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Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Harm

Excitotoxicity:  When Nourishing Foods Do Harm

Bone Broths. Ferments. Mushrooms. Peas. Tomatoes. Cheese. What do all of these foods have in common? Glutamates. Yes, the very foods we value as some of the most nourishing foods available to us are full of glutamates.

What Are Glutamates?

What are glutamates? Glutamate is an amino acid that occurs naturally in foods and some supplements. And it is an excitotoxin. An excitotoxin is a substance that binds to specific receptors in the brain and the body and causes the death of neurons. Now that sounds unpleasant, doesn’t it?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, contributes to glutamate levels in the body. Its use in food is controversial because it is known for its adverse effects. There are other excitotoxins that are abundant in the Standard American Diet, such as aspartame, otherwise known as NutraSweet. You may be familiar with its reputation and health consequences associated with it.

What They Do

What are some of the symptoms associated with elevated glutamates? Headaches, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, ADHD-like symptoms, problems regulating our appetite, leaky gut, elevated eosinophils, bedwetting, problems focusing eyes, stimming, seizures, schizophrenia, and unfortunately, the list goes on.

Glutamate acts as a neurotransmitter in our body, along with GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid, to regulate neuronal excitability. GABA is important for muscle tone, speech, and has many other important roles in the body. GABA calms the nerves while glutamate excites them. Balance between these two neurotransmitters is what we are looking to achieve to avoid neurological inflammation and damage.

Excitotoxins like glutamate cause problems because they allow high levels of calcium into the cell, essentially exciting the cell to death. This is why it is said that “glutamate is the gun, and calcium is the bullet”.

Glutamates are not completely unhealthy. Some will argue that they are just toxic, but they do serve some important functions in the body, such as in learning and memory. Having high levels of glutamate receptors in order to handle excess glutamate is believed to explain the very high levels of intelligence we see in people with autism.

Dr. Russell Blaylock is a neurosurgeon and expert on this topic. His book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills is a great resource for more information. Much research has been done since he wrote it. Recent research has found that the glutamate receptors that bind glutamate and modulate excitatory and inhibitory transmission are not just in the brain. They are in all organs and tissues. Our entire gastrointestinal tract contains glutamate receptors. They are in our heart, lungs, reproductive organs, adrenals and even bones. So the balance between glutamate and GABA has a resounding effect throughout the body. It can even affect the permeability of the blood brain barrier.

Glutamate receptor dysfunction is associated with autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer and more. There are now suggested links to chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia too.

Glutamates in the Diet

A low glutamate diet is a crucial piece of the work Dr. Amy Yasko, who specializes in autism and other forms of chronic neurological inflammation, does with her patients. I have found this to be a big piece of the puzzle for many people. Sometimes removing just one food or supplement can have a very dramatic effect over time.

Many different foods and even supplements contribute to the glutamate load in our bodies. In addition to the foods I have already mentioned there are many other foods high in glutamates, such as soy, seaweed, and yeast. Some supplements are naturally high in glutamate and others contain substances that convert to glutamate, or pair up with glutamate to cause damage. Fortunately, there are also supplements that help us to achieve better balance between GABA and glutamate.

Glutamate and GABA imbalances are less of a risk in healthy people. They were likely a non-issue for people years ago on traditional diets that consumed broths and ferments in healthy amounts. In this age, unfortunately, when our body is affected by our increasingly toxic environment, these factors become more problematic. When the body cannot properly regulate glutamate it can build in the system. For example, the GAD enzyme, which converts glutamate to GABA is inhibited by lead. So someone with a high body burden of lead may have difficulty regulating the balance between glutamate and GABA. Mercury can also cause this glutamate “trapping”. And aluminum has an adverse effect. So I do believe the root of the problem is environment, not diet, but unfortunately all of these factors accumulate and affect our tolerance for food.

So in conclusion, as always, moderation is the key with diet. Glutamates are something to keep on your radar in this age of environmental toxicity. As for me, I do notice when I over consume glutamate containing foods my sleep suffers. I do, however, consume bone broths and ferments in moderation. I just watch my intake of pizza and other high glutamate foods and I never eat processed food with MSG, aspartame, or other excitotoxic additives. If you or your child are not tolerating high glutamate foods and are seeing some of the symptoms listed above I hope this information will help you to fine-tune your diet with the help of your doctor to achieve the results you want. This is how we Peel Back the Onion Layers to achieve better health!

For more information:

Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, By Russell L. Blaylock, M.D.

The Role of Excitotoxins in Autistic Type Behavior
by Dr. Amy Yasko

 



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This post was featured at Thank Your Body Thursday.

This post is linked to Mop It Up Monday, Monday Mania, Natural Living Monday, Mondays Link-Up, Gluten Free Monday, Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesdays, Hearth and Soul Hop, Domestically Divine Tuesday, Real Food Wednesday, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Whole Foods Wednesday, Allergy Free Wednesday, Natural Living Link-up, Keep it Real Thursday, Thank Your Body Thursday, Tasty Traditions, Freaky Friday, Fight Back Friday, GAPS Friendly Friday, Farm Girl Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, and TALU Tuesday.

34 Comments

  1. Trying to heal says:

    Interesting… explains what my hunch was telling me regarding my own, and my daughter’s, reaction to broth.

    How else to heal and seal the gut though? Hmmmm.

    Frustrating!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Please don’t let it frustrate you, Trying to heal. Once you recognize that this is an issue for you, you can decrease glutamates in other areas of your diet in order to make room for some broth. It is impossible to remove all glutamates from your diet. It is a matter of finding your personal tolerance. There are also supplements that can help you achieve better balance between GABA and glutamate.

  2. Anne Kimball says:

    Hi Dawn, I’m Anne from Life on the Funny Farm (http://annesfunnyfarm.blogspot.com), and I’m visiting from Natural Living Mondays.

    Wow, who would have thought it? Very interesting and informative.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. If you’ve never visited yet, I hope you can pop by my blog sometime to say hi…

  3. This is really interesting, thank you. This might explain why I don’t tolerate breads made with yeast or soy sauce very well. And come to think of it, I don’t sleep well after them either.

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      It sounds like there could be a connection. I am glad you found it interesting; I think it is something more people should be aware of!

  4. Lauren says:

    Awesome article! I was aware of this, and have read Blaylock’s book, but this was stated so simply that I actually learned more here! :-) Have you also heard that companies are allowed to hide MSG under names like ‘natural flavors’? Once I learned that, I really started paying attention to what foods have that particular ingredient added, and it seems like they all do! It’s very scary. Thanks for bringing light to this.

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Wow, thanks Lauren! Blaylock is a genius and his books can be a little overwhelming. :) I also love his book “Health and Nutrition Secrets That Can Save Your Life”. I have heard that about labeling and I suppose that is not going to change until we do something about it…they have every reason to want to addict us to their foods and we have every reason to want to avoid MSG!

  5. Beth M says:

    This is interesting. I’m a bit confused because I thought the bone broth was supposed to heal & seal the gut (gaps/scd), but are you saying the glutamates can actually cause leaky gut? I have been on GAPS for about 6 months and have noticed improved digestion but extreme muscle fatigue/weakness. I haven’t been able to pin it down to a specific food, but wondering if it could be related to bone broth ~2 cups/day? If so, what is a source of GABA to balance that out or is just a supplement? Thanks!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Hi Beth! This is not an issue for everyone. It is just something to keep on your radar as I am surprised by the number of people it is an issue for. Glutamates can affect all organs of our body including our gut. Muscle fatigue and weakness can have so many causes. Mitochondrial dysfunction is one of them and that is also common these days. There are supplements that can help with that too if you do a little research. We take GABA. Your doctor can run a Urine Amino Acid test to see your glutamate and GABA balance if you are concerned. Your doctor can also test for some of the markers for mitochondrial dysfunction if you think that is an issue for you through an Organic Acids Test. I am going to have to write a post on mitochondrial dysfunction this month. It is such a problem these days. I hope that helps you. Listen to your body. You may need less broth, less meat, more carbs, more fat…it is important to keep a food log. I hope this helps and I hope you feel better soon!

  6. Thanks for a great article. This is something we’ve been keeping an eye on for my daughter. I love the name of your blog because it so perfectly describes how I feel as we search for answers on how to improve my daughter’s health. We peel back a layer – find an answer, then keep peeling and finding. Hoping all these layers eventually give her good health!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks so much, Paige! “Peeling back the onion layers” is exactly how I would describe our experience, and it seems to be a common theme with many children and adults, unfortunately. I am so thrilled that you have already been keeping an eye on excitotoxicity! It sounds like you are really staying ahead of potential pitfalls and you are already making a dramatic difference in her health!

  7. Beth M says:

    Very interesting, thank you for your response! I’ve been trying to nail down this muscle fatigue thing since I was about 16 (now 30). I used to run marathons & know I overdid my activity level when I was young and have never been able to recover even near what it had been. Good to know on the GABA as several of the supplements I’ve ordered through Swanson & was just looking at their product (http://www.swansonvitamins.com/swanson-premium-gaba-500-mg-100-caps) but maybe I’ll hold off. I’ve wanted to do an Organic Acid test–would also be interested to see if oxalates is an issue. Unfortunately, conventional medicine isn’t all that helpful & to get it covered by insurance is a hassle as physicians look at me like I’m from another planet :-) …looking forward to your post on mitochondiral dysfunction!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Hi Beth! Yes, post-exertional malaise could be another sign of mitochondrial dysfunction. Oxalates are tied into the mitochondrial issue. One thing I have learned about the OAT (Organic Acids Test) is that it is a “snapshot” in time, so you may not see elevated markers for oxalates in that particular sample depending on whether you are “dumping” oxalates in your urine at that time. I know what you mean about conventional medicine. We really have to take responsibility for our own wellness!

  8. Thanks for sharing this on GAPS Friendly Fridays! I think it’s very important not to look for any one-size-fits all cures. It’s an important reminder that just because something is “traditional” and “healthy,” we all have unique considerations to take into account. We also need to listen to our bodies throughout the healing process. This is just one of the aspects of GAPS that could be a problem for some individuals, even though it can also be very healing for others! I’ve been watching Dr. Amy Yasko’s work for a while and will be very interested to see how it dovetails with and contradicts Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s work with autistic people and those dealing with other mental/neuro issues.

    Personally, I worried that all the broth might affect me negatively, since I had suffered from migraines and migraine auras for years. Lucky for me, the GAPS diet cured my migraines and migraine auras. I can eat all the broth I want!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks so much, Joy! We really are all different and we have to listen to our bodies. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride explained that wonderfully in this blog post. This information jives well with the Metabolic Typing Diet, which I find very interesting. I am so thrilled that your migraines are healed! It seems migraines are often from histamine sensitivities which can clear up as the gut heals. Thank you for bringing that up as I would not want anyone to assume all migraines are from glutamates!

  9. [...] addicted to foods that contain these substances.  I talked more about this in a post entitled Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Harm.  There are also other allergies and intolerances that manifest as [...]

  10. Wow this is very interesting! Thanks so much for sharing. I am going to look into these books. I don’t have issues with any of these foods (Well I don’t eat grains, soy, or dairy but I eat bone broth and mushrooms). It is good to know to keep an eye out for these symptoms.

    Thanks so much for sharing on Natural Living Monday! I am excited to see what you have to share this week.

  11. Wow, super interesting. You always have such well researched posts. Thank you!

  12. Alea Milham says:

    Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing this with the Hearth and Soul Hop.

  13. Dawn Tasher says:

    Thank you, Alea!

  14. [...] Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Hard by Peeling Back the Onion [...]

  15. VeggieVal says:

    Hi Dawn,

    I’m visiting from TALU and found your article fascinating. Since I started GABA years ago with wonderful results and tend to not eat the items you mentioned just by virtue of being vegetarian, but it’s great to read exactly why it works.

    Your blog is wonderful for your niche. Mine is niche, too. Perhaps pop over to http://www.goingveggie.com and see if you might have an idea to guest blog at Going Veggie. I would love to host your thoughts; just email me.

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Hi Val!

      You know, my sister does better on a mostly vegetarian diet because the glutamates affect her too. Guest blogging sounds fun! Let’s do that in the near future. Right now I am struggling to have time to post for my own readers, but maybe soon?

  16. Hmmmmm, I had been getting down on myself a little lately for still not being able to force down a mushroom, especially hearing all last hear about their remarkable anti-inflammatory properties, etc. Was contemplating trying again to add them to my diet, but now I can give myself a legit excuse to avoid them. ;) [#TALU]

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      I always encourage people to listen to their bodies! ;) My hubby, who was a very picky eater when we met, will eat anything now EXCEPT mushrooms. If they are pureed in a sauce or such, he does not mind the taste. He does not like their “squishy” texture. :)

  17. [...] a recent article that has me questioning eating ANY food [...]

  18. Chrissy says:

    Thanks, Dawn. I needed this reminder to go easy on the excitotoxins…primarily tomatoes, mushrooms and peas in our house. Left to my own cooking instincts…they would be prominently featured in every other meal. Lol.

  19. [...] foods are high in glutamates. In my article Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Harm, I explained how very damaging glutamates can be. If you suffer from some of the symptoms I wrote [...]

  20. Leora says:

    Dawn, thankyou, I loved this article. I wonder if you could offer your opinion on my husband. He is having episodes I can only describe as seizure-like where he suddenly becomes totally uninhibited and says things that don’t make sense. He is sometimes aggressive (not physical, but threatening) and is restless, almost hyper. Sometimes he feels sick. Normally after being this way for 15mins or so he feels tired and goes to bed, waking completely normal. Doctors have not helped answer why this happens but perhaps glutamate imbalance fits?. It has happened twice after he ate dim sims with tomato sauce, once after pepsi, once after cranberry juice. I’m struggling to remember further back than that, but have you heard of this behaviour from excitotoxins?

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Leora, I have definitely heard of glutamate and aspartate playing a role in seizures. Of course it could be something even more serious so I hope your doctors have ruled that out. I will be praying you guys get to the bottom of this. It must be frightening.

      Hugs,
      Dawn

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