Whey is one of two main proteins that are found in milk. During the cheese making process, whey separates from solid curds, and is left as a watery liquid. The liquid is drained and dried into a powder to make whey protein.
Whey is normally used as a protein supplement, but it also contains a large number of bioactive components that can exert positive effects on the human immune system.1 2
Whey protein can be bought as a concentrate (which contains small amounts of lactose – the milk sugar – and fat), whey isolate (a form which is processed to remove the lactose and fat) or whey hydrolysate (where the protein chains are broken down into smaller units).
What do we know about whey protein and psoriasis?
Whey contains a number of smaller proteins that may influence psoriasis via their effects on the immune system and the growth of skin cells.
Some of the proteins in whey also exert positive effects via antioxidant activity9. People with psoriasis tend to have low levels of antioxidants together with high levels of oxidative stress, which may contribute to inflammation. Whey is rich in cysteine, a small protein which is converted to a potent10 antioxidant known as glutathione11. Studies show whey protein supplements can enhance antioxidant defences in a range of diseases 12 and potentially in psoriasis.
What does the science say?
Studies into the effects of whey protein in psoriasis have looked at whey protein extracts, whey protein isolate and topical application of the proteins found in whey.
Whey protein extract
Several studies have shown the benefits of a whey protein extract (known as Dermylex) in the treatment of psoriasis. 12 13 In one double blind placebo-controlled study (considered the most rigorous type of clinical study there is), patients with mild-to moderate psoriasis were randomised to receive either a daily dose of 800 milligrams of Dermylex or a placebo (dummy) supplement for a period of 56 days.
During the study period patients in the Dermylex group experienced a significant improvement in psoriasis severity, itching and self-reported quality of life scores (which assess how much symptoms have affected daily life) when compared to the placebo group.
Similar to these findings, two earlier studies14 15 found that both 5 and 10 grams of Dermylex taken as a powder mixed into juice or food improved psoriasis severity, although the larger doses were not found to be any more effective than the 800-milligram (0.8 gram) dose.
Whey protein isolate
In another small study from Canada, seven patients with moderate to severe psoriasis vulgaris consumed a daily dose of 20 grams of whey protein isolate together with their usual treatments, which included topical steroids or UVB light therapy. After three months, the five patients who had completed the study experienced a significant improvement in psoriasis severity, with no other changes in their treatment.16
Commercially available whey protein is considered safe to consume, the only side effects being digestive symptoms such as bloating, which is usually down to the lactose or sweeteners present in some whey protein formulas that can be difficult to digest.
Studies looking at the effects of whey protein extracts in psoriasis have not shown there to be any adverse effects.17
How much do I need to take?
It’s difficult to say how much whey protein is needed, as the supplements used in the studies have been specially developed to extract the bioactive components. In the studies using Dermylex, 800mg daily was found to be effective.
A recent analysis of 9 controlled studies found that a daily dose of whey protein equal to or over 20 grams a day lowered CRP18, a marker of inflammation that has been linked to psoriasis severity19. In the Canadian study, 20 grams of whey protein isolate was effective in reducing psoriasis severity.20
- Whey is one of the two major proteins in milk, which is extracted during the cheesemaking process and dried to make whey protein.
- Whey protein contains bioactive compounds that may exert positive influences on psoriasis by reducing inflammation and slowing skin cell growth.
- Research is limited, but several small studies have found that whey protein extracts and whey protein isolate can reduce psoriasis severity when taken as a supplement over periods of two-three months.
What the dietician says
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, whey protein has shown some potential as a treatment for psoriasis, either used alone or in combination with other treatments.
Because it is a natural product with no apparent adverse effects, whey protein could be used as an alternative to other drugs and topical treatments that can have unwanted side effects when used for long periods.
However, only one study has looked at the effects of the type of whey protein that is commercially available – a whey protein isolate. In this study a daily dose of 20 grams had a positive effect in a very small number of patients. Although the results are promising, it’s too early to say confidently whether whey protein could be helpful in larger groups.
However, given that whey protein is relatively inexpensive and safe to use, it’s worth considering. One scoop of whey protein weighs around 20 grams, and can easily be blended with milk or water, or stirred into porridge oats or yoghurt. By teaming whey protein in a smoothie with foods like berries, cocoa and cinnamon you can boost your antioxidant intake, which could have positive effects on inflammation.