Glutamate as a Neurotransmitter: A Brief Overview

Glutamate is a salt that’s important for the body’s central nervous system (CNS). It’s used for some of the brain’s most important functions.

Human brain's neurotransmitter on black background

Are your brain and body getting the messages they need? This is an important function and takes place through “neurotransmitters” in the central nervous system (CNS). The process involves a neuron (nerve cell) triggering another neuron so it becomes active. This whole process involves a person’s brain and spinal cord. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and one of the ways to do that is through glutamate. On the other hand, if your level of this salt is too low it a cause negative effects when the body and brain try to talk to each other. This can cause different health problems.

In fact, glutamate makes up the highest volume of neurotransmitters in the CNS. It’s super-important when nerve cells trigger other nerve cells. In fact, this is one of the most important functions of salt. Glutamate is also important for another neurotransmitter that forms from it. The job of this one is the opposite of glutamate since it lowers the chance that neurons will cause other neurons to fire. It’s important to know the basics about how glutamate functions as a neurotransmitter. It will also help in terms of knowing what can cause things to go wrong.

What’s Glutamate Flavoring?

Let’s first talk about the neurotransmitter glutamate. It’s important in just about every brain function that involves nerve cells triggering other nerve cells.

One of the best-known uses of glutamate is as a food flavoring. You’ve probably heard of something called monosodium glutamate (MSG). This is a flavoring that’s often added to different dishes like Asian food.

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not this flavoring is good, bad, or neutral. Some people say it’s not unhealthy since the body needs salt. Meanwhile, others argue that it can cause your sodium intake to spike, which can cause issues like high blood pressure.

What is MSG? Over a century ago in 1907, a Japanese company started selling it as a food additive. Japanese soldiers later used it during World War II then it made its way to the US in the 1940s.

Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid. It’s not “essential” because the body produces it so it’s not necessary through food and supplements.

Meanwhile, glutamate is a natural salt that’s included in many kinds of foods. You can find it listed as different names like soy extract or yeast.

Health concerns about MSG are based on the fact that every kind of hydrolyzed protein includes a type of glutamic acid that’s used to make MSG.

The Japanese company Ajinomoto has the patent for making MSG. Today thousands of food products contain the natural salt. The big problem is various side-effects have been linked to the food additive.

There’s also debate about the natural and refined versions of MSG. For example, over 99% of the original version is made of the L-glutamate compound. Meanwhile, unrefined versions usually have 95% or even less of the chemical.

Fun Fact: Today the world consumes 1.5+ million metric tons of monosodium glutamate. This is why experts are more concerned about possible health issues it could cause.

Glutamate as a Neurotransmitter

That brings us to the use of this salt as a method for nerve cells to “talk” to each other. In fact, it’s important in different functions like memory.

These nerve cell circuits are connected to each other. They form bigger networks in the brain that are used for more complex activities like vision, hearing, and movement.

Neurotransmitters are important so the nerve cells team up in the networks. These are molecules that send chemical messages to other nerve cells.

Glutamate has an important job in circuits that are involved in the signals between neurons. This causes the signals to be stronger or weaker and is involved in different functions like memory and learning.

The result is this salt is important for nerve cells to send fast signals and process info within the networks. This process is important in different brain regions. In fact, glutamate isn’t just important in nerve cells but also in other areas of the CNS that includes the brain and spinal column.

In order to better understand how glutamate works as a neurotransmitter, there’s something called the “Goldilocks Principle.” In the fairy tale, the girl must pick between three bowls of porridge. One is too cold, another is too hot, and the third bowl is “just right.”

This idea is related to neurotransmitters. In other words, it’s important for the molecule to provide a signal that’s not too strong or weak. This helps the nerve cells to provide the right response to signals.

So, it’s important to think about the salt in the mushy middle. You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting enough natural salt in your diet but not too much.

The debate about whether or not MSG is healthy will probably continue. It’s probably more important to determine whether you’re consuming too much sodium in your diet, which can cause health problems.

Foods Sources in Glutamate

When you read food labels you might see free glutamate listed as different things:

  • Corn starch
  • Corn syrup
  • Gelatin
  • Milk powder
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Soy protein
  • Soy sauce
  • Whey protein

You can also find several products with “hidden” free glutamate. You should know about them so you’ll know when you’re consuming the stuff.

If you want to boost your body’s glutamate and boost neurotransmitters’ function you can get it from these foods:

Bone broths/meats (long-cooked)Malted barley and Wheat gluten
BroccoliMushrooms
Casein powdersPeas
Cured/preserved foodsSoy sauce
Fish sauceTomatoes (ripe)
Grape juiceWalnuts

While the body needs sodium it’s important to prevent getting too much of the stuff. This is especially true of people with a glutamate sensitivity. Knowing the different sources/types of good with glutamate can help to pick the best foods for you.

If your body is sensitive to the salt then you might experience certain side-effects. If you think certain foods are causing health problems then you should stop eating foods with free glutamate. This is especially the case of foods that are processed/packaged.

You should also watch the symptoms closely. If they continue then stop eating certain foods with natural free glutamate.

After the symptoms are gone then slowly bring back some free glutamate sources back. Do this for a few weeks. This will help to learn about which food might be causing the reaction.

Extra glutamate might also be linked to having chronic inflammation. So, you should try to consider adding ginger or turmeric to some meals because they have strong anti-inflammatory properties. During this process, you can study the different causes of inflammation.

It can be tough to deal with any food allergies or sensitivities. However, if your body cannot process glutamate well then you should consider ditching foods that contain the salt. This will help your body to function better in terms of glutamate as a neurotransmitter.

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