What is Glutamate | glutamate role in the body | symptoms of high glutamate levels | lowering my glutamate levels naturally | Low Glutamate Diet | Low Glutamine Diet foods | Low Glutamate Diet Plan | Low Glutamate Diet & Intermittent Fasting
Take a look at a few different packaged food items in your pantry and you will likely find some form of this particular amino acid: glutamate
While it comes in many forms, glutamate has gained attention in recent years for its widespread use in foods via monosodium glutamate or MSG. It’s what is added to food to make you think, “I’ll just take one more bite”.
Most often used as food additives to enhance flavor, there has been some controversy surrounding whether or not MSG is good for our health.
Not only is glutamate found in the form of MSG, but natural glutamate can be found in foods such as bone broth, soy sauce, soy protein, ripe tomatoes, and broccoli. No matter where you look, you are bound to find some form of glutamate in the average diet.
So, what is so bad about glutamate? At face value, this non-essential amino acid seems harmless for most people. While glutamate does have a role within our brain and nervous system, dysregulated levels can cause problems.
And, since glutamate is abundantly found in our diets, it can cause real problems for those that may be sensitive to glutamate or have medical conditions that benefit from lower levels of glutamate in the body.
This is where following a low glutamate diet can be beneficial. While it sounds like a simple plan to avoid foods with glutamate, it can be harder than it sounds to avoid this flavor enhancer.
That’s why we are here to help! In this article, we’ll go over important questions such as:
- What is glutamate?
- How can I lower my glutamate levels naturally?
- What are the symptoms of high glutamate levels?
- What foods can I eat?
We’ll also discuss what a low glutamate diet is, meal ideas while following a low glutamate diet, and how you can follow a low-glutamate diet while also intermittent fasting. Let’s dive in!
What is Glutamate?
Glutamate is what is known as an excitatory neurotransmitter, in that it is a chemical messenger that stimulates cells into some type of action.
Until recently, glutamate had been thought of as one of the lesser neurotransmitters without much importance, but now It is known to be one of the main excitatory neurotransmitters to affect the central nervous system.
Glutamate is a type of non-essential amino acid which means that our body can make the amino acid and we do not necessarily need to obtain it from the foods that we eat. Glutamate exists in two different forms.
The first form is the bound form. The bound form of glutamate is glutamic acid and it is linked to other proteins. The second form of glutamate is the free form. The free form is not bound to any other protein and can be found in foods such as tomato sauce and cheese as well as MSG.
Only the free form of glutamate activates the umami sense of taste which is why this form is used commonly as a flavor enhancer. Dietary glutamate is processed in the body the same way regardless of whether it is in the bound form or free form.
However, the free form is processed more quickly, which means that more glutamate can flood into the body at once.
Glutamate is normally limited from passing the blood brain barrier through active transportation, so a very small amount actually enters the central nervous system. The metabolism of glutamate is similar to that of the synthesis of fatty acids.
However, problems occur when something inhibits this normal limitation of glutamate entering the central nervous system. Things like stress, trauma, neurotoxic exposure, and infection have been shown to compromise the integrity of this barrier, allowing more glutamate to enter.
There is also some evidence to suggest that the free form of glutamate (found in many preservatives) more easily enters through the blood-brain barrier, allowing high levels of glutamate to enter.
This can lead to excess glutamate in the central nervous system which can cause glutamate toxicity. Glutamate toxicity may even contribute to certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.
Glutamate receptors are found not only in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system but also in the kidney, heart, lungs, ovaries, immune cells and endocrine cells.
There are four different receptors that glutamate can bind to, which highlights its important role in the body.
Because these receptors can be found throughout the body, dysregulation of glutamate levels can cause widespread symptoms.
What role does glutamate have in the body?
Glutamate has a variety of functions in the body when normal levels are present. Its main job is to send chemical messages from the brain cells and nerve cells throughout other tissues in the body.
This job is especially important within the brain where glutamate is responsible for triggering motor, sensory, and cognitive functions. These different functions are crucial for things like learning and memory, while also playing a role in the immune system and in gut function.
It’s also thought to play a role in sleep as seen in animal studies, however, future research is needed for human studies.
In terms of brain function, one of the main roles of glutamate is cell elimination. If too much glutamate is present, then this cell elimination process goes into overdrive into something called excitotoxicity.
This is where glutamate excites too many nerve cells to the point that they die, even when it’s not necessary. Normally, glutamate receptors are constantly removing glutamate so that this system stays regulated and the right balance of nerve cells are eliminated.
The counterpart to glutamate is a compound called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA. GABA has an inhibitory role in the brain. This essentially means that it has a calming effect on different processes which tells them to stop or slow down. It is involved in things like sleep, anxiety regulation, and relaxation.
This is compared to the contrasting role of glutamate which stimulates or causes a certain action.
As with many chemical processes in the body, it’s important that these two amino acids remain in balance for optimal brain function and overall health.
What are the symptoms of high glutamate levels?
When high levels of glutamate are present in the body (and low levels of GABA), damage to nerve cells can happen along with damage to the cell messaging network.
One consequence of high levels of glutamate can be an increase in nerve cell or brain cell elimination. This is called excitotoxicity.
High glutamate levels have been associated with a wide variety of neurological symptoms and conditions.
A few are listed below:
- Autism. Glutamate levels have been shown to be elevated in those with autism.
- Seizures. It is thought that epileptic seizures can be associated with too much glutamate which induces oxidative stress and cell elimination on certain types of endothelial cells.
- High blood pressure. One study found that MSG intake was inversely related to blood pressure over the course of 5 years, especially among women and those who were already taking blood pressure medication.
- Headaches. Higher circulating glutamate levels have been shown to be higher in those with migraines, especially while actively having a migraine.
- Chronic pain. This can also be a symptom of high levels of glutamate as glutamate is thought to be involved in central sensitization which is responsible for pain control. In those with Gulf War Illness, following a low glutamate diet was shown to have significant improvements in pain in a clinical trial.
A low glutamate diet has been shown to have a positive impact on both fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you are concerned that your glutamate levels are too high, be sure to talk to your doctor or healthcare professional for evaluation.
How can I lower my glutamate levels naturally?
The best way to lower glutamate levels naturally is to avoid consuming foods that are naturally high in glutamate or contain added glutamate (like MSG).
It can be tricky to remove all foods containing glutamate from your diet but consuming foods that contain lower glutamate levels can be a good strategy.
The hardest part is often identifying which foods contain glutamate and which do not. The best way to do this is to read ingredient labels on the back of packaged foods, including sauces and spices.
The challenge happens because food manufacturers use a variety of names for MSG and free glutamate-containing foods which can include:
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Glutamic acid
- Calcium glutamate
- Natrium glutamate
- Yeast extract
This is just a sample of some of the various names and ingredients that contain glutamate. Following a low glutamate diet can be a good start if you want to lower glutamate levels naturally.
Remember to always consult a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your diet. Below, we’ll discuss what the low glutamate diet is and what foods you can eat.
What is the Low Glutamate Diet?
While the name sounds simple, it’s not as simple to limit glutamate from the average person’s diet. Found in a variety of foods, glutamate is found in both bound and free forms in many of the foods that we eat every day.
We just reviewed a few names that glutamate can be hidden in certain foods, however there are other names as well. It’s important to read labels and become familiar with the various names that glutamate can fall under when starting a low glutamate diet.
The low glutamate diet focuses on consuming whole foods that avoid consumption of glutamate containing food. This includes both the free form of glutamate as well as the bound form of glutamate (mostly found in natural foods).
Foods that naturally contain glutamate include dairy (highest amount in cheese), gluten, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, processed meats, walnuts, tomatoes and tomato products, fish, mushrooms, starchy vegetables, and peas.
Additionally, it’s best to avoid most processed foods as MSG or glutamate derivatives are often found in processed foods like soups, noodle dishes, sauces and condiments. Fermented foods (like kimchi), bone broth, and meats that have been cooked for long periods of time also contain glutamate.
What foods can I eat on a Low Glutamine Diet?
So, you may be thinking, what exactly can I eat on a low glutamine diet? It can be difficult at first to find foods to eat since many foods, along with two major food groups (dairy and gluten) are restricted or significantly reduced.
If some of your favorite spices or sauces contain MSG, try searching for an MSG-free alternative. Some spices or sauces will say MSG free, but be sure to read the label to ensure there aren’t any other forms of glutamate in the ingredient list.
Below is a list of a few low glutamate foods that can be eaten on a low glutamate diet:
- Berries, melon, apples, and most fruit
- Leafy greens
- Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes
- Small amounts of beef (cooked over a short period of time)
- Wild, black, or red rice
- Small amounts of nuts and seeds
Meal Ideas for Low Glutamate Diet Plan
Now that we know what foods to eat on a low glutamate diet plan, we’ll go over a sample day meal plan for someone trying to avoid glutamate containing foods.
It’s important to keep in mind that we still want to maintain a balanced diet to include carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat.
There are plenty of meal options for those following a low glutamate diet plan to create balanced meals, although it may take a little more planning than your average diet. Here is a sample day meal plan for the low glutamate diet:
- Breakfast– Scrambled eggs and fresh fruit smoothie with coconut milk (Read here for more smoothie recipes)
- Snack– Apple with almond butter
- Lunch– Mixed greens salad with goat cheese, quinoa, and salmon
- Snack– Sweet potato hummus with carrots and celery
- Dinner– Chicken tacos on corn tortilla with avocados and shredded lettuce
It’s important to note that some may be able to tolerate some level of glutamate in their diet. Naturally occurring glutamate containing foods may be better tolerated than food additives that contain the free form of glutamate.
For example, certain cheeses do not contain as much glutamate as others. Cheddar cheese contains the lowest amount of glutamate and some may be able to include this on their low glutamate diet plan.
Low Glutamate Diet & Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting has been used for many years as a way to lose weight and gain better overall health. There are many health benefits to intermittent fasting ranging from improved blood sugar control to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Many often wonder whether other diets can be combined with intermittent fasting and the simple answer is yes, most diets can fit with intermittent fasting.
Since intermittent fasting is a schedule of when to eat and when not to eat, most diets work seamlessly with intermittent fasting. In fact, many benefits of certain diets can be enhanced when combined with intermittent fasting.
So, what about a low glutamate diet and intermittent fasting? A low glutamate diet can easily be practiced during the eating window of your intermittent fasting schedule.
One study found that intermittent fasting had some effects on brain metabolism, including the upregulation of GABA that occurs through ketones produced during fasting. As we know, GABA is necessary to create a balance of glutamate in the brain.
If you are interested in learning more about intermittent fasting, check out How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
In summary, glutamate is a common amino acid in many of the foods we eat everyday. It exists in two forms, bound to other amino acids as well as the free form. In its free form, it is used as a flavor enhancer as MSG. Glutamate does have a role to play in our bodies, especially in the central nervous system including the brain.
Its main job is a chemical messenger to “excite” other cells into action. However with all chemicals in our body, the right balance is necessary in order to perform optimally. There are a variety of things that can cause glutamate levels to become too high which can lead to various problems and conditions such as headaches and chronic pain.
One way to lower glutamate is to follow a low glutamate diet plan. A low glutamate diet is to avoid foods that contain high levels of glutamate and eat a diet with mostly low glutamate foods. It focuses on whole foods and avoiding processed foods.
We’ve provided a few meal ideas if you decide to follow a low glutamate diet. A low glutamate diet can also work with an intermittent fasting schedule for added benefit. As always, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional before making any major changes to your diet or health.