Hypoproteinemia: Definition, causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Female with malnutrition and hypoproteinemia
Hypoproteinemia is a health condition where a person has very little blood levels of protein.

Proteins are the bricks of our body; an essential nutrient which is responsible for the basic structure and can be found in all parts of body including all the vitals organs, muscles, bones, hair, skin, and nails. In fact, proteins are also responsible for making molecules such as hemoglobin (essential for carrying oxygen and CO2 throughout our body), immunoglobulins (responsible for immunity) and different enzymes (responsible for several chemical reactions and digestion in the body).

Sadly, our body cannot store protein for future use like it stores fat, thus we’re dependent on daily intake of protein for smooth functioning of our body. Protein can be obtained from various food products like dairy, eggs, fish, red meat, chicken, tofu and nuts.

Deficiency of protein can lead to different health issues like slow growth, muscle loss, weak immunity, cardiac and respiratory conditions. Severe hypoproteinemia is a life-threatening situation.

Although, this condition is seen more commonly in developing or poor countries where adequate diet or awareness about the benefits of balanced diet is lacking, it can also affect people in developed countries who have certain health conditions or don’t follow a good protein-rich diet.

Symptoms of hypoproteinemia

Skinny Female with malnutrition and hypoproteinemia

  • Stunted growth in children
  • Loss of muscular mass
  • Swelling in limbs, face and/or other body parts due to fluid leak through circulatory system causing edema
  • Hair loss with poor, brittle hair
  • Pitting and cracking of nails
  • Recurrent infections
  • Fatigue, poor strength, and stamina

Causes of hypoproteinemia

Hypoproteinemia is caused either due to poor dietary intake, inability to absorb proteins or excessive loss from the body.

1. Malnutrition/poor dietary intake

It will lead to protein deficiency if there isn’t enough protein in your diet. This problem can be particularly more pronounced in people having vegetarian or vegan diet. Severe protein deficiency is called kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor is more prevalent in developing countries where majority of people cannot afford a proper diet.

2. Malabsorption /poor absorption of protein from the diet

The condition where your body is unable to absorb proteins from the diet is called malabsorption. This may occur due to several reasons like:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Defects in intestines
  • Parasitic or other infections
  • Surgeries like those involving removal of intestinal parts or weight loss surgery

3. Liver conditions

Liver is responsible for production of an important protein known as albumin, which forms up to 60% of total protein in blood. Albumin transports hormones, vitamins or other substances in the body. It’s also responsible for maintaining balance of water, thus hypoalbuminemia causes fluid retention. Any condition which hinders liver function will cause hypoalbuminemia.

4. Renal conditions

Kidneys are responsible for filtering waste from blood stream. When kidneys cannot function properly proteins are leaked into urine. This condition where protein loss occurs in urine is called proteinuria. Again, this will lead to hypoproteinemia.

Treatment of protein deficiency

vegan protein sources
Vegan Protein Sources

When the cause of hypoproteinemia is poor dietary intake it can be treated by adding higher amounts of protein in the diet. A few good sources of protein are:

  • Fish
  • Chicken
  • Red meat
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Diary products like milk, cheese, yogurt
  • Legumes like pulses, soya bean, kidney beans
Protein diet for non-vegetarians
Non-vegetarian protein sources

In developing countries, children suffering from kwashiorkor can be treated with RUTF (ready-to-use Therapeutic Food) made from milk powder, peanut butter, vegetable oil, sugar, added vitamins and minerals.

When hypoproteinemia occurs from other causes except poor dietary intake, the treatment of underlying cause is required:

  • Antiparasitic drugs or antibiotics are given for infections
  • Nutritional supplements given for nutrient deficiencies
  • Gluten-free diet is recommended in people with celiac disease
  • Immunosuppressants or steroids may be given to treat inflammation in intestines
  • Appropriate medication or surgery to treat liver conditions
  • Kidney transplant or dialysis to treat kidney disease

Pregnancy related hypoproteinemia

During pregnancy your body requires extra protein (along with other nutrients) to nourish your own body and the growing baby. A study (using IAAO method) recommends that average daily intake of protein should be between 79g/d in early stages to 108g/d towards full gestation.

It’s not uncommon to develop hypoproteinemia during pregnancy. The main causes are as follows:

  • Severe nausea or excessive vomiting which makes them eat less than the required amount of food
  • Strict vegetarian/vegan diet
  • Inadequate diet due to poverty

Tips To Prevent Protein Deficiency

In most cases hypoproteinemia can be prevented by taking appropriate amount of protein in the diet. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is only 0.8 per kg body weight per day. However, this RDA of protein varies from person to person with age, gender, and type of profession. There are many online calculators available using which you can calculate your recommended dietary intake of protein, e.g. Protein-O-Meter by Right To Protein, is an online tool which helps Indians, across different age-groups, track their daily protein intake and help them make necessary health improvements by providing relevant information. The protein calculator asks basic questions on an individual’s body profile, type of lifestyle and kind of meals consumed at different times during the day to calculate one’s daily protein requirements. It further calculates the individual’s protein gap and suggests protein-rich foods for daily consumption to close the dietary gap.

Vegetarian or vegan people who cannot consume non-vegetarian sources of protein should include more of the plant products which are rich in protein like:

  • Tofu
  • Almond/Soy milk
  • Tempeh
  • Beans (soy bean, kidney bean)
  • Pulses and peas
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Whole-grain bread

Also, if you have an underlying condition causing inhibited protein uptake or excessive protein loss like renal disease, liver disease, IBD, celiac disease, infections, you must get those treated as soon as possible.

Bottomline

Hypoproteinemia is the deficiency of protein in blood. It can be caused due to poor diet, absorption problems or excessive protein loss. Hypoproteinemia can be identified with symptoms like growth retardation, muscle loss, fluid retention, hair loss, poor nails, fatigue etc. But as rightly said ‘prevention is better than cure’, to prevent Hypoproteinemia regular consumption of protein in every meal is a must. And, to treat this condition, you need to add more proteins to your diet and/or treat underlying conditions causing poor protein absorption or excessive protein loss. You should follow up with your doctor or nutritionist to get rid of the problem in the best manner possible.