Is Your Protein Powder Messing With Your Hormones? An Expert Explains
People love their protein powders, and for good reason. They can be an easy addition to your morning smoothie for a quick, filling breakfast or even added to baked goods to bulk up the nutritional value. But some might find that when they use different protein powders, they notice some strange things happening, including acne, rashes, digestive problems, or menstrual irregularity.
So can protein powders mess with our hormones? Let's break down how the different protein powders can directly affect your hormones:
1. Collagen won't mess with your hormones.
You really can't go wrong with collagen since most people can tolerate it well and it contains important collagen subtypes found in our own bodies, generally giving it a minimal, if any, effect on hormones. Its increased bioavailability is also a plus.* It's naturally found in our skin, cartilage, tendons, bones, ligaments, blood vessels, and more and is responsible and needed for a healthy metabolism as well as our own collagen production. It is comprised of three amino acids: proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline. Your body produces all three but not enough to be beneficial, so supplementation (via powder or diet) is important.* Our bodies need about 15 grams of glycine a day—but the average person typically consumes only about three. You can get collagen in a few different forms all containing different subtypes of collagen:
- Bovine collagen: This collagen found in cows has both Type I and Type III collagen. Why I love it so much is that Type I is what is most common in the human body to form tendons, bones, and ligaments, and Type III works to form connective tissue, bone marrow, and cartilage. Just make sure to look for grass-fed.
- Chicken collagen: This contains Type II collagen found in chicken bones and cartilage.
- Marine collagen: It is another one of my all-time favorites next to bovine collagen. Not only does it provide the essential Type I collagen, but it is also bioavailable because the collagen peptides are smaller particles. It's the go-to choice for those following a pescatarian diet.
- Eggshell membrane collagen: This kind of collagen contains both Type I and Type V collagen, which work together for healthy joint and connective tissues and help encourage muscle growth.
2. Casein is often inflammation-causing, which affects your hormones.
This is the main protein found in cow's milk and is commonly isolated for use in protein powders. Your body is able to use it longer, making it perfect for building new muscle tissue and muscle growth. The main type of casein, beta-casein, has two subtypes: A1 and A2. The A1 subtype is what is most commonly found in milk products in grocery stores across the United States. The reason is that most American cows have casein gene mutations due to thousands of years of crossbreeding different kinds of cows. A1 casein is one reason dairy is hard for some people to tolerate. Research has shown that A1 can be a trigger for digestive problems and inflammation, which wreak havoc on your hormones. Beta A2 casein, however, is the OG, ancient casein and has been shown to be more digestible and higher in vitamins.
3. Egg whites are likely fine as long as you can tolerate eggs in general.
The albumin in egg whites can be a source of inflammation for some, but if you can tolerate eggs, well, then, this is one of the better options as this is a highly bioavailable protein option and is used as the standard for determining the bioavailability of other sources. It provides all of the necessary amino acids your body needs.
4. Whey has been known to trigger hormone issues in some.
Whey is a great bioavailable protein source, but since it is still dairy-based, it's still loaded with casein, which can cause runaway inflammation in some people and further perpetuate hormonal problems. It's actually made in the process of making cheese: Milk is curdled and strained, leaving a semi-clear liquid, which we know of as whey. It is considered a complete protein with extremely high amounts of the amino acid leucine, which is essential for protein synthesis. If dairy isn't an issue for your body, just make sure you consume only grass-fed whey.
5. Soy protein powder is a plant-derived estrogen and can potentially be a problem.
We can't talk about protein sources without mentioning the ever-controversial soy. Soy protein comes from de-hulled and defatted soybeans. Soy is considered a phytoestrogen, which are plant-derived estrogens that are not produced in the endocrine system but are consumed from eating these types of plants. Soy is one of the most notable phytoestrogens out there and can have a pretty intense effect on your hormones. For women who are estrogen-dominant and men, this can potentially be a problem. If you are going to go for soy, make sure you are looking for non-GMO varieties.
6. Hemp is hormone-safe but low in protein content.
There are not many negative hormonal side effects of this type of protein. In fact, since it provides loads of vitamin E, fiber, iron, and essential fatty acids, it can be a great choice since your body can't produce these kinds of fats on its own and must be part of your regular diet. However, compared to other plant- or animal-based protein powders, it is one of the lowest in protein content. While hemp is filled with other great factors such as fiber and omega fat, which is needed for a happy and healthy gut and brain, it contains only about 30 to 50% protein by weight compared to 90 to 100% of other choices. And not only is the protein content lackluster, but the amount it does have is less bioavailable than animal, pea, or even rice proteins.
7. If you're grain-intolerant, rice protein can cause inflammation.
Because of its bioavailability and protein content, rice is a decent option as long as you can tolerate grains. Since they can be an inflammatory source for some, it could end up throwing off hormones and contributing to skin conditions like acne and rashes. Since it contains all nine essential amino acids, rice is considered a complete protein source. It is lower in lysine than whey protein but is almost as bioavailable as beef.
8. Pea protein powder is a safe option for most—but you might need another protein source, too.
For those who want a plant-based option, pea protein powder doesn't mess with hormones that much—but you'll likely need to pair it with a more complete protein in order to reap the amino acid benefits. Derived from yellow split peas, this protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids. However, three of them are in very small amounts, and thus it may still be necessary to pair it with a complementary protein. Some people don't tolerate legumes, even podlike legumes like peas, so for these people, pea protein can throw off their digestion and hormones. If your stomach is at all irritated when you consume legumes, avoid pea protein.
9. Sacha inchi is a complete plant-based option that's well tolerated.
Also known as the Inca peanut, this seed found in Peru is a complete plant protein containing every single essential amino acid at 9 grams of protein per serving. Its high omega-fat content makes this a perfect source for helping healthy hormones. Since it is plant-based, though, it will not be as bioavailable as collagen, but for those wanting a plant-based complete protein without grains, this will be your best bet.*
10. Pumpkin seed powder will keep hormones balanced, if you're OK with seeds.
Pumpkin seed protein powder is considered a complete plant protein with all nine amino acids at 12 grams of protein per 1-cup serving. Because pumpkin seed protein is high in healthy fats (with 12 grams per cup), it is good for helping keep hormones balanced, a healthy brain, and providing long-lasting sustainable energy. Some people don't tolerate seeds, so for these people, this is a no-go.
The bottom line:
As a general rule of thumb, what you can't tolerate in whole foods will likely cause you issues in protein powder form. And always remember to eat whole, real foods for a healthy source of protein—and then protein powders can be a nice option if you are on the go, want to mix things up, around a workout, or just as an addition to your favorite smoothie recipe.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.