Too much of anything can be a bad thing. In the case of protein and protein supplements, too much can be fatal.
The New York Post reported the case of a 25-year-old Australian woman who was found unconscious in her apartment. At the hospital, doctors declared the woman, Meegan Hefford, to be brain dead. She died just two days later.
After some investigation, doctors learned that Hefford had a rare condition called urea cycle disorder. People with this condition have trouble removing all the nitrogen from their body. As a result, the nitrogen buildup turns into ammonia, a toxic compound that can cause irreversible brain damage, coma, or death.
In Hefford’s case, the condition was likely fatally exacerbated by the overconsumption of protein products, given that she was a bodybuilder. Not unusually, people who aim to bulk up their musculature tend rely on a heavy protein diet to sustain their training and increase muscle mass. In addition to protein-rich foods, such as meats, eggs, and dairy, many bodybuilders also incorporate shakes and over-the-counter supplements to meet their protein requirements.
Normally, when a person consumes protein, the body breaks down the product into basic small molecules, known as amino acids. These building blocks are used in a wide range of cellular processes, from the production of enzymes to the synthesis of DNA. When there are excess amino acids, the body converts these into nitrogen, which is excreted through urine in the form of urea.
In people with urea cycle disorder, genetic defects in one of the six enzymes involved in the urea cycle prevent the conversion of nitrogen into urea. Consequently, the nitrogen (formed by excess amino acids) gets stuck once converted into ammonia, a cycle intermediate. When there’s too much ammonia in the blood (hyperammonemia), major organs are susceptible to irreversible damage.
Doctors suspect the combination of urea cycle disorder and overconsumption of proteins led to Hefford’s death.
While some types of urea cycle disorders are detected at birth, some types are less severe and show up in adulthood, triggered by lifestyle factors. Notably, drastic changes in dietary habits, such as eating more proteins than the body can use, will trigger hyperammonemia. Beyond diets, some people develop symptoms from childbirth, viral infections, and even stress.
Treatment for urea cycle disorders is currently centered on careful management of protein intake. Once diagnosed, patients are put on low-protein, high-calorie diets. While diet changes can be very effective in managing the symptoms, some people may need to take drugs to help clear the extra ammonia from the body. In all cases, patients will have to be monitored regularly for ammonia buildup.
Additional sources: Live Science