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Can protein supplements affect your gut health?

Updated: May 11, 2023

For those of you that have jumped onto the protein powder bandwagon and have tried a few different brands, you may have experienced some gut discomfort, increased flatulence or toilet troubles. But why may that be? Here I will explain the role of our gut during protein digestion and provide some tips to reduce stomach troubles after consuming protein supplements.

Protein and gut microbiota

Despite the lack of research about the relationship between protein powder and gut microbiota, there is some thought that the reason why we experience stomach issues may be due to protein overload in our gut microbiota. What is microbiota you ask? Well, it is a group of different kinds of bacteria found along our entire digestive tract that are involved in the digestion, absorption and metabolism of food. So when we digest protein, the gut microbes in our microbiota convert it into amino acids (the building blocks of protein). These amino acids contribute to the structure, composition and function of these microbes. Therefore, the amounts and types of protein we eat, are directly related to the state of our gut microbiota. In saying this, the gut microbiota varies along the digestive tract meaning, there are different kinds that break down different components of food.

Further to this, the amount of our microbiota is highest in our large intestine where the remaining parts of the protein we eat are broken down and absorbed into our body. Having more protein than our gut is used to, (loading up on that protein powder) leads to our increased time of digestion and excess byproduct production which may cause stomach distension, discomfort and flatulence.

More of a visual learner? Here is a video on what gut microbiota is!

Potential solutions to reduce stomach discomfort

🟡 Don’t drink your protein shake straight after your workout

Drinking less than 30-60 mins post-workout may cause stomach issues as during your workout, your digestive system slows down. It needs time to get back to its normal functioning before you override it with something to digest. Waiting 30-60 minutes post-workout is the prime time to have your protein as your body will be ready to digest it and absorb it.

🟡 Cut down on the protein powder

Using too much protein powder overworks your digestive system to break the protein down as it is already a hard macronutrient to break down! Your body can also only absorb approximately 35g of protein in 2-3 hours so you would be wasting your powder, money and time trying to get more protein in that time frame.

🟡 Take small sips

Drinking your protein shake too quickly will overwhelm your stomach, like I mentioned before, it is already hard to digest!

🟡 You could be lactose intolerant

Because some protein supplements are lactose based, such as casein and whey protein, you may lack the enzymes in your stomach that are responsible for digesting them into more useful and absorbable forms. It would be best to discuss this with your GP so they can run some tests to properly diagnose you first, then seek some tips from a dietitian on how to manage this.

Could probiotics help?

A few studies have provided the solution of pairing probiotics with protein intake. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be found in our digestive system that help break down food and are part of our microbiota. Therefore, if taken with protein, it may be able to aid in the digestion of protein and reduce the discomfort associated with increased protein consumption (1,2).

Hopefully, I have shed some light on how you can improve your gut discomfort because I know there are a lot of early mornings and sweat to start gaining muscle, and it is vital to maintain that hard work!


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