Does Whey Protein Help With Muscle Soreness?

Whey protein supplements have increased in popularity during the past few years. Originally an unwanted byproduct of cheese processing, this dietary aid can now be found on the shelves of any grocery store. Athletes typically use whey protein to gain muscle mass, but new research suggests that it might help you with muscle soreness recovery as well.

The best shake for muscle recovery should include whey protein powder. (Image: Lecic/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Using whey protein to alleviate sore muscles works best when combined with omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids or antioxidants.

Get to Know Whey Protein

Curdling dairy products to make cheese leaves a liquid remainder known as whey. This liquid contains several proteins, including beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin and serum albumin. Typically sold as a powder, dried whey has a bitter taste. So manufacturers add artificial flavors like chocolate and vanilla as masking agents.

Learn About Whey Quality

A 2016 report in the Journal of Proteomics questions the purity of commercially available whey powder. The authors found impurities in many whey protein samples. Given these findings, make sure you buy your whey protein from a reputable source. Purchasing organic whey powder gives you another way to avoid impurities.

Understand Muscle Soreness

Trainers call exercise-related pain delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Lifting weights or playing sports often triggers the symptoms of DOMS. While not inevitable, muscle soreness is very difficult to prevent. Many treatments exist, but few of these remedies are effective and safe.

Scientists have an equally difficult time pinning down the mechanisms of DOMS. Many people think exercise physically damages muscles and that this change causes DOMS. But this explanation doesn't hold up, because the symptoms of DOMS can show up without this damage.

Another common theory is that increases in creatine kinase underlie DOMS. Exercise reliably increases both creatine kinase and muscle soreness, and people often assume that one causes the other. Yet a 2015 report in the Journal of Musculoskeletal Research failed to find a correlation between the two alleged measures of muscle damage.

Use Protein for Sore Muscles

Not understanding the mechanisms of DOMS doesn't mean you can't try to treat it. Manufacturers offer you protein as a panacea. Such a claim is greatly exaggerated, but whey protein does have potential as a treatment for DOMS. A 2018 paper in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism explored its efficacy in younger women.

The researchers used repeated sprints to trigger symptoms of DOMS. After the sprints, the participants received a drink featuring either whey protein or carbohydrates. They ingested this isocaloric drink twice a day for four days. Compared to the carbohydrate version, the whey protein drink increased the subjects' flexibility and strength. It also decreased levels of creatine kinase.

Go Bigger With Native Whey

People often argue about which type of whey is best. For example, there's a huge battle between supporters of whey protein isolate and whey protein hydrolysate. Each variant has nutritional value, and neither appears superior. However, one type of whey processing does seem to have an advantage.

Making whey protein from milk using the microfiltration permeate process keeps it more natural. This native whey has greater nutritional value, and it's better suited for the needs of athletes. It should, therefore, have a better effect on DOMS. The authors of a 2018 article in Frontiers in Physiology tested this hypothesis in younger men.

The research team used electrical stimulation and plyometric exercise to trigger DOMS. They assigned subjects to one of three supplement conditions: standard whey, native whey or placebo. Participants took the supplement five days a week for 12 weeks. Results indicated that subjects given native whey recovered more rapidly and showed more adaptations.

Don't Worry About the Timing

Another longstanding debate concerns when to ingest your whey protein. Some believe you should have it immediately after working out. Others have suggested that there's a 24-hour window. More recent work has indicated that taking it right before you go to bed is your best bet.

Yet a 2018 review in Nutrients failed to find an advantage of any particular time. A 2018 report in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reached a similar conclusion. These researchers showed that casein protein had robust effects on muscle strength and muscle mass, irrespective of time of day. Their data support the idea that you should focus on your protein intake across each 24-hour period.

Use the Right Dose

The last debate about whey protein concerns the dose. Health care professionals once suggested that simply getting the Recommended Dietary Allowance, RDA, of protein is enough to keep you healthy. However, they eventually changed this recommendation. For example, a 2018 report from Harvard Health Publishing suggests that doubling the dose can help you keep your muscle strength.

Larger amounts seem important for muscle recovery, as well. A 2014 article in Physiological Reports shows that larger amounts will keep the amino acid content of your muscles high. The authors speculated that this elevation should help you recover after an intense workout

Understand the Mechanisms

Whey increases the levels of amino acids circulating in your bloodstream. Having greater availability of amino acids increases your protein synthesis and decreases your protein breakdown. These changes increase your net protein balance.

The cheese byproduct also increases satellite cell production. These building blocks of skeletal muscle cells play an important role in gaining muscle mass. When activated by exercise, they repair and rejuvenate muscle tissue. This process gives you bigger, stronger muscles.

Combine Remedies for Stronger Effects

Knowing how whey works lets you combine it with other supplements that rely on different mechanisms. Combining treatments can potentially have additive or even synergistic effects similar to those shown when compounding pharmaceutical preparations. You may fail to reach this potential for many reasons, though, including treatment interference and allergic reactions. At the least, combining treatments should produce more reliable effects.

Add Antioxidant Supplements

Your white blood cells release reactive oxygen species during exercise. These free radicals have a damaging effect on your body. They change the biochemicals used for cellular communication and your body's natural fats. They can even alter your genes.

Dietitians urge you to eat vegetables and fruits because the antioxidants in these foods scavenge free radicals. Thus, antioxidants work through a different mechanism than whey. Combining whey protein with fruits and vegetables should, therefore, have a bigger impact on symptoms of DOMS. A 2017 report in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked at this effect in younger men.

The researchers used a single bout of knee-extension exercises to induce DOMS. The subjects received either carbohydrates, protein, or protein and an antioxidant supplement after doing the resistance exercises. The data showed that people in the combined treatment group had the least amount of muscle soreness. The authors believe that the antioxidant and the protein acted synergistically.

Add Tart Cherry Juice

Tart cherry juice is another antioxidant with therapeutic potential. This juice offers you many health benefits, including inflammation reduction and sleep promotion. These positive qualities suggest it might help with muscle recovery. A 2017 report in the Journal of Functional Foods tested this idea in healthy women and men.

This research team used explosive exercises to cause muscle soreness. They combined tart cherry juice and whey protein into an easily consumed drink. Subjects drank either the juice or a placebo twice a day for 10 days. The exercise happened on the sixth day.

Results indicated that the juice increased the participants' antioxidant status. That is, their bodies were better able to scavenge free radicals after drinking the tart cherry juice and whey protein combination. The combination also decreased muscle soreness 48 hours after the exercise challenge.

Add Carbohydrates and HMB

The amino acid metabolite β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB) is gaining popularity with athletes to promote muscle mass and prevent muscle damage. These findings suggest that HMB can help fight the symptoms of DOMS. A 2015 report in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition explored this possibility in healthy men.

These scientists used resistance exercises like weightlifting to produce DOMS. All men participated in both conditions: 1) carbohydrate, whey and HMB, or 2) just whey. The men took either supplement twice a day for two weeks before the exercise challenge and for two days after it.

Results indicated that the combined treatment outperformed the whey protein alone. For example, men given the combined treatment had lower levels of creatine kinase and muscle soreness. They also had greater explosive power.

Add Fish Oil

Doctors are increasingly recommending omega 3 fatty acids to patients for their heart health. Taking fish oil capsules gives you an easy way to get more docosahexaenoic acid — one of the most important omega-3s. This chemical also helps mitigate post-exercise soreness.

The health benefits of fish oil suggest that it could enhance the effects of whey protein. A study described in the 2017 volume of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism tested this hypothesis in male soccer players.

These researchers used leg-extension exercises to induce DOMS. They assigned the players to one of three supplement conditions: 1) fish oil, whey protein and leucine; 2) whey protein and leucine; or 3) placebo. Supplementation occurred daily for six weeks. The data showed that players given fish oil had lower levels of muscle soreness and creatine kinase than those in the other two groups.

Be Careful With Dietary Aids

All treatments can cause side effects, and combining remedies increases your risk. So it's important to meet with a health care expert before changing your diet. A doctor can help you find the right treatment to use in your situation. She might also catch an undiagnosed medical condition that better explains your soreness.

Everyone has a unique physiology and will respond differently to large doses of protein. A high-protein diet can cause harm in some populations, and a nutritional supplement can damage your kidneys. Speaking with a dietitian and using these products in moderation will help keep you safe as you use protein for sore muscles.

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