Excitotoxins are chemical substances that overstimulate certain types of cells in the brain, all of the nervous system, and many other organs.
In high and excessive amounts, these cells become damaged and may die.
The underlying mechanism of excitotoxins has been attributed to the following diseases: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, strokes, autism, and Huntington’s disease.
Excitotoxins have also been associated with the following diseases: migraines, diabetes, atherosclerosis, sudden death from heart disease, eye diseases, digestive disorders, autoimmune diseases, growth of tumors, the spread of cancer, and obesity.
The Most Common Excitotoxin is Glutamate
Glutamate is the main component of Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
As a general rule, the more a food is processed, the more likely it is to contain MSG. Foods that commonly use MSG include potato chips, flavored crackers, canned soups, dry soup mixes, canned meats, diet foods, soy sauces, salad dressings, cured meats, and poultry injected with broth. But reading the labels won’t always help you.
When a food product is 99 percent pure MSG, it is called “monosodium glutamate” by the FDA and must be labeled as such. However, when a food product contains less than 99 percent MSG, the FDA doesn’t require that the MSG be identified. So it often appears on labels in various disguised forms, such as “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “spices,” and “natural flavoring.”
Here’s a quick list of potentially suspect ingredients to watch for:
Ingredients that may contain 30 to 60 percent MSG:
hydrolyzed vegetable protein
hydrolyzed plant protein
plant protein extract
hydrolyzed oat flour
Ingredients that may contain 12 to 40 percent MSG:
natural beef or chicken flavoring
Ingredients that may contain some MSG:
soy protein concentrate
soy protein isolate
whey protein concentrate
Although I have presented the downside of excessive glutamate, it is essential for me to let you know that glutamate does have positive health benefits.
These would include the following benefits:
- Acting as an essential neurotransmitter in the brain — it has excitatory effects, meaning it makes neurons more likely to fire.
- It serves as a precursor for the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system
- Supporting growth and development of the brain
- Helping cells survive and differentiate and supporting the formation and elimination of nerve contacts (synapses)
- Supporting cognitive functions, including learning and memory.
- Stimulating gut movement by increasing gut serotonin levels
- Producing the antioxidant glutathione
- Regulating inflammatory processes
So what is one to do with this unique and sometimes detrimental neurotransmitter?
One answer is to get tested if you suspect glutamate toxicity. If your glutamate levels are high then you have an objective marker to carefully monitor as you taper and avoid foods high in glutamate.
If you don’t want to invest in testing the next best step is to avoid foods in glutamate and see if you see an improvement in your symptoms.
Natural plant products and extracts that reduce glutamate and immunoexcitotoxicity
Curcumin, quercetin, green tea catechins, baicalein, and luteolin have been extensively studied to dampen the detrimental impact of excessive glutamate.
My comments: If you suspect that your health issues are associated with glutamate toxicity, I encourage you to talk with your functional medicine healthcare provider. They can advise you on the best steps to take to improve your health.