There’s not much of a difference between glutamic acid and glutamate. Because of their similarities, scientists consider both as the same and often refer to them interchangeably.
Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It can be found in large numbers in the brain. In fact, glutamate is the most abundant among all types of neurotransmitters in the nervous system.
The counterpart of excitatory neurotransmitter is the inhibitory neurotransmitter. Excitatory means that it transmits signals to neurons to act on stimulants. On the other hand, inhibitory hinders action as the term suggest.
Glutamate is also the precursor for the synthesis of another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid or simply GABA—an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
The role of neurotransmitters is to carry messages from one nerve cell to another. Glutamate, in particular, plays a very crucial role, especially in a young and developing brain. It’s found that this neurotransmitter acts as synaptic plasticity. It means that it helps shape our ability to learn and store memories.
It’s especially vital to areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and cortex. These regions are essential for cognitive functions. The importance of glutamate is not limited to the nerve cells, but also all throughout the nervous system which includes the glial cells. These cells are non-neuronal, its function is to support and prevent nerve cell damage.
Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter. This means that it’s the primary contributor to emotions, mental coordination, cognition, and our senses. It strengthens the neural pathways, hence making the processing and transmitting of information faster.
The distribution of glutamate in the nervous system should also maintain a guideline referred to as the goldilocks principle. As we all know, everything in excess or deficient is unhealthy. Having too little glutamate in the brain may result in poor cognitive functions. It includes poor concentration or store information. On the other hand, having too much can become toxic and may damage nerve cells.
As mentioned, glutamic acid and glutamate are considered the same compounds. This is because of their similarities in molecular composition. In fact, when you look into medical articles and Wikipedia, you’ll find that they’re used interchangeably. The term glutamic acid is usually used to refer to non-essential amino acids. It’s synthesized in our body and found in most high protein foods and the food enhancer called monosodium glutamate.
Neurotransmitters are synthesized in nerve cells. Then they’re stored in neurons until the brain needs them. Glutamic acid doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, thus, it’s synthesized through the support of another non-essential amino acid called glutamine. To form glutamic acid, glutamine may also need the help of an enzyme called glutaminase.
The blood-brain barrier (BBB) workouts like a security guard at the doorway, inspecting which compounds are allowed and not allowed to enter the brain. It essentially protects the brain from harmful elements. It also manages waste compound that goes out of the brain, for example, the metabolic waste product.
Glutamine is also a non-essential amino acid. It’s the most abundant type of amino acid in the body. This amino acid is stored in muscle tissue. Some experts also consider glutamine as semi-essential amino acid because under specific instances when the body is placed under pressure, it may need more glutamine. It’s a type of amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier with ease.
Another compound that stimulates the production of glutamic acid is glucose. This is through the help of pyruvate—the converted version of glucose through the process of glycolysis.
The existence of glutamic acid was confirmed in 1866 by a German chemist named Karl Heinrich Ritthausen. He discovered it when he experimented with gluten and sulfur. It was only in 1908, however, that the definitive discovery of glutamic acid was made by a Japanese scientist for the Tokyo Imperial University named Kikunae Ikeda. He later used this amino acid to develop a well-known food enhancer (umami taste) we still use today which is monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Functions and Health Benefits
The primary role of amino acids is to aid the synthesis of proteins. Glutamic acid or glutamate is a non-essential amino acid which means that it contributes to this crucial process.
Glutamate is, however, well-known as a neurotransmitter that induces major parts of the nervous system which include the thalamus, brain stem, spinal cord, pons, and basal ganglia.
Newly synthesized glutamate supports certain receptors. One example is the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate). It helps the regulation of the levels of calcium, magnesium, and sodium ions.
As mentioned earlier, glutamic acid also plays a vital role in the production of another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It’s an inhibitory neurotransmitter that balances the effects of glutamate which is the exact opposite of GABA.
Other uses involve the following:
- Immune system – amino acids, in general, stimulate the production of glutathione—the most potent antioxidants.
- Improve heart health – MSG has gained a bad reputation in the last past decades since it was invented. However, research also shows that glutamic acid from MSGs can help improve the heart condition and boost physical endurance during workouts for patients suffering from stable angina pectoris when injected intravenously.
- It may improve prostate health– the fluids in the prostrate are rich in glutamic acid. Thus, a sufficient amount of glutamic acid in the body maintains the health of the prostate.
In general, amino acids can be found in abundance in protein-rich foods such as eggs, lean meats, fish, dairy products, and poultry meats. You may also obtain them through protein-rich vegetables that include legumes.
As mentioned, monosodium glutamate is also a rich source of glutamic acid. MSGs are popularly used for culinary purposes.
Glutamic acid dietary supplements are also available for a person experiencing glutamate deficiency. An insufficient level of glutamic acid occurs when malnourishment happens or the individual has immune system disorders.
Glutamate deficiency symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, insomnia, and cognitive problems like difficulty focusing. The hallmark of these symptoms is found to be an accumulation of ammonia.
Glutamate dietary supplements may be necessary for individuals with an active lifestyle. However, it may not be advisable for individuals to eat enough foods rich in glutamic acid.