This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Understanding Glutamate For Brain Health
Glutamate is an amino acid found in abundance in both plant and animal protein. It has many roles in the body and is essential for good health. This article discusses the various roles glutamate plays in brain health.
What is Glutamate?
Out of the 20 amino acids, glutamate is the most abundant in the human body. In addition, it is the most plentiful amino acid in the brain as well. Also known as glutamic acid, glutamate is a “non-essential” amino acid that can be produced naturally by the human body. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that helps nerve cells communicate with one another. Even though glutamate is nonessential, deficiencies can still occur, leading to various health issues.
What is Free Glutamate?
There are two types of glutamate: free glutamate and bound glutamate. Free glutamate is not connected to any amino acid and is absorbed more rapidly in the body than bound glutamate. On the other hand, bound glutamate is “bound” to other amino acids and is found primarily in unprocessed foods and protein-rich foods. Free glutamate is typically added to packed and highly processed foods and is considered more harmful than bound glutamate: it can overstimulate the neurons due to its fast absorption. This rapid absorption could overwhelm the body and potentially cause various physical reactions such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or insomnia.
Where is Glutamate Found in Our Diet?
Glutamate is in a variety of foods. It has also been used as an additive.
Foods Containing Glutamate
The following foods are naturally high in glutamate:
- Fermented foods
- Bone broths
- Slow-cooked poultry and meat
Other Forms of Free Glutamate
Free glutamate has been added to several different foods as an additive. In addition to being added to many packaged foods, free glutamate is in the following:
- Soy sauce
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Corn syrup/corn starch
- Meat flavorings
- Modified food starch
- Wheat gluten
High Glutamate Symptoms
Consuming excessive amounts of glutamate could cause several negative reactions in the body. The amino acid has been added to many common foods, so knowing which foods contain glutamate is key to decreasing its consumption. Individuals who are sensitive to glutamate may exhibit the following symptoms:
Migraine pain-relay centers contain glutamate-positive neurons, including the trigeminal nucleus caudalis, thalamus, and trigeminal ganglion. Studies indicate there may be a strong link between migraines and the glutamatergic system.1
Increased Blood Pressure
Glutamate consumption may be associated with high blood pressure. A recent study found MSG was associated with a “significant increase in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.”2
When added to foods, MSG may increase a person’s appetite by interfering with leptin, the hormone that controls appetite. A Study on MSG found an association between its consumption and weight gain among healthy Chinese adults.3
The inability to make or effectively use glutamate has been linked to several mental health disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, autism, and schizophrenia.
Glutamate and Brain Function
Glutamate plays a key role in brain development. It is also a neurotransmitter, sending signals in the brain and throughout various nerves in the body.
The glutamate supports learning, memory, and other cognitive functions. In addition, it is essential for the health of specific brain regions, such as the cortex and the hippocampus, which are responsible for storing memories and linking them to sensations. Studies have noted elevated levels of “glutamate-related genes” in various brain regions in people with schizophrenia.4 In addition, glutamate supplements may be useful for improving learning and memory performance.5
Excess Glutamate in the Brain
Too much glutamate in the brain can cause premature death of the cell. Over time, this could increase the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.6
Glutamate and GABA
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is another amino acid and neurotransmitter responsible for sending information from one cell to another. GABA is an “inhibitory” transmitter, while glutamate is an “excitatory” transmitter and works together to balance brain activity. An imbalance between GABA and glutamate could cause “altered neuronal-astrocytic interactions,” impede communication between neurons and increase the risk of suffering from mental health conditions.7
Low Glutamate Diet
Excess glutamate in the diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, migraines, and mental health issues. While there are many potential causes for these conditions, lowering glutamate intake might help alleviate symptoms in allergic or sensitive amino acids. One of the easiest ways to reduce glutamate intake is to decrease processed foods or remove them from the diet altogether.
Low Glutamate Alternatives
In addition to avoiding processed foods, consuming anti-inflammatory foods can help decrease the effects of excess glutamate in the diet. Consider adding the following foods to your daily diet:
- Spices (ginger, turmeric, cinnamon)
- Probiotics (kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese, apple cider vinegar, etc.)
- Veggies (dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, celery)
- Healthy oils (Olive oil and coconut oil)
Final Thoughts on Glutamate
Glutamate is an essential amino acid and neurotransmitter. It is the most abundant amino acid in the brain and helps nerves communicate throughout the body. Even though it is vital for good health, too much glutamate could lead to health issues, including high blood pressure, obesity, mental health issues, etc. Glutamate is often added to processed foods, which can lead to its overconsumption. Avoiding these foods and consuming anti-inflammatory and non-processed foods can help keep glutamate levels in check.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided, but we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
- Nabih M Ramadan. The Link Between Glutamate And Migraine. CNS Spectr. 2003 Jun;8(6):446-9. doi: 10.1017/s1092852900018757. [PMID: 12858134].https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12858134/2.
- Zumin Shi 1, Baojun Yuan, Anne W Taylor, (et al). Monosodium Glutamate Is Related To A Higher Increase In Blood Pressure Over 5 Years: Findings From The Jiangsu Nutrition Study Of Chinese Adults. 2011 May;29(5):846-53. doi: 10.1097/HJH.0b013e328344da8e. [PMID: 21372742].https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21372742/
- Ka He 1, Shufa Du, Pengcheng Xun, Sangita Sharma, (et al). Consumption Of Monosodium Glutamate In Relation To Incidence Of Overweight In Chinese Adults: China Health And Nutrition Survey (CHNS). 2011 Jun;93(6):1328-36. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.008870. Epub 2011 Apr 6. [PMID: 21471280] PMCID: PMC3095503.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21471280
- Juan R Bustillo 1 2 3, Veena Patel 4, Thomas Jones (et al). Risk-Conferring Glutamatergic Genes and Brain Glutamate Plus Glutamine in Schizophrenia. 2017 Jun 12;8:79. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00079. eCollection 2017. [PMID: 28659829] PMCID: PMC5466972. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28659829/
- Saiqa Tabassum 1, Saara Ahmad 2, Syeda Madiha (et al). Impact Of Oral Supplementation Of Glutamate And GABA On Memory Performance And Neurochemical Profile In Hippocampus Of Rats. 2017 May;30(3(Suppl.)):1013-1021. [PMID: 28655701].https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28655701
- F Blandini 1, R H Porter, J T Greenamyre. Glutamate And Parkinson’s Disease. 1996 Feb;12(1):73-94. doi: 10.1007/BF02740748. [PMID: 8732541]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8732541/
- Lidia Struzyńska, Grzegorz Sulkowski.Relationships Between Glutamine, Glutamate, And GABA In Nerve Endings Under Pb-Toxicity Conditions. 2004 Jun;98(6):951-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2004.02.010. [PMID: 15149801]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15149801/