In today’s post, I explain what glutamine is, its effect on the brain and body, and why it’s not a safe nutrient for everyone.
Special thanks to Dr. William Walsh of the Walsh Research Institute for his insights into this powerful nutrient. Dr. Walsh’s research in the area of mental health has been accepted by the American Psychiatric Association and has helped thousands (including myself) recover from mental health imbalances.
What is Glutamine?
Glutamine is an amino acid used in the biosynthesis of proteins and is a major player in many biochemical functions including:
- Protein synthesis, as any other of the 20 proteinogenic amino acids
- Lipid synthesis, especially by cancer cells
- Regulation of acid-base balance in the kidney by producing ammonium
- Cellular energy, as a source, next to glucose
- Nitrogen donation for many anabolic processes, including the synthesis of purines
- Carbon donation, as a source, refilling the citric acid cycle
- Nontoxic transporter of ammonia in the blood circulation
- Precursor to the neurotransmitter glutamate 
Is Glutamine Safe?
As an oral supplement, glutamine is used in catabolic states of injury and illness. It has been used to combat the muscle wasting that occurs in people with advanced cancer and HIV/AIDS, as well as for professional athletes who expend lots of physical energy. People with gut infections and intestinal barrier issues have experienced improvement with glutamine;  in general, glutamine is a terrific positive for physical health.
Glutamine and the Brain
Glutamine is the precursor for both glutamate and GABA, the two primary neurotransmitters in the brain. Glutamine is the number one neurotransmitter. As it turns out, glutamate is very excitatory and can be very neurotoxic. On the other hand, GABA, which also comes from glutamine, actually neutralizes excess glutamate. In the brain, the major concern is having too much glutamate.
Is Glutamate Bad for the Brain?
Glutamate is the number one amino acid in the bloodstream, with copious amounts flowing around in the periphery of the body. The process which converts glutamine to glutamate is a straightforward one, primarily occurring in glial brain cells, which support and help nourish brain neurons.
The brain always has lots of glutamate and glutamine present, and glutamine can pass the blood-brain barrier very readily. The problem is that glutamate tends toward neuronal hyperactivity. In other words, it’s excitatory, and too much neuronal activity can kill brain cells. When excessive glutamate is in the vicinity of neurons, it tends to allow too much calcium to enter the neurons and that can kill off mitochondria and therefore brain cells.
Glutamate causes an enormously high percentage of brains to act to fire and have overexcitability. Chronic overexcitability of neurons causes apoptosis (death of brain cells) and is associated with a number of mental health conditions such as mania in bipolar disorder and hyperactivity (to name a few) — and, in addition to being neurotoxic, it can actually kill brain cells.
Some people are more prone to overexcitability than others and this is why testing is essential. Then there are people born without a tendency for neuronal hyperactivity so for them, glutamine is likely safe.
People born with a tendency for neuronal excitability or hyperactivity are most at risk of glutamate complications. Overmethylated individuals or patients who have high copper levels (not able to regulate copper) tend toward high neuronal activity which can cause anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, making glutamine supplements very dangerous.
High glutamate levels have been observed alongside some serious diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and autism.
GABA Brain Benefits
GABA has to do with brain cell voltage. The brain has about 80 billion neurons (or brain cells) that don’t divide, meaning you’ll basically keep the same neuronal brain cells that you were born with. With respect to neurotransmission and brain function, brain cells have to be firing and communicating with each other by way of voltage.
GABA calms the brain making brain neurons, in general, less hyperactive, whereas glutamate does the exact opposite. There are numerous glutamate and GABA receptors on brain cells; when GABA interacts with a neuron at a receptor, it increases the voltage of that brain cell and has a calming effect.
What do NMDA Receptors Do?
N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) is a glutamate receptor. The NMDA receptor is a peculiar one; it has a lot to do with memory and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. It’s a leading culprit in terms of malfunctioning for schizophrenia. You have to have a simultaneous docking of glutamate at a receptor and at the same time, there’s another receptor that’s a dual receptor system that has to interact with several neurotransmitters.
While glutamate tends to be something that you want to avoid in the brain, you want to increase glutamate activity at the NMDA receptor for people who are in trouble, without affecting the rest of the glutamate receptors, which can be done with advanced nutrient therapy.
What About Free Glutamates from Natural Foods?
My experience with glutamates from healing foods, such as bone broth, is that the foods can be made safely (such as meat stock that’s cooked slow and at a lower temperature with less time, usually 3 hours), therefore producing significantly less glutamic acid while still imparting healing benefits. I have found that the effects ultimately depend on a patient’s chemistry and symptoms, as well as food preparation methods.
Final Thoughts on Glutamine and Glutamate
If you struggle with any kind of mental health issue (even if it’s mild), you’d be wise to steer clear of any form of glutamine supplementation (l-glutamine is the most common). If you are supplementing, I encourage keeping a journal notating any responses. Even if you are an athlete, it’s wise to be aware of any harm it could be causing (be sure to read labels, l-glutamine is hidden in many protein powders).
Also, keep in mind that gut issues often have methylation imbalances, copper toxicity, zinc deficiency, and pyrrole disorder, which can exacerbate SIBO, candida, and other pathogens making testing an important tool in the recovery process.
If you know of someone who struggles with a chronic mental health condition, please share this post. If you are struggling, please share your experience in the comments below. It is through sharing your story that we create community, eliminate guilt and shame, and bring about healing.