2017 has officially started and I’m sure many of you have made your health a priority this year. A very powerful nutrient, glutamine, will probably be introduced to you to aid in your health goals. In today’s post, I explain what glutamine is, it’s 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 
As an oral supplement, glutamine is used in catabolic states of injury and illness. It has been used to combat muscle wasting that occurs in people with advanced cancer and HIV/AIDS, as well as professional athletes that expend lots of physical energy. People with gut infections and intestinal barrier issues have also experienced improvement with glutamine.  In general, glutamine is a terrific positive for physical health.
Glutamine’s effect on the brain is completely different.
Glutamate, which comes from glutamine, is the #1 neurotransmitter in the brain. The two primary neurotransmitters in the brain that are both active and in the highest concentrations are glutamate receptors (of which there are many different types) and GABA. Glutamine is the precursor for both of them. 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. One controls the other and it’s a nice compensatory system where one compensates for the other. However, in the brain, the major concern is having too much glutamate.
What is glutamate?
Glutamate is the #1 amino acid in the bloodstream with copious amounts flowing around in the periphery of the body. It comes from glutamine and the reaction of glutamine to glutamate is a straightforward one, primarily occurring in glial cells. Glial cells are brain cells that support and help nourish brain neurons (brain cells). This process is very active and direct. Glutamine can pass the blood-brain barrier very readily. The brain always has lots of glutamate and glutamine present. The problem is that glutamate tends toward neuronal hyperactivity. In other words, it’s excitatory and too much neuronal activity can kill brain cells.
There’s a number of mechanisms by which this can happen. Glutamate can actually kill brain cells and high glutamate levels have been observed is some pretty intense diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and autism. One thing an individual never wants is to have too much glutamate functioning in the brain because it can kill the brain. When excessive glutamate is in the vicinity of neurons, it tends to allow too much calcium to enter the neurons and that can kill of mitochondria and therefore brain cells.
How does GABA work in the brain?
It has to do with brain cell voltage. The brain has about 80 billion neurons (or brain cells) and they don’t divide. You will have pretty much the same neuronal brain cells that you were born with. We know that with respect to neurotransmission, and for the brain to function, brain cells have to be firing and communicating with each other, and this happens by way of voltage.
So anything that tends to lower that voltage tends to cause the cell to fire. There are numerous glutamate receptors on every brain cell and when they interact with those cells, they lower the voltage and make it more likely to fire. There is also a high number of GABA receptors on almost every brain cell, and if you have GABA interacting with a neuron at a receptor, it increases the voltage of that brain cell, therefore making it less likely to fire, so it’s calming.
GABA calms the brain making brain neurons in general less hyperactive, whereas glutamate does the exact opposite.
Glutamate, Chronic Overexcitability and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) Receptors
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.
For people born with a tendency for neuronal excitability or hyperactivity, their brain cells tend to fire more than most people and these are the people most at risk to glutamate. 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. So for them, glutamine supplements can be very dangerous.
N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) is a glutamate receptor, but the complication is that whereas glutamate tends to be something that you want to avoid in most of the brain, for people who are in trouble, you want to increase glutamate activity at the NMDA receptor without affecting the rest of the glutamate receptors, which is what we are able to do with nutrient therapy.
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.
What about free glutamates that come from natural foods?
I have found this is really dependent on the patient’s chemistry and symptoms, as well as food preparation methods. My experience with healing foods, such as bone broth, is that they 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.
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, and pyrrole disorder at their core, which makes 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.