Do You Have Hidden Glutamate Sensitivity?

By | January 14, 2019

Chances are good that at least once in your life, you enjoyed a feast of Chinese food, only to start feeling weird as soon as you finished the fortune cookie. Maybe you experienced tingling and dizziness, maybe you got a bad headache. In any event, you learned then that monosodium glutamate (MSG), a frequent addition to Chinese food as well as to canned soups, some fast foods, chips, and scores of other foods, might be the culprit.

MSG is an amino acid used to enhance flavors in food. It was originally derived from the seaweed kombu, with about 20 percent sodium thrown in, along with a dash of other additives. Now, according to the FDA, “MSG is produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses.”

MSG is present in a wide array of food items, often masquerading under other names. Also, glutamate, the main component in MSG, is naturally present in many foods such as mushrooms, walnuts, and parmesan cheese. For most people, the bound form of glutamate in MSG causes far more problems than the free glutamatic acid found in broccoli and other fresh foods. Even so, scientists largely deny that MSG is problematic, although if you ask 10 people on the street if they’ve ever had an MSG reaction, at least half will probably say yes, which is why MSG’s safety status remains controversial.

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The MSG issue came into focus for me recently when I invited new friends for dinner and asked if they had any food restrictions. I was expecting the usual “we don’t eat gluten or dairy or animal protein” response, but instead my friend said he couldn’t have MSG. I figured that was easy since I don’t ever cook with MSG, but then he went on to explain that the restriction means he can’t have anything fermented, aged, or containing tomatoes, mushrooms, walnuts, soy, and scores of other things that normally would be in my cookpot. These items contain naturally formed glutamate, and monosodium glutamate, as it turns out, contains about 70 percent glutamate.

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As noted above, there’s controversy about whether MSG-sensitivity is a real thing. Despite the fact that enough of us have gotten lightheaded after eating chow mein to give birth to the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the FDA says, “Over the years, FDA has received reports of symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG. However, we were never able to confirm that the MSG caused the reported effects.” Likewise, a literature review out of Ohio State College of Nursing in 2006 concluded, “Since the first report of the so‐called Chinese restaurant syndrome 40 years ago, clinical trials have failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome. Furthermore, MSG has been described as a trigger for asthma and migraine headache exacerbations, but there are no consistent data to support this relationship.”

Other studies found similar results, including a 2016 literature review published in the Journal of Headache Pain. This year, the International Headache Society removed MSG from its list of causative factors. If you’ve ever had an MSG reaction (as I have), you know for a fact that monosodium glutamate affected you in a negative way, so why can’t studies verify these effects? The answer is mysterious, but perhaps the fact that a large number of the existing studies have been carried out by the International Glutamate Technical Committee—which has a vested interest in proving MSG safe—might play a role. Or, perhaps the studies haven’t yet isolated the circumstances under which MSG reactions occur, although early studies found frightening effects when high doses of MSG were given without food. The scientists at least do acknowledge that certain individuals may be glutamate sensitive, though they maintain that the majority are not. Then again, a low percentage applied to a large population can still result in a large number of individuals who are sensitive.

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In any case, the reaction happens to many, with principal symptoms including headache, numbness, tingling, weakness in the arms or legs, burning sensations in the mouth or neck, bloating, upset stomach, hives, palpitations, diarrhea, flushing, rapid heartbeat, and hyperactivity. Glutomate acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, which means it carries messages from one part of the brain to another. It’s also what’s known as an “excitotoxin,” meaning it stimulates cells to initiate various brain processes. Some experts believe it overstimulates cells to the point of exhaustion and neuron death, and it’s that overstimulation you experience when you have an MSG reaction. In the book Excitotoxins, the Taste That Kills, author Russell Blaylock explains that MSG accumulates over time in the body, with repeated ingestion, until we reach a “threshold of sensitivity,” at which point the effects become severe. Dr. Blaylock notes that these effects can cause learning difficulties and behavioral problems in children, as well as violent behavior, brain disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease in adults. That’s a far cry from the claim that MSG is harmless.

Additives that always contain MSG or free glutamic acid include hydrolyzed protein or anything hydrolyzed, calcium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, textured protein, glutamic acid, gelatin, soy protein (including isolate and concentrate), and yeast extract. Additives that may include MSG, or again glutamic acid, include malt flavoring, malt extract, whey protein (including isolate and concentrate), carrageenan, bouillon and broth, stock, “natural” flavoring, maltodextrin, citric acid, pectin, milk powder, soy sauce, anything “protein fortified,” corn starch, corn syrup and modified food starch.

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If you have glutamate sensitivity, the first step after cutting out all MSG sources would be to avoid glutamate-rich foods. These include aged cheeses, cured meats, fish sauce (a common additive to Thai food), mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, peas, walnuts, grape juice, meat and bone broths cooked a long time, fermented foods, malted barley (used in beer and breads), wheat gluten, most prepared foods, and dairy casein.

Because scientists believe that glutamate sensitivity occurs when there’s an imbalance in the brain in which glutamates overwhelm other neurotransmitters such as GABA and glycine, some experts suggest taking GABA supplements. You could start with 750 milligrams taken before a meal containing glutamates or take it at bedtime daily. Also, vitamin B6 converts glutamate into GABA, so you could add five to 10 mg a day, plus add three to five grams of glycine, which should help to balance glutamates in the brain. Magnesium glycinate might also help, as might eating a potassium-rich diet.

Some experts say that if you have any sort of psychological or neurological problem, you should investigate going glutamate free. It certainly couldn’t hurt to at least cut out all MSG sources.