Glutamate, Gluten & Disease

What is the level of glutamate in your diet?

Although virtually every food will contain some amount of glutamate, there are some foods that are rich in glutamate and can all too easily be combined in your favorite recipes. The chart below lists some of the most common, glutamate-rich foods, most of which can be found in your local grocery store.

There are actually two forms of glutamate found in foods: bound and free. The numbers below reflect only the amount of free glutamate for each item listed.

“Free Glutamate” Can Act Like MSG

Medical specialists have known for decades that your body does not distinguish between the glutamate found naturally in foods and that in MSG. In fact, even today's state-of-the-art technology can't separate them. For example, if you analyzed a plate of spaghetti, you could find out the total amount of glutamate in the dish. However, since glutamate is glutamate, there is no way to determine whether the glutamate came from tomatoes, Parmesan cheese or MSG.

Many companies tout their products as being free of added MSG but that doesn’t mean that they are also devoid of free glutamate. Glutamate is typically found in higher protein foods. When bound it isn’t a problem but prolonged cooking or liberates or “frees” the glutamate and that is when problems arise for some individuals. The presence of free glutamate is not found on any labels but suffice to say that most fast food institutions and many highly processed foods (especially those high in protein) have either added MSG or free glutamate is present. 

If you know that your body responds poorly to MSG or you have any type of neurological complaint, it is recommended that you become familiar with these foods and consider eliminating them from your diet. Remember that they are not particularly present in fresh, healthy food. A little internet search will give you more specifics on these types of foods.

Reduce your consumption of free glutamate, and reduce the risk of inflammation that spirals your health out of control.

How cancer cells invade tissues has been the focus of much research. Cancer cells can occur in various tissues throughout the body and involve abnormal metabolic activity with the ability to invade other cells. Aberrant glutamatergic signaling (signaling involving glutamate) can lead to tumorigenesis and is likely the mechanism leading to many cancers. With a release of excess glutamate from cancer cells, nearby cells will either die or be transformed to participate in increased glutamatergic signaling through its increase in glutamate receptor expression. In this way, cancer cells invade normal tissues and transform normal cell signaling.

Inflammation is mediated in part through glutamatergic signaling. At elevated levels, glutamate can initiate inflammation through activation of glial cells, a type of nerve cell. The glial cells then participate in cascading this glutamate stress signal throughout the body, particularly the brain, leading to chronic inflammation if glutamate levels remain elevated. Chronic inflammation leads to increased risk of cancer and a major under-appreciated link is the role glutamate plays in these pathways.

Many Protein Powders Are Very High In Glutimate

In order to get a high protein count, manufacturers extract proteins out of food and leave the rest behind. Otherwise, you cannot get anywhere near a high protein concentration. And with protein powders, the more protein, the better.

Pea protein is the worst offender, especially for people who may react to these unnatural extracted proteins. That’s right…pea protein is an extracted protein, made in a lab, and it’s got a high glutamate concentration so it can affect you in the exact way as Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG. People who take high doses of protein powders often complain of migraine headaches, anxiety, and sensitivity to light or sound. Once they take the pea protein out of their diet, often all symptoms disappear. Note: ALL pea protein is extracted, even if it’s 100% certified organic. The same protein powders can be used in diet and weight loss shakes as well as body-building blends.

Many protein powders contain “natural” flavors (note: the word “natural” is not regulated and can mean just about anything), artificial coloring and/or artificial sweeteners, none of which are good for your health. You can also find Genetically Modified (GMO) ingredients and/or Whey Protein Isolate, another high glutamate/extracted ingredient which is non-vegan and usually not organic so it can be high in antibiotics and pesticides too.

Since protein powders are considered a “food” and not a supplement, they’re not actually regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In a few cases, independent studies found high levels of heavy metals in certain ingredients such as organic brown rice protein. If your protein powder contains dangerously high levels of arsenic, cadmium or lead, how would you know? You won’t. Until it’s too late that is, and I don’t want that to happen to you! Many of the ingredients in the mass-produced protein powders come from India and China, and they are not regulated for quality or contaminants. Those low-quality ingredients are most likely irradiated as well.

So you’ve got an extracted unnatural powder protein that was heated to super-high temperatures, stripped of its fiber and is no longer a whole food. (Yikes!) What’s your natural, organic body going to do with that? You’ll have excess acid and uric acid build-up that’s created from the metabolic waste in trying to digest and break down all those proteins. Your skin and kidneys carry the burden of trying to release excess acids. You might smell an “acidic or tangy” odor in your sweat. Over time, the kidneys can become weaker and the risk of getting kidney stones or kidney disease can increase. Eating a high acid diet is also not good for your pH health. An anti-cancer diet is an alkaline diet, not a high acid diet.

The boom of high protein diets helped to make protein powders a new diet trend. Just read any Paleo, Dukan, Atkins or low carb diet website and you will see everyone is talking about protein – protein – protein. I’ve even heard people talking about cricket protein powders (and surely that’s coming from China so imagine what’s in it, really). But here’s the deal – you can still eat plenty of protein if that’s your thing. Just choose whole foods! There are plenty of natural, vegan, organic whole food plant protein options out there. Since protein powders simply haven’t been around long enough to know if there are long-term consequences to your health, why take a chance?

Choose Real Whole Organic Food... your body was designed to eat whole foods!

Here are 5 plant-based whole food protein sources:

 - 164g chickpeas = 14.53g protein

 - 118g pumpkin seeds = 35.21g protein

 - 143g almonds = 30.34g protein

 - 140g sunflower seeds = 29.09g protein

 - 30g hemp hearts protein (3 Tbsp.) = 15.00g protein

Okay to Eat Organic hemp protein, flax seed and spirulina powder. These are all whole foods; that means the whole seed or algae is dried and ground into a powder form. (The powders you want to avoid are the processed foods, such as “extracted, hydrolyzed, and protein isolates.”)

Best to Avoid: Pea protein, whey isolate, any hydrolyzed protein, natural flavors, aspartame, beet powder (if non-organic, this is usually GMO).

Other good vegetable/plant-based sources of protein include organic spirulina powder, sprouted mung beans, lentils, sesame seeds and dark leafy bitter greens.

You can make a super-healthy Green Smoothie with pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, tahini (sesame seed paste), almonds and spirulina plus some fresh dark, leafy greens for an all-natural plant-based protein meal. You deserve the very best in health so I say choose the best!

Gluten, Glutamate & Neurological Disease (adapted from Dr. Vikki Petersen blog post, March 22, 2011)

A patient came in to see me last week who has me very concerned. She is in her mid-30s with a history of a multitude of problems, not the least of which is ataxia (unsteadiness of gait or balance). We had diagnosed her with gluten intolerance several years ago. Despite her youth she was unsteady on her feet and proclaimed herself a “klutz” when she originally began care. She also had some belly weight that she wanted to lose. When she initially became a patient, she was delighted when both her ataxia and belly weight resolved during a couple months on a gluten-free diet. In fact, she is one of the testimonials in our book “The Gluten Effect”.

Gluten is the most common cause of cerebellar ataxia. (The cerebellum, in the brain, is very commonly affected by gluten. Its role in the brain is to help modulate voluntary movements so that they become more accurate, smooth, and require less conscious effort to perform. A good example of this is learning to ride a bike. Initially you have to consciously balance, coordinate the movements of your arms and legs, etc. Yet as you practice more and more you can eventually ride the bike without thinking about it – that is the cerebellum at work.)

This patient had done well for a long time but during the last couple of years has been unstable regarding her symptoms. We pride ourselves on our diagnostic capabilities but in this case it wasn’t difficult to get to the crux of the matter – she was being less than vigilant on her gluten-free diet. She used excuses such as business travel and eating in restaurants as the reason for her gluten indiscretions. Each time in the past we were able to restore her to healthy function but it only lasted until she got a bit lazy again. The most recent excuse involved a justification of: “Just how much wheat could possibly be in soy sauce?” (The answer is “a lot” considering those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease must not consume any.) Last week when she came in to see me her ataxia had returned and for the first time and she was back to calling herself a “klutz”. She had actually fallen down once and on another occasion had suffered a concussion. Both incidents had occurred within two months.

Neurological complications are found in 30-50% of patients with gluten intolerance. It was obvious that her nervous system was again inflamed and my concern was whether she had crossed the threshold into an autoimmune disease, a threshold from which I might not be able to completely bring her back. It has been found that gluten-free diets cannot stop neurodegeneration (degeneration of the nervous system) that has progressed too far. 

Interestingly she also complained that a recent meal left her feeling poorly despite home preparation. It was definitely gluten-free but it was not glutamate free. She used a certain brand of chicken broth and I recognized it as one I don’t recommend for that very reason. She is aware that she reacts negatively to MSG (monosodium glutamate) but the label said that it was not an ingredient.

Gliadin is broken down, upon digestion, into the amino acids proline and glutamine. 30 to 35% of the protein in wheat is glutamic acid. Glutamine in turn breaks down into glutamate (both are amino acids) and the highest rate of this breakdown occurs in the small intestine. So there is a cascade from gliadin to glutamine to glutamate as digestion occurs. 

Interestingly, gluten and glutamate share a common thread in the area of creating neurological complaints. Could the ingestion of foods with high glutamate, though gluten-free, explain the onset of neurological symptoms feared to be the result of gluten cross-contamination when in fact due to a food high in free glutamate? It does give one something to think about… It certainly was the case in this patient’s reaction. Let’s put this all together to understand just how gluten can create neurological problems and how glutamate might be adding kerosene to the fire.

First a definition: Excitotoxicity – a process whereby excess glutamate accumulates outside cells, resulting in damage and eventual death of cells in the nervous system. So as you can see, glutamate can wreck cellular murder on the nervous system if not removed efficiently. Excitotoxicity due to glutamate can result in severely decreased blood flow and is associated thereby with such disorders as stroke, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and seizures. The bottom line is that a lot of glutamate is produced in the brain when it’s “excited”. It is “excited” when it’s inflamed and gluten is a major source of inflammation in those who are intolerant– see how it all comes full circle?

We know that gluten can cause systemic (throughout the body) effects upon the immune system, even though they originate in the gut. It has also been very well researched that such gut irritation then activates immune cells in the brain (brain microglia) that initiate immunoexcitotoxicity (a process whereby the brain is subject to excitotoxic damage). Once activated, the brain’s immune cells (microglia) can secrete a number of inflammatory substances. Once primed (meaning that it’s occurred once), the next time it is irritated the immune cells pour out excitotoxins creating neurological symptoms. 

There are 3 excitotoxic amino acids that are poured out, one of which is glutamate. These amino acids suppress a transport system such that glutamate can’t be removed efficiently from the brain. Buildup thus occurs, increasing excitotoxicity and free radicals, unstable substances that will react with most tissues of the body creating destruction in their wake. Free radicals are known to cause many disease conditions including cancer and heart disease, to name a few. By the way, we also know that the immune cells of the brain (microglia) are activated by not only gluten and glutamate but by chronic infections and toxins, including pesticides and herbicides.



Let’s review:

• We know that chronic inflammation is a bad thing and we want to prevent it.

• We know that when sensitive to gluten a body can become inflamed in many areas, especially the gut and the nervous system.

• We know that we want to prevent neurological diseases such as stroke, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and seizures and that they may very well be initiated by a negative reaction to gluten, one of its breakdown products glutamate, and foods high in free glutamate.

• And lastly, we also know that we want to avoid excitotoxicity as it literally spells a death sentence for the cells of the nervous system and brain.



What Should We Do?

  1. We must first determine if the individual suffers from gluten intolerance, including celiac disease. This can be difficult in some asymptomatic people as neurological problems may take years to develop symptoms despite the damage slowly and relentlessly occurring. But if you read this blog you know the tests that I recommend to make this determination, regardless of any symptoms present. One of our major goals is early diagnosis – we want to discover the problem before too much damage has occurred!
  2. We must also determine if glutamate containing foods are problematic. Many people who are sensitive to MSG know it, unfortunately, they are unaware of the free glutamate in food, so they chalk up feeling bad to some other source.
  3. We must encourage neuroprotection (protection of the nervous system) and reduce stress on the brain’s immune cells. How? Nutrients such as magnesium, quercetin, curcumin, ginseng, hesperidin, anthocyanidins (found in cranberries and many other brilliantly colored fruits and vegetables that have a potent antioxidant activity which may help fight heart disease and cancer), silymarin and DHA are all beneficial. The brain uses only DHA which is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It not only inhibits immune activation of brain cells, but it improves blood flow to the brain and blocks excitotoxicity – all very good things!
  4. Lastly, we must remove any additional sources of inflammation to the body. Possible culprits are other foods causing problems, infectious agents, heavy metals and other toxins.