The neurotransmitter glutamate is produced in your body, and is also found in many foods.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that sends signals in the brain and throughout the nerves in the body.
Glutamate plays an important role during brain development. Normal levels of glutamate also help with learning and memory.
Having too much glutamate in the brain has been associated with neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Problems in making or using glutamate have also been linked to a number of mental health disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Glutamate and Disease
Glutamate has many important functions in the brain, in addition to passing chemical messages from one nerve cell to another.
Too much glutamate may damage nerve cells and the brain.
There are two ways that glutamate can be damaging: There can be too much glutamate in the brain, or the receptors for glutamate on receiving nerve cells may be oversensitive, meaning that fewer glutamate molecules are needed to excite them.
At high concentrations, glutamate can overexcite nerve cells, causing them to die. Prolonged excitation is toxic to nerve cells, causing damage over time. This is known as excitotoxicity.
Researchers are studying therapies that attempt to inhibit glutamate activity for the treatment of ALS.
Glutamate and Food
Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid found in many different types of food. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.
Glutamate is perhaps best known as the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG).
MSG is used as a flavor enhancer commonly found in American-style Chinese food, canned soups and vegetables, and processed meats.
MSG can also be found naturally in many foods, including tomatoes, cheeses, mushrooms, seaweed, and soy.
While some people report adverse reactions to MSG, such as headaches, nausea, or heart palpitations, researchers have found no definitive link between MSG and these symptoms.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), MSG is generally safe at the levels commonly found in the typical American diet.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Glutamate brain basics, National Institute of Mental Health
- Glutamate and food, U.S. FDA
- Glutamate and disease, The ALS Association
- Glutamate and excitotoxicity, Stanford University