I want to introduce you to a client, Mary, who is delightedly free of debilitating, daily anxiety. Great news! Life-changing relief for Mary. But I bet you are going to be surprised to find out what helped her….
If you’ve studied functional medicine concepts even a small bit, you are well familiar with the concept of Leaky Gut, that is enhanced intestinal permeability. This is critical know-how for any practitioner. I’ve written before about just how dangerous it can be for a protective shield that separates one cavity from another in the body to be damaged. (As I’ve shared in prior issues, intestinal permeability is implicated in all autoimmune disease and is believed to be caused by a perfect storm of many factors, including low vitamin D, ongoing NSAID use, and modern wheat exposure.)
But what about a leaky brain? Not surprisingly, an effective and appropriately permeable blood-brain barrier (BBB) is critical for neurological health. The brain needs nutrients and oxygen to rid itself of wastes. However, it can be readily damaged by toxins (e.g. mercury), chronic inflammation, or nutrient imbalance.
Research shows that many factors can make the BBB inappropriately permeable, including age, toxic exposure, chronic low-grade inflammation, microvascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimers. Each person’s body is unique, and some individuals are much more vulnerable to this dynamic than others.
Neurotransmitter imbalance can be caused by inappropriate amino acids moving from systemic circulation into brain circulation. In the body, glutamine is the most prevalent circulating amino acid; the body even makes its own supply from glutamic acid. Glutamine is critical for tissue growth and maintenance (especially muscles, which makes it a favorite supplement of bodybuilders). It’s often recommended to help with repairing damaged intestinal villi in cases of leaky gut or celiac disease. The body (including the brain) can readily convert glutamate to glutamine and back again.
However, in the brain both glutamine and glutamic acid act as neurotransmitters keeping a highly-controlled, delicate balance between inhibitory action (from glutamine) and excitatory action (from glutamate). A person with a leaky BBB who supplements with high doses of glutamine or glutamic acid can easily become vulnerable to neurological imbalance. Too much glutamic acid (or glutamate) can easily cause one to suffer from too much excitatory stimulation. The result? Anxiety. And often also insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and when acute, a hair trigger sensitivity to anything alarming or disturbing. “Excitotoxic” glutamate overload can also exacerbate ADHD and many other neurological disorders.
Mary began suffering from particularly acute anxiety and fear-based obsession. Investigating her complaints carefully, we learned this began about six weeks after beginning a twice-daily dose of l-glutamine to help to heal her food sensitivities and leaky gut. Note this was only 3 grams twice daily. But Mary had also started using a daily whey protein shake (given discovering a food sensitivity to eggs!). Whey protein (esp. if denatured) is particularly high in glutamic acid. Together, this was enough to put Mary is a bad place neurologically.
After stopping both of these supplements cold-turkey, Mary was back to normal after about 10 days. To quote her, “Oh my God, it’s like I finally woke up from a two-month nightmare.” We focused instead on using zinc, whole-food protein, and supportive herbs (e.g. aloe, slippery elm, DGL, quercetin) to help heal her gut lining.
Be aware of both the benefits and the risks of food-based supplements that contain denatured or free amino acids. One size does not fit all! Protein powders, l-glutamine, collagen, gelatin (esp. if it’s “hydrolyzed”), bouillon/broth… These may be an issue for some clients. I have had other, prior clients find that dairy foods in general bothered them in this way. Most of us know that some individuals are very sensitive neurologically to monosodium glutamate and its many derivatives for this same reason (e.g. anything hydrolyzed or autolyzed or modified, any protein isolate or concentrate, maltodextrin, yeast extract).
I have had several clients this past year discover issues like Mary’s. It’s a perfect reminder that each of our clients is unique. Every person can have a unique response to a specific food, herb, supplement, or nutrient. Just because it’s “logical” or “healthy” for one, doesn’t make it so for another. Remember to stay in a mode of ‘beginners’ mind’ and treat each individual client’s symptoms as golden clues.
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