What Is Glutamate?

A neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning

Glutamate is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is necessary for proper brain functioning. Excitatory neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that excite, or stimulate, a nerve cell, making it able to receive critical information.

Glutamate is made in the body's central nervous system (CNS) through the synthesis of glutamine, a glutamate precursor, meaning it comes before and indicates the approach of glutamate. This process is known as the glutamate–glutamine cycle.

Glutamate is necessary for making gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a calming neurotransmitter in the brain. 

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Function

As a neurotransmitter, glutamate plays a vital role in sending signals between nerve cells. These messages are regulated by structures that release glutamate in a highly controlled manner when necessary and then reabsorb the messenger. Almost all brain cells need glutamate to communicate with one another.

Functions of glutamate include:

  • Chemical messenger: Glutamate conveys messages from one nerve cell to another.
  • Energy source for brain cells: Glutamate can be used when reserves of glucose, the main source of energy for cells, are low.
  • Regulation of learning and memory: Glutamate helps with the strengthening or weakening of signals between neurons over time to shape learning and memory.
  • Pain transmitter: Higher levels of glutamate are linked to increased sensations of pain.
  • Sleep and wakefulness mediator: Rat model studies have shown that levels of glutamate are highest when we are awake or during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The exception is in the thalamus, where levels of glutamate are highest during non-REM sleep.

Healthy Levels

Glutamate levels are tightly controlled. Any imbalance, whether too much or too little, can compromise nerve health and communication and can lead to nerve cell damage and death and a host of other health problems.

Too Little Glutamate

Glutamate deficiency in the brain is believed to cause such symptoms as:

  • Insomnia
  • Concentration problems
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Low energy

Research into glutamate’s role in mood disorders is underway. One such mood disorder being studied is major depressive disorder (MDD), whose symptoms include impaired spatial memory and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). Researchers have found that blocking glutamate absorption in rats causes a depressive-like effect that may reflect anhedonia.

Too Much Glutamate

Excess glutamate in the brain is believed to cause the following symptoms: 

  • Hyperalgesia (pain amplification)
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Symptoms similar to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), such as an inability to focus

How to Raise Glutamate Levels 

There is no such thing as a glutamate supplement or a prescription to increase glutamate. Instead, if you want to try increasing your glutamate levels, you may want to consider including its precursors in your diet or lifestyle. Precursors are what your body needs to make other substances.

Lifestyle Changes

Exercise could actually help your body make more glutamate. Researchers studied glutamate and GABA levels in nearly 40 healthy human volunteers. They measured these neurotransmitter levels in two different brain areas immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes.

Glutamate or GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised. The effects lasted even after stopping the exercise, which shows promise for longer-lasting glutamate level changes with exercise.

Supplements

Before taking any new dietary supplements, check with your doctor first. This is particularly important if you have other medical conditions, including a chronic illness or pregnancy. 

Supplements that can help increase your glutamate levels include:

  • 5-HTP: Your body converts 5-HTP into serotonin, and serotonin can enhance GABA activity, which may affect glutamate activity. Glutamate is the precursor to GABA.
  • GABA: The theory goes that since GABA calms and glutamate stimulates, the two are counterparts and that imbalance in one impacts the other. However, research has yet to confirm if GABA can correct imbalances in glutamate.
  • Glutamine: Your body converts glutamine into glutamate. Glutamine is available as a supplement and can also be found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, and some vegetables.
  • Taurine: Studies on rodents have shown that this amino acid can alter levels of glutamate. Natural sources of taurine are meats and seafood. It is also available as a supplement and is found in some energy drinks.
  • Theanine: This glutamate precursor may lower glutamate activity in the brain by blocking receptors while boosting GABA levels. It's naturally present in tea and also is available as a supplement.

How to Lower Glutamate Levels

If you and your doctor decide you need to lower your glutamate levels, there are a few things that you can do. 

Avoiding Foods with Glutamate

Glutamate is a natural substance also found in some foods. You may have heard of its processed form, the flavor enhancer known as monosodium glutamate (MSG). 

Consuming glutamate in foods may cause symptoms like: 

  • Muscle tightness
  • Headache
  • Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
  • Body weakness
  • Increased sensitivity to pain

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain, stiffness, and fatigue. Studies have shown that patients with fibromyalgia benefit from following a meal plan with less MSG.

In one such study with 57 fibromyalgia patients who also had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder affecting the large intestine, 84% of participants reported clinically significant symptom remission, including decreased pain and increased quality of life. When MSG was reintroduced into their diets, previous adverse symptoms and the severity of their conditions returned within days.

Increasing Magnesium Levels 

Magnesium is a mineral essential for healthy nerve signal transmission. Molecular and animal studies have suggested that healthy magnesium levels may also protect against cell death caused by the overexcitement of neurons.

Theoretically, this means increasing your magnesium levels may help prevent diseases linked to cell death, including:

  • Migraine 
  • Chronic pain 
  • Epilepsy
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke
  • Depression and anxiety (which are common comorbid conditions with neurological illness)

One small study of 60 women with fibromyalgia found taking 300 milligrams of magnesium citrate daily for over eight weeks lowered the number of tender points and the level of pain intensity reported. However, more large-scale research studies are needed before any recommendations are made.

Besides taking a magnesium supplement, you can also try consuming more magnesium-rich foods, which include: 

  • Leafy greens and other vegetables, including lettuce, broccoli, collard greens, celery, spinach, cucumber
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dry beans like pinto, navy, kidney, and black beans
  • Whole grains
  • Wheat germ
  • Oat bran

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you increase GABA and balance glutamate?

You can increase GABA with GABA supplements and balance glutamate by taking precursors to glutamate, including supplements like 5-HTP and glutamine. To balance glutamate, you can also exercise regularly and avoid high-glutamate foods.

What foods contain glutamate?

Soy-based sauces, oyster sauce, and fish sauce are known to be rich in glutamate. Glutamate is also present in dairy products (especially Parmesan cheese) and in meats, seafood, and mushrooms. The flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) is abundant in fast, convenient food items, ranging from fried foods to chips to instant noodles.

How does alcohol affect glutamate?

Alcohol is said to suppress or inhibit the release of glutamate. This means the excitatory function is impaired and every message glutamate is responsible for sending is affected (typically slowed down). 

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Article Sources
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