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? 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 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.
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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