Low Protein Count

Overview

The body uses protein for repairing tissues, producing enzymes, regulating muscle contraction, creating hormones and transporting nutrients. The organs assist in protein production by producing some amino acids, but they cannot produce all of the proteins the body needs. When someone does not consume enough protein, or the body loses protein due to disease, a low blood protein count occurs.

Significance

When someone has a low protein count, the body does not function as efficiently as it should. Significant protein loss also results in malnutrition of a mild degree, which makes the body more susceptible to some diseases.

Effects

Low protein levels cause water retention, swelling, muscle weakness, fatigue, slow-healing wounds and decreased muscle mass, according to Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, a registered dietitian at the University of Cincinnati. In children, a low protein count also interferes with the growth process.

Causes

Kidney disorders, digestive disorders, liver disorders and lack of protein intake cause low levels of protein in the blood. The kidneys filter wastes from the blood and return important nutrients to the bloodstream. When kidney damage occurs, the kidneys leak protein into the urine, resulting in reduced protein levels in the blood. Because the liver manufactures some proteins, liver disorders result in an inability to carry out this function. This leads to reduced protein levels. Inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal infections prevent the absorption of protein in the intestines.

Identification

The total protein count reveals low levels of protein in the blood. Doctors order this test to determine the cause of unintended weight loss or if a patient exhibits signs of a liver or kidney disease. UT Southwestern Medical Center reports that a normal total protein count ranges from 6.3 to 8.2 gm/dL. If the test reveals a protein count below the normal range, doctors order tests for specific proteins. The results of these tests help narrow down the cause of a low protein count. Doctors sometimes order a comprehensive metabolic panel, which includes the total protein count, along with tests for glucose, calcium, potassium, albumin, sodium, chloride, carbon dioxide, creatinine, blood urea nitrogen, bilirubin and liver enzymes AST, ALP and ALT, according to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry.

Treatment

When a lack of protein intake causes a low protein count, the treatment involves increasing the amount of protein in the diet. Add protein-rich foods–such as meats, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy vegetables–to your meals and snacks. When low protein levels result from the presence of a liver, kidney or digestive disorder, doctors treat the underlying causes of the disorder to prevent protein levels from decreasing. If protein loss causes swelling of the ankles, feet, hands and face, doctors prescribe restricted fluid intake to relieve the swelling and decrease blood volume.

About this Author

Leigh A. Zaykoski began working as a freelance writer in 2004. Her medical content has appeared on dozens of websites and in professional association newsletters. Zaykoski attended the University of Pittsburgh and Keystone College, studying microbiology and business administration. She is currently pursuing a medical writing certification.