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Contrary to popular myth, glutamate is not a poison. Glutamate is in fact a necessary neurotransmitter, and is referred to interchangeably as glutamate or glutamine, or glutamic acid. So for the majority of people, glutamate is not harmful at all, but it is a useful, AND NECESSARY substance.
In fact, glutamate is the most common stimulant neurotransmitter in the human neural system, including in the brain. It does a LOT, and your body NEEDS a LOT of it.
Glutamate is used by the brain in functions for learning, and memory, and for brain growth. It IS an excitotory neurotransmitter, meaning it is a neural cell stimmulator of sorts, for specific functions. This is not a bad thing - if you have none, you have brain fog and an incredible lethargy of mind. It is the ON switch that enables the brain to perform these functions. This class of neurotransmitters is absolutely essential to proper brain and body function.
It is listed as a "non-essential" nutrient. This does NOT mean you do not NEED it. It only means that the body can synthesize it. Now that does NOT mean that your body can make it up from nothing! It does not mean it can convert glucose into this nutrient either! It just means it can combine pieces of other amino chains to create a glutamate or glutamic acid molecule. In order to DO that, it has to have the RIGHT amino chains to begin with (glutamate substances in food being the easiest choice), AND it has to have the right enzymes to dissect them, or the right ones to combine with other partials to make a usable glutamate molecule. The more perfect the building blocks to convert into glutamate, the less energy it takes from your body to do so.
There are a lot of forms of glutamate, which may vary slightly from one molecule to another, so the molecular form in MSG will differ from the forms found in various foods. (Though it is important to point out that MSG is just glutamate that is isolated from wheat or other foods.)
In order to convert one molecule to another, your body usually needs a catalyst. Most often this means an enzyme (which is an amino acid chain). If you lack the proper enzyme to either break a bond to modify a molecule that has something added to it that you do not need (sodium is the extra part, in the case of MSG), or if you lack the enzyme needed to bond to a partial molecule to complete that molecule into a recognizable form, you can end up with substances that your body cannot use well, and may not be able to excrete well either (it may lack the tools to do either).
Another wrinkle is that glutamate is a precursor to GABA. GABA is used by the body in the OPPOSITE manner to glutamate. Your body converts glutamate into GABA, and GABA has an inhibitory effect on your brain cells. It is the OFF switch, if you will. Glutamate shakes them up and gets them moving. GABA calms them down and keeps neural cells from dying from overstimulation. It is sometimes used as a sleep aid (though it does not actually make you sleepy, it just calms your thought processes), and to calm anxiety. No glutamate, no GABA.
MSG breaks into sodium, and glutamate. The sodium is useful to your body also, it can bind to free chlorine. Chlorine by itself is poisonous to the body, and so is sodium - but bound together they are HELPFUL to your body (they form salt - a necessary nutrient - salt is GOOD people, and never was the culprit). Given that you are inundated by chlorine from your food and water (to a degree that you CANNOT avoid high daily doses, no matter how careful you are), having a means to use it in a healthy way is not a bad thing. Other substances do this also.
For people who cannot convert or clear excess easily, too much MSG can be harmful - but usually you develop a sensitivity to it because your body cannot easily clear it out, and some people may develop a dangerous allergy. Others may be incapable of converting it sufficiently to GABA as needed.
I used to be VERY allergic to MSG, but after I healed from Crohn's, I am not anymore. I can handle it just fine. I am chemically sensitive to MANY things, but MSG, in any form, simply is not on the list anymore (I would notice if it were).
If you are sensitive to MSG, or to other forms of glutamate, it is NOT an indication that our world has gone mad and is trying to poison you.
MSG sensitivity is an indication that there is something WRONG in YOUR body, that is preventing you from converting and using glutamate properly. MSG may harm YOU, but it is NOT poisonous to the populace at large. The rest of us are converting it and our brains are happily munching it and converting the excess into a damping substance so the glutamate doesn't run away with our brains.
The whole thing can go wrong in the digestive system, if your body cannot break up MSG, or extract glutamate in a usable form. You may be missing digestive enzymes or microbes, and this can happen long before you are aware of any digestive symptoms. An increase in whole foods (low in chlorine and other contaminants), more probiotic foods (remember that fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as raw milk and raw eggs are incredible sources of probiotics), and an increase in high enzyme foods like chocolate, raw milk, and most fruits but especially mangoes, kiwis, pineapples, can help to provide your body with digestive support to break down foods more efficiently.
You may also have problems at the metabolic (cellular) level, with converting, or importing or exporting glutamates in and out of cells. Acquired metabolic dysfunction can be healed, though it is hard to do, and involves healing your entire body. There isn't a prescription that can do it!
So when they tell you that glutamate is evil, and you must avoid all foods that contain it in order to keep from dying a premature death, don't believe it.
If YOU, personally are sensitive to MSG, then avoid it. People who are sensitive rarely have to do more than avoid foods with it listed on the label. Some may have to avoid foods with smaller amounts, listed by other names on the label (usually as Natural Flavoring - which means they have a natural flavoring ingredient which itself contains MSG, not required to be listed due to how little it is). Generally with severe reactions, avoiding major sources of it for a few years will bring an allergy under control so someone is no longer hypersensitive, so they can handle an accidental small exposure now and again.
If you are proven to be sensitive to other forms, you have a whole heckuva lot more wrong with you than a simple inability to digest or metabolize MSG, and you need to do more than just avoid the foods. You need some serious healing.
MSG is a source of umami in cooking. That's the deep savory part of the flavor that is satisfyingly GOOD. It tastes good to people because their bodies know exactly what to do with it.
A WORD ABOUT HYPERSENSITIVITY - So sometimes an allergy becomes so aggravated that it spreads to similar items that are not identical, but which are similar enough that the overloaded body just triggers on anything.
Someone who is allergic to MSG is generally NOT allergic to other forms of glutamates UNLESS they get hypersensitized. This usually happens through a series of repeat exposures, wherein reactions get worse and worse. With some allergies, it can be difficult to isolate what it is doing it, because of how prevalent the issue is. By the time you finally figure out what is doing it, the reactions are pretty severe.
Usually children become allergic to things they are regularly exposed to, in fairly significant amounts, though they may be things they were NOT exposed to as infants (peanut allergies are less prevalent in kids who are given peanut butter young, compared to children who are not given it until after the age of 2). You'll find that often it is things that appear regularly on the table, and which you've had quite a lot of recently.
I had children allergic to Citric Acid, and to MSG and Sodium Nitrate. VERY hard to isolate, because those ingredients are in SOOO many foods.
One daughter would get hypersensitized, and go off in hives (potentially life threatening). Every time she got sensitized to sodium nitrates (she reacted to foods with nitrates that did NOT have MSG in them), she'd also get sensitized to MSG. If she reacted to one, she reacted to the other. When she stopped reacting to small exposures of one, she stopped reacting to small exposures of the other. I don't know how similar those are chemically, but her body thinks they are similar. They first appeared when she was about 2, and we did eat a lot of cured meats and processed tomato products (high prevalence of MSG in tomato products). It hit her just about the time she was transitioning fully to the same diet as the rest of the family.
When I was on insulin during one of my pregnancies (I was pre-diabetic then, could not use other meds - I am no longer pre-diabetic), I became seriously allergic to the recombant DNA insulin that I was prescribed. After using it for about 2 months, it stopped working. My dosage was upped, but no matter how high the dose, it no longer worked at all. My body simply stopped recognizing it as insulin. It provoked a burning at the injection site (spread out about 3" in all directions), and then a flushing and itching about 10 minutes later.
I stopped using the insulin and went the rest of the pregnancy with slightly high blood sugar. But for about 2 weeks after I stopped using it, every time I ate, I'd get a flushing and itching reaction about 20 minutes after I ate. I got so sensitive to the injected insulin, that my body became sensitized to my OWN insulin, even though my own insulin was perfectly safe for it! The reaction gradually faded out.
So if you become seriously sensitive to MSG in an extracted and concentrated form, your body may react for a time, to other forms of glutamate, in other foods. Generally these will be foods that are particularly high in it. But if you get DE-sensitized (by avoiding MSG for a year or two), those other reactions should subside, even though you'll LIKELY maintain an allergy to MSG, or at least, if you are exposed to it several times in a row.
When you have a serious allergy, the body recognizes the substance, and the more serious the allergy, the pickier your body gets, and the more likely it is to group other similar items with it. If you can back it off from a hypersensitivity, some of the peripheral stuff is likely to diminish, and may vanish entirely.
Hypersensitivity may be aggravated by other problems in the body, often digestive or metabolic. When I healed from Crohn's, some of my allergies, and many sensitivities disappeared. Kidney and liver issues can also contribute, since impairment there can make it hard for your body to flush out irritants, and they provoke defensive responses instead.
The information on this site is presented for informational purposes only, and consists of the opinions and experiences of the site authors. It is not to be construed as medical advice or to be used to diagnose or treat any illness. Seek the assistance of a medical professional in implementing any nutritional changes with the goal of treating any medical condition. The historical and nutritional information presented here can be verified by a simple web search.