If you have spent even a little time scrolling on social media, you must have come across the term ‘Protein.’ Everyone is talking about protein and more importantly the lack of it. If this has led you to think of exactly “what is the function of proteins?” Then you aren’t alone. At the core of the question lies a complex web of roles that Protein performs. So let’s take a deeper look into these molecular powerhouses with a range of very important biological functions within the human body and understand these functions.
The biological functions of proteins are remarkably diverse. Let’s take a look at some of the most important biological functions of proteins.
1. Causes Biochemical Reactions
Protein function includes playing a fundamental role in the catalysis of biochemical reactions within the body.
Enzymes, a specialised category of proteins, are key players in this protein function. Enzymes bind to specific molecules called substrates and facilitate their transformation into different products. By reducing the energy required for reactions, enzymes enable biochemical processes to occur at rates compatible with life. For example, digestive enzymes in the stomach break down food molecules into smaller, absorbable components. Enzymatic protein functions are not just limited to digestion though. These catalysts are indispensable for the complex molecular processes that sustain the body's functioning, from metabolism to cellular maintenance.
2. Building Block of Tissues and Cells
One essential protein function is acting as the building block of tissues and cells. Protein forms the foundation of every living organism. When it comes to tissues, proteins contribute to their formation, growth, and repair. Structural proteins, such as collagen and elastin, provide strength, elasticity, and support to connective tissues like skin, tendons, and ligaments. Muscle tissues rely heavily on proteins, actin and myosin for contraction and movement. When it comes to cells, proteins are integral components of cellular structures. The cytoskeleton, composed of protein filaments, maintains cell shape and provides the framework for various cellular processes. Membrane proteins, including receptors and transporters, regulate the flow of substances in and out of cells, enabling communication and nutrient exchange.
Proteins also play a pivotal role in cell signalling. Signal transduction pathways involve proteins that relay external signals to the cell's interior, triggering responses that control growth, differentiation, and other vital processes.
Overall, the protein function as the building block of tissues and cells is paramount. It underpins the structural integrity and functional diversity of living organisms, ensuring their growth, maintenance, and ability to respond to their environment.
3. Enzyme Production
Another critical biological functions of proteins is in enzyme production and functioning. Enzymes are biological molecules that speed up chemical reactions. Proteins are essential for enzyme production because enzymes themselves are specialised proteins. Proteins provide the structural and functional framework necessary for enzyme activity, allowing them to catalyse specific chemical reactions that are vital for the proper functioning of biological systems.
4. Hormone Production
Another important protein function is that of synthesis and transport of hormones. Let’s take a look at what is the function of proteins in hormone production.
Hormones are chemical messengers that regulate several physiological processes and help maintain homeostasis. Proteins are directly involved in different aspects of hormone production, including synthesis, transport, and signalling.
Synthesis of Hormones:
Many hormones are synthesised from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Enzymes, which are specialised proteins, facilitate the conversion of amino acids into hormone molecules. For example, thyroid hormones are synthesised from the amino acid tyrosine, with the help of enzymes like thyroperoxidase.
Hormones are either water-insoluble or lipid-soluble, making it difficult for them to travel in the bloodstream on their own. Proteins, like carrier proteins, transport globulins, and albumins, help these hormones circulate in the blood.
Hormones come into effect by binding to specific receptors on target cells. These receptors are often proteins themselves, and their binding triggers a series of intracellular events that result in a cellular response.
Enzymes in Hormone Processing:
Enzymes, as specialised proteins, play a role in processing prohormones or precursor molecules into their active hormone forms. For instance, insulin is initially synthesised as proinsulin, and specific proteases work on it to produce active insulin.
Many hormones are involved in feedback loops that regulate their own production. This involves the sensing of hormone levels and subsequent signalling to adjust production accordingly.
5. Immune System Support
Proteins are essential for the proper functioning and regulation of various components of the immune response. Different proteins contribute to immune system support in distinct ways. Some key functions of proteins involved in immune support -
Cytokines, a group of proteins, act as signalling molecules in the immune system. They help regulate immune responses by facilitating communication between immune cells. Certain proteins also help attract immune cells to the site of infection, and directly destroy pathogens through a process called complement activation. Proteins known as cell adhesion molecules, facilitate the interaction and adhesion of immune cells to other cells and surfaces, allowing immune cells to move to the site of infection and communicate with each other effectively. Acute Phase Proteins are produced by the liver in response to inflammation or infection and contribute to tissue repair and healing.
Including a variety of protein sources in your diet, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds, can provide the amino acids necessary for the synthesis and proper functioning of these immune-supporting proteins. It's important to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet to ensure optimal immune system function. If you are someone who lacks protein in your routine, especially due to certain dietary restrictions you can consider including protein supplements such as protein powder especially plant protein powder (for vegans and vegetarians) in your daily routine.
6. Metabolic Reactions
Proteins play a crucial role in various metabolic reactions throughout the body. Like we saw earlier, Enzymes, which are specialised proteins, act as catalysts to facilitate biochemical reactions that are essential for metabolism. These reactions include the breakdown of nutrients, energy production, and the synthesis of molecules. Biological functions of proteins facilitate the processes that allow the body to break down nutrients, produce energy, build molecules, necessary for growth, repair, and other physiological processes. A balanced diet that provides essential amino acids is crucial for maintaining optimal metabolic function.
7. Energy Source
While carbohydrates are popularly known as an energy source. Fats and proteins can also be used as an energy source under certain circumstances. Normally, the body prefers to use carbohydrates and fats for energy due to their efficient metabolism. However, when carbohydrate and fat stores are limited, such as during periods of prolonged fasting or intense exercise, proteins can be broken down to provide energy.
Proteins are composed of amino acids, which can be converted into glucose, which is then used for energy by various cells and tissues, particularly the brain. It's important to note that using proteins as a primary energy source is not ideal, as proteins serve many other critical functions in the body, such as building and repairing tissues, producing enzymes and hormones, and supporting the immune system. To ensure that proteins are primarily used for their essential functions, it's recommended to maintain a balanced diet that includes sufficient carbohydrates and fats to meet energy needs, while also providing an adequate amount of proteins for their various roles.
8. Maintains Proper pH
Proteins play a crucial role in maintaining pH balance. pH is the measure of acidity or alkalinity of a solution, and it is measured on a scale of 0 to 14. A pH of 7 is considered neutral, while values below 7 are acidic and values above 7 are alkaline or basic. pH balance is essential for biological processes.
Proteins contribute to buffering capacity (resisting change in pH levels), enzymatic activity,and appropriate pH ensures that enzymes function efficiently. Protein structure stability is hugely affected by pH levels and an imbalance will affect the structure. Protein affects several physiological processes but protein in itself is affected by pH imbalances so not only does Protein help maintain pH levels but also needs a balanced pH environment to function properly.
In essence, proteins are the architects of life, performing a wide range of biological functions from structural support to catalytic prowess. Including protein-rich foods in your diet promotes satiety and helps control appetite, making it beneficial for weight management. Whether from animal or plant sources, incorporating adequate protein ensures that your body has the necessary amino acids to perform these critical functions, fostering optimal health and wellbeing. If you are someone who has a protein deficiency or wants to increase their protein intake especially with respect to a restrictive diet or food allergies etc, then including plant protein powder and supplements might be a great option for you. 1 scoop daily mixed with water gives you your daily dose of proteins, giving you the several benefits of proteins.
If you want to consider adding plant protein to your regular diet read this to find out exactly what is plant protein? And what type of protein supplement should you include in your diet whey protein vs plant protein.Also Read: Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein