Protein Deficiency: Symptoms And Diagnosis

Time for reading: ~14 minutes Last Updated: August 24, 2022
Protein Deficiency: Symptoms And Diagnosis

Protein deficiency is a ubiquitous problem that nutritionists face every day in their work. What are the main causes of its occurrence and what threatens the body with the deficiency of protein molecules? What foods should you pay attention to and which dietary supplements should you add to your diet? Let's figure it out.

In the article we will tell:

  1. Why do we need proteins
  2. Causes of protein deficiency
  3. Symptoms of protein deficiency in the body
  4. Protein Deficiency Diagnosis
  5. How to make up for a protein deficiency
  6. Protein rich foods

Protein deficiency is a ubiquitous problem that nutritionists face every day in their work. What are the main causes of its occurrence and what threatens the body with the deficiency of protein molecules? What foods should you pay attention to and which dietary supplements should you add to your diet? Let's figure it out.

Why do we need proteins

Proteins in the human body perform many functions. First of all, it is a building material - those bricks on which the foundation of all organs and tissues is laid. They create the skeleton of cells - their cytoskeleton, participate in the formation of organelles of movement - and by the way, thanks to the latter, leukocytes are able to leave the systemic circulation in the direction of the focus of inflammation. It is the collagen of the connective tissue that largely gives structure not only to the skin, but, say, to the vessels. In turn, keratin is part of the nails and hair.

Protein molecules carry out signal transmission, mediating intercellular interactions, transport hormones, fatty acids, form complexes with a variety of biologically active substances. Those of them that do not circulate in the serum, but are built into the plasma membrane - a selective barrier at the border of intra- and extracellular environments - are an important factor in the regulation of water-salt balance: by forming ion channels, they contribute to the entry of potassium, sodium and some others into the cytoplasm charged particles.


One of the most important functions performed by this class of organic compounds is undoubtedly catalytic. All enzymes are of a protein nature - and this mediates strict conditions (including a certain temperature and pH of the environment), deviations from which in the slightest direction lead to a kind of transport collapse at the molecular and cellular levels. So, let's say, many remember from school biology lessons: an excessive increase in temperature is fraught with the denaturation of protein molecules - in fact, their destruction. Here, as a rule, it is precisely the analogy with fried eggs that is clear: just think what “metamorphoses” occur with a chicken egg as soon as it gets into a hot frying pan.


In addition, a large number of hormones are also represented by polypeptides and proteins - this allows us to single out the regulatory effect as a separate item: both locally and at the level of the whole organism (take, for example, thyroid hormones, the effect of which begins with cellular metabolism and ends with entire organ systems ).

Causes of protein deficiency

  1. Violation of the synthetic function of the liver - the central factory of metabolism. It is here that blood plasma proteins are formed: albumins and most globulins, which largely mediate the maintenance of homeostasis in the body.

    This is done through the formation of oncotic pressure: protein molecules, due to their chemical nature, attract water, thus exercising control over water-salt metabolism. An important consequence can be drawn from this: with a low concentration of proteins in the blood serum or with their increase in the intercellular fluid and tissues, which is especially characteristic of inflammatory processes accompanied by an increase in vascular permeability, edema develops - water goes beyond the arteries and veins.

    In diseases manifested by damage to hepatocytes (toxic or infectious agents), edema also occurs - and mainly on the lower half of the trunk and extremities.


  2. Nutritional factors are starvation, which generally leads to protein-energy malnutrition, or an unbalanced and uncompensated plant diet with nutraceuticals, accompanied by a lack of essential amino acids in the diet - that substrate for building cells and tissues that the body cannot reproduce on its own, from improvised elements and with using the enzymes present.

Below we have given a small table with essential amino acids and the products in which they are concentrated. We hope that this will help you competently organize and choose the type of food that is right for you.








chum salmon

milk products





egg yolk


chicken and turkey


pink salmon








sunflower seeds







milk and dairy products



cashew nuts





  1. One of the most common pathologies that leads to difficulty in the absorption of protein from food is reduced acidity of gastric juice.

    Hydrochloric acid, produced by the parietal cells of the mucosa, activates proteolytic enzymes and, in addition, promotes the swelling of protein molecules, facilitating the enzymatic processing of food. It is also a powerful factor of nonspecific protection, which has a strong bactericidal effect - in particular, in relation to protozoa, parasitic worms, bacteria and viruses.

    The wide popularity of self-administration and frequent prescription of proton pump inhibitors (“Omez”) has caused serious concern of scientists about the likely consequences of their long-term use not only on the organs of the gastrointestinal tract, but on the body as such.

    In addition to the effects of drugs, breakdowns in the folate cycle (more precisely, in the three main genes that regulate it: MTHFR, MTR, MTRR) can lead to a decrease in the production of hydrochloric acid, since it is it that ensures the formation of the main mediator of the parasympathetic system - acetylcholine, stimulating, in addition, the parietal cells of the stomach. When a mutation is detected, additional body support is required to reduce the concentration of homocysteine ​​accumulating under such conditions, an amino acid known for its damaging effect on the endothelium (the inner lining of the vessel) and playing an important role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerotic lesions.


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    On the other hand, along with insufficient formation of acetylcholine, there is an increase in the inflammatory mediator - histamine. This is due to a violation of the processes of its neutralization, normally carried out by methylation reactions. Given that histamine is also an activator of gastric juice secretion, we can draw a logical conclusion: the effect of the folate cycle on the digestive system is somewhat ambiguous. It is logical to assume that under conditions of excessive intake of this biogenic amine, not only erosive lesions of the gastric mucosa develop, but also, due to an increase in the permeability of the intestinal wall, structural elements of bacteria enter the systemic circulation - an inflammatory process is observed, and not limited to the gastrointestinal tract.

    Another possible cause of hypochlorhydria is atrophic gastritis - an autoimmune disease, accompanied by a decrease in the number of functioning cells due to their death during the “attacks” of antibodies of a crazy immune system, which ceases to clearly distinguish between “own” and “foreign”.


  2. Damage to the gastric mucosa: ulcers, gastritis, erosion. Despite the widely entrenched belief in people's minds that inflammation of the epithelial lining is purely carried out by H. pylori, this cannot be compared with one hundred percent truth.

    Firstly, infection occurs even in early childhood, so the very concept of infection in adolescence or adulthood is rather an ephemeral rarity than the truth as such.

    Secondly, it all depends on the bacterial strain: not all of them are aggressive (or at least so strongly pathogenic that clinical manifestation and inflammation of the gastric mucosa itself appear) - and this entails a mandatory diagnosis (at least before 2-week antibiotic therapy). Considering the wide distribution of the latter, which has led to the already total resistance of the microflora (inhabiting and distal parts of the small and large intestines of a person) to chemical preparations, as well as the bacterial past of mitochondria, our small power plants that selflessly produce energy, the decision to eradicate Helicobacter pylori should be well thought out by a physician or nutritionist who resorted to more gentle nutraceutical therapy.


    Helicobacter really adapts (unlike most microorganisms) to the adverse conditions of the gastric environment: having a specific enzyme that breaks down urea, it alkalizes its habitat by releasing ammonia. However, pathology develops only with its dissemination - spread from the pyloric region, bordering the duodenum, around the entire perimeter of the stomach.

    Stress often leads to damage to the gastric mucosa: it is accompanied by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, followed by the release of hormones of the adrenal medulla into the blood, which, in turn, affects the secretory apparatus of the kidneys and stimulates the release of a vasoconstrictor by them. It is the narrowing of the lumen of the vessels, including those that supply the stomach with blood, that leads to subsequent ulceration of the mucous membrane.


  3. Violation of the breakdown and absorption of proteins in the intestine. The first is characteristic of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, in which its secretory cells cease to form and secrete a sufficient amount of enzymes (and not only proteolytic ones) into the blood. The second accompanies malabsorption syndrome and celiac disease - another autoimmune disease that, unfortunately, has ceased to be such a rarity today.

  4. Violation of bile formation and bile outflow, which leads to the impossibility of not only the emulsification of fats, but also the activation of pancreatic enzymes. Worm infestation, blockage of the biliary tract with calculi, a decrease in the fluidity of this secret due to the predominance of cholesterol over other components (bile acids and phospholipids) - a large number of possible causes necessitate thorough laboratory and instrumental diagnostics, which build the missing puzzles in the clinical picture of the disease.

  5. Kidney disease: Normally, protein molecules are not filtered into the primary urine due to their bulky size. However, if the renal filter is damaged (the formation of "holes" in it), massive proteinuria is noted, as evidenced by the detection of proteins in the general analysis of urine.

Symptoms of protein deficiency in the body

One of the most striking manifestations of insufficient intake and / or absorption of proteins is the appearance of edema. Their development is associated with a naturally occurring failure of water-salt metabolism: under conditions of a reduced concentration of proteins in the blood plasma, which normally retain water, the latter passes into the tissues, which is accompanied by their subsequent swelling.

In addition, given the huge role of proteins in creating the skeleton, the framework of all cells and organs, their deficiency leads to a violation of the structure of tissues: fragility of hair and nails is noted, and the quality of the skin deteriorates.

Along with the plastic function, this class of organic compounds also performs a catalytic one. A decrease in the content of peptides leads to a decrease in the activity of enzymes. In essence, this is a real transport collapse on the highways of metabolism: it slows down, becomes sluggish.


A wide range of hormones also has a protein nature - the endocrine system begins to suffer no less than everyone else. Characteristic: the absence of menstruation, a decrease in the production of thyroid hormones (which adds oil to the already weak fire of barely occurring metabolic processes), a slowdown in growth and development due to inhibition of the synthesis of tropic hormones by the pituitary gland - including somatotropin.

The lack of amino acids causes proteolysis of tissue proteins - there is a decrease in muscle mass, its tone and strength.

In other words, there is no such organ that would not affect protein deficiency - total dysfunction progresses at all levels of functioning: from molecular to organismal.

Protein Deficiency Diagnosis

The simplest method for initial diagnosis will be the determination in a biochemical blood test of such an indicator as “total protein”. In addition, it is necessary to establish the level of albumin in the blood plasma - as a rule, in conditions of insufficient intake of proteins from the outside, the liver compensatory increases the production of this fraction.

Since all enzymes, as already mentioned, have a polypeptide basis, you can additionally rely on ALT and AST - they are often prescribed by nutritionists and doctors. However, here it is important to remember the no less dominant role in the functioning of these enzymes of vitamin B6 and to be able to correctly differentiate the causes and factors for reducing these indicators of the hepatic panel.


An increase in the amino acid homocysteine ​​in the blood serum indicates a violation of methylation processes - in this case, polymorphism in one or more genes that regulate the folate cycle can be suspected and a genetic test can be done. A little higher, we said that these “breakdowns” are accompanied by an increase in the concentration of histamine due to a decrease in its neutralization - patients have allergies, skin rashes, and even bronchial asthma.

Low acidity is determined by conducting pH-metry, which necessarily accompanies fibrogastroduodenoscopy with taking biopsy material - this is fundamentally important for establishing the stage of the process and preventing the development of gastric cancer in the future. Of the laboratory tests, the following will be indicative:

  1. Amino acids in the urine (a tendency to decrease).

  2. Reducing the concentration in the blood of metals absorbed in an acidic environment: selenium, manganese, zinc and magnesium.

Diagnosis of Helicobacter, which is mandatory in order to establish indications for the use of antibiotic therapy, consists of:

  1. Determination of bacterial antigens in feces.

  2. Breath tests with labeled urea.

  3. Determination of antibodies in the patient's blood.

  4. Biopsy during fibrogastroduodenoscopy followed by histological analysis.

The gastropanel, which is quite often prescribed for diagnosing the condition of the gastric mucosa, includes, along with other 3 biomarkers, such an indicator as gastrin-17 - another stimulator of hydrochloric acid secretion produced by the pyloric section of the stomach. Its decrease indicates a high probability of atrophic gastritis, an autoimmune disease accompanied by a decrease in the number of functioning epithelial cells.


The state of the gallbladder, as a possible culprit in violation of the activation of pancreatic enzymes (including proteolytic ones), is judged by:

  1. Coprogram.

  2. Biochemical blood test:

    • ALT, AST.

    • Gamma-glutamyltransferase.

    • Direct and indirect bilirubin.

    • total cholesterol.

    • HDL, LDL (additionally - apoprotein B).

    • alkaline phosphatase.


  3. Organic acids in the urine (for the diagnosis of bacterial overgrowth syndrome).

    An increase in the number of colonies of residents of our intestines is accompanied by an increase in the activity of fermentation processes and, as a result, excess production of gases. This, in turn, impedes the secretion of pancreatic juice and bile due to increased pressure in the intestinal lumen.


  4. Ultrasound of the abdominal organs.

How to make up for a protein deficiency

If protein deficiency was not caused by alimentary factors, then paramount attention should be directed to the cause leading to their difficult splitting and absorption. It is the elimination of this etiological factor that will provide the body with a sufficient amount of proteins - otherwise, everything eaten simply will not be absorbed.

As a rule, it is hypochlorhydria that plays the leading role - a decrease in the secretion of hydrochloric acid by the parietal cells of the stomach. If its cause is a violation of the folate cycle, it is worth starting work with it, taking a course of active forms of vitamins involved in its mechanisms:

  • methylfolate;

  • methylcobalamin;

  • riboflavin-5-phosphate;

  • pyridoxal-5-phosphate.

Provided there is no damage to the gastric mucosa, you can also consider the use of dietary supplements that stimulate the secretion of hydrochloric acid:

  1. Betaine-pepsin.

  2. Iodine, chlorine and zinc.

In addition, the impact of stress factors leading to vasospasm should be reduced or completely eliminated. Increase the tone of the parasympathetic system: as you know, it is the vagus nerve that controls the processes of digestion. Take magnesium salt baths, do relaxing practices like Pilates, yoga, breathing exercises.

As adaptogens to reduce cortisol levels, the following are suitable:

  • rhodiola rosea;

  • valerian;

  • ginseng.


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Lifestyle changes play a key role in the normalization of the state of the whole organism. Move more - let 10,000 steps become for you not something supernatural, but a familiar, everyday norm. Eliminate simple sugars as much as possible from your diet: especially if the cause of impaired secretion of digestive juices lies in the syndrome of excessive fungal or bacterial growth.

Go to bed early: at 23.00, the secretion of melatonin already begins - an antioxidant hormone responsible for youth, beauty and actively counteracting the development of oxidative stress. In addition, the release of other equally important hormones: TSH and somatotropin is also tied to the “sleep-wakefulness” cycles.

Protein rich foods

The product's name

Protein content per 100 g of product


34.9 g


24.2 g


23 g

Rabbit meat

21.2 g


21 g

Pink salmon

20.5 g




19.5 g


19.4 g


19.1 g


18.6 g

Cashew nuts

18.5 g

Horse mackerel

18.5 g


17.2 g

In the context of a purely plant-based diet, I would like to emphasize once again: please do not forget not only to soak cereals and legumes, but also take into account the rather high percentage of carbohydrates contained in them, the excess of which leads to the development of insulin resistance.

In the process of metabolic transformations of proteins, the product of their final metabolism, ammonia, is formed in the body. This highly toxic substance (especially in relation to the brain) is neutralized in the liver and excreted in the composition of urea by the kidneys. However, people with primary (genetically determined) or secondary (acquired) disorders in the system of its detoxification are shown to support key links in this process with nutraceuticals. In particular, you should consider taking:

  • ornithine;

  • arginine;

  • citrulline;

  • humic acids;

  • yucca root.


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