthcare professional before taking protein powders on a regular basis. They should also watch their symptoms closely and stop taking protein powder drinks if symptoms worsen or flare up.

Protein powders are popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts as a way of improving muscle tone and fitness levels while controlling appetite. But individuals should consider that some protein powders may contain ingredients including:

  • Added sugars and calories: Regularly consuming excess calories may cause weight gain.
  • Lactose: Although lactose is a naturally occurring milk sugar that is fine for most people, it may be an issue for those with extreme lactose intolerance.
  • Toxins: These may include heavy metals and pesticides. Choose a third-party tested product to minimize the risk of contamination.

Further resources

For more in-depth resources about vitamins, minerals, and supplements, visit our dedicated hub.

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People can consume protein and other nutrients from dietary sources. Those who prefer to consume protein through whole food sources can try:

Limited research in animals suggests that whey protein may help ease the symptoms of UC and other IBDs. But there is also evidence to suggest that too much protein can worsen IBD symptoms or cause a flare-up of the disease.

Further research involving human participants is necessary to determine the safety and efficacy of whey protein and other types of protein for the treatment of UC and other IBDs.

People who are concerned about taking a protein powder can try modifying their diet to include extra protein. But a person who has IBD should talk with their doctor or a nutritionist before making any dietary changes.