Written by Kaayla T. Daniel
Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid that is critical for gut, brain and immune health. It’s also taken by many bodybuilders and other athletes to enhance muscle building and to speed recovery from injuries and overtraining.
Despite its many virtues, glutamine has risks.
High supplemental doses, as taken by some bodybuilders, have caused dizziness, headaches and neurological problems. But it’s not just people going overboard with supplements who are reacting poorly to glutamine.
Many people today, especially autistic children, have problems metabolizing glutamine properly, a problem caused by multiple factors, including vitamin B6 deficiency, lead toxicity and the widespread use of monosodium glutamate or MSG in the modern food supply.
The problem develops when glutamine gets past the blood brain barrier and is metabolized to glutamate. In healthy individuals this does not happen willy nilly but is tightly controlled by the body. Glutamine is supposed to convert as needed to either glutamate, which can excite neurons, or to GABA, which has a calming effect. Both are needed by the body and brain. The glutamine found naturally in healthy foods such as homemade bone broth should not be a problem, but all bets are off if MSG in the diet has led to glutamate build up and brain damage due to excitotoxicity.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) differs from glutamate by a single sodium atom (monosodium) attached to the molecule. Although many people think of MSG solely as a flavor enhancer added to Chinese foods, it is widely added to processed, packaged and fast foods (including soy protein and other plant-based meat substitutes) to “wake up” flavors. It hides on ingredient lists under aliases such as autolyzed yeast extract, natural and artificial flavorings, hydrolyzed protein, protein isolates and spices. Some of the MSG is added, but much is a residue of hydrolyzing and other modern processing methods. Even products labeled with the words “No MSG” may contain it.
MSG, of course, differs from the naturally occurring glutamine produced in the body and found in real foods. If we didn’t need glutamine, our bodies wouldn’t make it and if we didn’t also need glutamate we wouldn’t find glutamate receptors throughout the body and brain. MSG, on the other hand, is a dangerous excitotoxin that builds up in the body and brain.
Sadly, some people sensitive to MSG, react poorly to broth. Autistic children and others with sensitive and damaged guts often react to it even though they desperately need the gut healing that glutamine could assist. Some of these people are so sensitive they react not only to broth but to any good dietary source of glutamine, including beef, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products.
What to Do About Bone Broth if Sensitive to MSG
What to do? The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet developed by Natasha Campbell-McBride MD relies heavily on broth for healing benefits, but many patients start out with a lightly cooked bone broth, progressing over time to long-cooked bone broth. The glutamine content of broth increases with cooking time as do the levels of all other amino acids. Thus long-cooked bone broth is more nutrient rich and preferable for all who can tolerate it.
Appropriate supplementation and detoxification may also help sensitive people handle glutamine. People with severe MSG sensitivity are often low in vitamin B6 or unable to convert it to the active form of pyridoxal-5-phosphate (p5p). Becoming replete in B6 and the other B vitamins may help. Glutamine sensitivity can also come from lead toxicity, widespread today due to lead contamination of our food and environment. Lead is also a problem with chickens grown on lead-contaminated soil, a problem that is all too common with urban farming, and one that can result in high lead content in eggs, meat and bone broth. People with high glutamine sensitivity may benefit from working with an alternative doctor or other health practitioner.
Why We Need Glutamine
Textbooks tell us glutamine is a “nonessential” amino acid that our bodies can produce so long as we have on hand sufficient levels of the nine “essential” amino acids. In contrast, our bodies cannot manufacture the “essential” amino acids on our own and we must obtain them from our food. They are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Arginine is considered essential for babies and children.
The ability of the body to manufacture the “nonessential” amino acids easily and abundantly, however, is true only of people enjoying radiant good health. Few of us can produce sufficient amounts during periods of infection, injury, chronic poor health, physical or mental stress or during the rapid growth expected of infants and children. Consequently, many scientists believe we need to obtain many more amino acids than the ones considered “essential,” and that at least nine other amino acids should be considered “conditionally essential.” These include glycine, proline, glutamine, arginine, tyrosine, serine, cysteine and taurine.
Much of broth’s healing power comes from its rich content of three of these “conditionally essential amino acids — proline, glycine and glutamine. After glycine and proline, glutamine is the third most common amino acid found in broth and in the jiggly collagen protein known as gelatin.
Glutamine becomes a “conditionally essential” amino acid whenever the body is under stress. It’s critical to gut health because cells turn over rapidly there and prefer feeding on glutamine over any other amino acid. Glutamine also helps the villi of the small intestine to heal and grow, an important consideration for people suffering from “leaky gut syndrome” as well as from the flattened villi and malabsorption caused by celiac or other serious gut diseases. Research further shows glutamine can help with ulcers, IBS, colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Glutamine also benefits our immune systems, encouraging the proliferation of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), the production of cytokines (involved in cell signaling), the killing of bacteria by neutrophils (another type of white blood cells) and phagocytic and secretory activities by macrophages (white blood cells that are “big eaters” of foreign material). Along with proline and glycine — the other top amino acids found in broth — glutamine enhances recovery from injuries, wounds, burns, stress, post-surgery trauma, and most major illnesses. Patients whose diets have been supplemented with glutamine show quicker recoveries and earlier hospital releases.
Glutamine also supports liver health and detoxification. Along with cysteine and glycine, we need glutamine to produce glutathione, the master antioxidant so important for the liver and its detoxification work.
Glutamine is frequently prescribed for weight loss as in the Perricone weight loss system. Although many popular diet books talk about “filling up” with soup to eat less, the glutamine in homemade bone broth boosts metabolism while also cutting cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. In fact, the research shows that glutamine is helpful foranyone with addiction problems, whether to sugar, alcohol or drugs. We also have evidence that the glutamine in broth is the main protein-sparing factor, allowing us to stay healthy while eating smaller amounts of muscle-meat protein. This is good news for both our health and our budgets.
Although it can be useful for weight loss, glutamine is even better at helping people who are overly thin to put weight on. Because much of the glutamine in the body is made and stored in muscles, extra glutamine prevents the muscle wasting and atrophy associated with illness. Glutamine can even counter some of the severe side effects of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, traumatic wounds and surgery. In terms of side effects from chemotherapy, glutamine supplements have soothed swelling inside the mouth, alleviated nerve pain and stopped diarrhea, muscle wasting and unwanted weight loss.
For fitness buffs, glutamine stimulates muscle building and repair. It’s a popular supplement for “over-training syndrome,” in which an overworked body cannot produce enough glutamine on its own. Declining stores of glutamine are also associated with an increase in the rate of infection among athletes, further suggesting our need for this “nonessential” amino acid.
Finally, glutamine is a “brain food” that crosses the blood-brain barrier. While this is often a serious problem for people with extreme MSG sensitivity, the glutamine in bone broth excels at helping others turn around depression, irritability, anxiety, mood swings and even conditions like ADD and ADHD. It has helped neurological diseases such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s as well. What’s more, it helps people calm down and sleep well.
Dr. Daniel discusses the bone broth, glutamine and MSG issue in greater depth in Nourishing Broth: An Old Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World, which she coauthored with Sally Fallon Morell. The book contains complete references on this subject.