How the Excitotoxins Glutamate and Aspartame Affect Our Health
Excitotoxin is not a new phrase or discovery, but the implications that excitotoxins have on our health is becoming more known. Excitotoxins are in most of our food and they also occur naturally in our bodies. Before excitotoxins were actually discovered or understood, a Japanese scientist found in 1954 that a direct application of glutamate into the central nervous system could cause seizures. In 1957, two other scientists discovered that injecting monosodium glutamate (MSG) into mice destroyed their retinas, actually the neurons of the inner layers of the retina.
By 1969, Dr. John Olney found it was not only the neurons of the retina but could also damage the neurons of the brain. It was at this time that Dr. Olney came up with the phrase excitotoxins.
Glutamate is the most common excitatory amino acid and neurotransmitter and is important for learning and memory. A neurotransmitter transmits nerve impulses from one cell to the next nerve cell. These neurotransmitters can affect our mood, hunger, heart rate, fear, aggression, sleep and more. Another common excitatory amino acid is aspartic acid, which is found in Aspartame (sugar substitutes).
Excitotoxins and Our Health
A normal amount of excitotoxins like glutamate is healthy for the cells in our brain to function properly, but too much of these excitotoxins are bad for our health. Studies have found that strokes, brain injuries and Alzheimer’s can cause an accumulation of glutamate in our brain.
The blood brain barrier regulates or impedes the amount of glutamate that can enter the brain. The blood brain barrier was never intended to block large doses of glutamine that we can get from certain processed foods and drinks today.
When too many of the excitotoxins like glutamate and aspartic acid cross the blood brain barrier, they can become toxic, which is why they are also called neurotoxins. Too many excitotoxins can actually burn out, damage or kill the neurotransmitters.
This is especially dangerous in babies since their blood brain barrier has not quite formed yet. Also at risk are unborn babies if the mother were to ingest large amounts of MSG or aspartame.
Symptoms some people report after eating MSG include:
- Heart palpitations or heart fluttering
- Flushing of the skin
- Numbness, tingling, burning or itching of the skin around the face, neck or other areas
- Chest pains
The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) has a list of 92 symptoms, both physical and mental that are associated with aspartame. Here are a few of the most common complaints:
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Mood changes like anxiety, phobias, depression and aggression
- Memory loss
- Motor skills including dizziness, numbness in the limbs
- Painful swallowing
- Gas, swelling or bloating
- Menstrual problems
- Thinning hair
Russell L. Blaylock M.D. wrote the book “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills”, believes that ingestion of aspartame can also cause sudden cardiac arrest and death .
A 2005 study found that those who drank diet soda had a 48% higher risk of heart attacks . A 2008 study at the University of Minnesota linked daily diet soda consumption to a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome. The risk of developing metabolic syndrome was 34% higher for those who drank one can of diet soda per day when compared with those who did not drink diet soda pop .
Who Funded the Aspartame Studies Matters
It has also been noted that 100% of the studies about aspartame that were funded by the aspartame industry found it to be completely safe. While 92% of the independently funded studies found health risks with aspartame .
Aspartame and MSG are Addictive and Could Cause Obesity
The University of Texas conducted a 25-year study and found that those who drank the most diet sodas had the highest increase in weight gain . Other studies have found that these excitotoxins can also be addictive.
A lot of MSG in this snack isle J. Benson
Excitotoxins Occur Naturally, So They are Healthy. Right?
Those who defend NutraSweet, aspartame and MSG will usually tell you that they cannot be bad since they are just amino acids that are naturally made in our body anyway. There is a big difference between what our bodies make and what is made at a chemical factory. MSG is a free glutamate and not the naturally occurring bound glutamate which is slowly broken down and absorbed for proper use by our body.
Aspartame is made of two amino acids, L-aspartic acid and the methyl ester of L-phenylalanine. At a temperature of 86 F and above (30 C), aspartame breaks down and releases methanol (wood alcohol). As the liver deals with this methanol, it turns into formaldehyde, which is a known cancer causing toxin. The formaldehyde can accumulate in the body. When aspartame was first approved, it was only to be used in foods and beverages that were not heated. Then the FDA lifted all regulations and allowed it in heated foods and drinks. An interesting note is our average body temperature is 98.6 F (37 C) .
Excitotoxins in our Food and Beverages
Too many excitotoxins in our brain can cause health problems that range from annoying to severe. MSG and aspartame in so many of our foods and beverages today are causing us to ingest far too many of them, possibly without being aware of it.
The FDA considers MSG as generally regarded as safe (GRAS), even though there are many documented cases otherwise. The processed food manufacturers have to include in the ingredients MSG if the food contains it, which is good if you are a consumer that does not want MSG. But the food manufactures have become good at hiding MSG in the ingredients. With so many different ingredients listed on the packages of processed foods, it is really hard to know exactly what we are buying and eating. MSG can be labeled as the following:
- Monosodium glutamate
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (Not hydrolyzed vegetable oil)
- Vegetable protein
- Hydrolyzed plant protein
- Yeast extract
- Natural flavoring
You might even see several of these items listed in the ingredients on the same package, so you are getting a larger dose of these excitotoxins. These types of excitotoxins are worse in liquid foods because they are absorbed quicker and in higher concentration, foods like gravy, soup and sauces. Truth in Labeling has a complete list of MSG ingredients. You can also go to this web site for the European Union food additives E-codes list.
As an informed consumer, you have the right to choose whether or not you want these chemicals in the foods and beverages you buy. You just have to read the ingredients. If enough people stop buying the foods with these chemicals, the food industry will soon enough change their ingredients to something healthier. Become an informed consumer so you can make the right choice for you and your family.
Copyright © February 2012 Sam Montana
References and Resources
 WebMD - Study Suggests Connection Between Drinking Diet Soda and Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke
 New York Times - Metabolic Syndrome Is Tied to Diet Soda
 Clermont College
Cover Photo by Link576/Flickr.com