There are trillions of cells in the human body, but you’re going to want to know about these cells and how protein influences them. A study published in the scientific journal Neuron, suggests that cells called “orexin cells” are responsible for wakefulness and energy expenditure because they secrete a stimulant called orexin/hypocretin in the brain.
Orexin cells are types of neuropeptides—chemical signals in the brain—and their complete functions are not yet fully understood. Researchers, however, have been able to determine that orexin cells have primary functions in brain metabolism and are also involved in the stimulation of food intake.
Speaking of food intake. . . orexin cells seem to really like protein. Here’s why: University of Cambridge scientists compared the effects of various nutrients on orexin cells. The researchers found that proteins—particularly the amino acids in protein—stimulate orexin neurons more than any of the other nutrients.
Lead researcher Dr. Denis Burdakov of the Department of Pharmacology and Institute of Metabolic Science, says, “Electrical impulses emitted by orexin cells stimulate wakefulness and tell the body to burn calories. We wondered whether dietary nutrients alter those impulses.”
Their curiosity led to actions. Orexin cells were somewhat elusive, but the scientists were able to target the cells in mouse brains—and then introduced different nutrients, while tracking the orexin cell impulses. They found that amino acids stimulate orexin cells, which could very well shed light on previous observations indicating that protein meals can make people more alert than carbohydrate meals can.
Interestingly, they also found (in an earlier study) that glucose blocks orexin cells, but that amino acids stop glucose from blocking orexin cells. Simply put, this leads them to believe that protein negates the effects of sugar on the cells.
Dr. Burdakov adds, “What is exciting is to have a rational way to ‘tune’ select brain cells to be more or less active by deciding what food to eat. Not all brain cells are simply turned on by all nutrients, [so] dietary composition is critical.”
Another positive attribute of protein is that, because of its amino acids, it doesn’t have much sugar in it and will, therefore, not adversely mess with blood sugar levels. Most carbohydrates, on the other hand, are what will raise blood sugar levels much more than protein does. And when your blood sugar is stable, then your energy levels can remain stoked.
Now that’s a one-two, pick-me-up punch for protein.