It has taken me over two years to decide to write this post. To be honest I’m feeling a little bit PTSD-ish just thinking about it. But I think it’s time to share this info. So here I am.
When I felt myself diving back into anxiety and depression in the spring of 2014 (after a lengthy period of weaning off my SSRI medication) I began to spend nearly all my time doing research and then implementing that research. I wanted to find a cure. I wanted to be happy without medication. I spent hundreds of dollars trying different supplements… various omega-3s, multivitamins, methylated B-vitamins, turmeric, taurine, various types of magnesium, probiotics, and so forth. I tried Q96. I tried bone broth (and it was a horrible idea for me, by the way). I tried eliminating all processed foods, meat, wheat, and most dairy.
Finally I fixated upon eliminating glutamate. I have always been sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG) or “free glutamic acid” in all its forms (autolyzed yeast extract, textured or hydrolyzed proteins, soy protein, whey protein, “natural flavoring,” and so forth). Over a decade ago I discovered that MSG was responsible for the chronic headaches I had been suffering with for most of my adolescence and early adulthood. Eliminating MSG from my diet virtually eliminated my headaches. But two years ago as I scrambled for a cure, I discovered that glutamate can contribute to anxiety and other mental health challenges. It is, essentially, the opposite of GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid). While glutamate excites and stimulates the brain, GABA calms and slows stimulation in the brain.
So I went on a quest to eliminate all forms of “free glutamic acid” from my diet. Literally all forms. I stumbled on a website full of amazingly helpful info about glutamate intolerance by Doctor J. Life-changing information. As I implemented what I learned on his website, I eliminated even more foods… all legumes, corn, nuts and seeds, all fermented foods (except plain yogurt), chocolate, most sugar, eggs, all forms of animal flesh except for fish. It turns out that glutamic acid is EVERYWHERE. If something has protein in it, it’s almost guaranteed to have glutamic acid. But it’s primarily the “free glutamic acid” that is problematic for people like me. (One of the highest sources of free glutamic acid on the planet is parmesan cheese. So sad because I love it. Also… bone marrow and bone broth have loads of free amino acids including glutamate. Oops. No wonder they made me almost psychotic.) My research also indicated that taurine is an important amino acid that helps keep glutamate in check, and salmon is very high in taurine. So… eventually all I was eating was vegetables, salmon, rice, pineapple green smoothies, and plain yogurt.
Glutamate and Psychiatric Care
I do think that this glutamate-restricted diet was helping reduce my anxiety. And I don’t know what would have happened if I had given it more time to do its work. But I was still having periodic suicidal thoughts, I was terrified of eating the wrong things, and it became so frightening that I finally went to the psychiatrist for pharmaceutical assistance. I brought my sister and a handful of printed research about glutamate and anxiety. I talked to him about my research. He listened politely, and then he told me that glutamate was the latest buzz in psychiatric research, but there still wasn’t enough known about it or enough medications targeting it to prescribe me anything glutamate-related. He said in about ten years that would probably be different. And he gave me a prescription for Zoloft. And I was back where I started again… sort of. Sigh.
For several months I continued restricting all forms of glutamic acid. It was, in many ways, a “cleanse” for my whole body. My back and joint aches disappeared. My digestive system got a good cleaning out. Simultaneously, however, this way of eating became an obsession. I’d even go so far to say that it became an eating disorder (read more about this here). I wasn’t thinking about food in positive ways. I was terrified of food. And I looked anorexic. As my body readjusted to the Zoloft, I slowly reincorporated “normal” food into my diet. And then I began to feel like myself again.
So why would Zoloft help someone struggling with an inability to process excess glutamic acid? Two years ago I found a study involving rats with a genetic mutation inhibiting them from processing MSG. When those rats were given an SSRI, over time they were able to overcome the consequences of their genetic mutation. I can’t seem to find the actual study at this moment, but I will keep looking and update this post when I find it. I remember reading that study and thinking that I probably had a similar genetic mutation. Another study declares: “It has been shown that antidepressants reduce glutamate release and synaptic transmission; in particular, it was found antidepressants prevent the acute stress-induced enhancement of glutamate release” (Source).
Maybe someday scientists will create something specifically for people like me who don’t necessarily have a serotonin problem but rather a glutamate problem. Glutamate is so pervasive that it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid it. And my attempts, though half-hearted now with the aid of Zoloft, are often futile. If I want to be able to eat food prepared at restaurants or by other people, I simply can’t completely avoid free glutamic acid. So Zoloft enables me to function despite this food intolerance. For that I’m grateful. But I do wish I could eat like “normal” people do.
Here are some ideas I’ve encountered in my research to further improve glutamate sensitivity by boosting GABA levels.
1) Incorporate probiotic strains that turn glutamate into GABA. Certain strains of probiotics help reduce anxiety/depression, but other strains can actually exacerbate them. Some probiotics actually produce free glutamates. <— And that’s why homemade kefir just about killed me. Other strains produce GABA instead and aid in reducing anxiety and depression. Helpful strains for people like me: Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus casei. (More info HERE.)
2) Begin a daily practice of yoga and meditation. One way to instantly give yourself a boost in calming neurotransmitters is to spend time doing yoga and meditation: “Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and McLean Hospital have found that practicing yoga may elevate brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. The findings . . . suggest that the practice of yoga be explored as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, disorders associated with low GABA levels” (Source). Almost without fail, meditation will stop my panic attacks in their tracks.
3) Consider trying camel or goat milk. I haven’t done this myself, and it wouldn’t be cheap, but it might be worth trying to see if it makes a difference. “Camel and goat milks have significantly more bioavailable GABA than cow and human milks and are able to activate GABA receptors. The relationship between GABA and taurine concentrations suggests that whole camel milk may be more efficient to activate GABA receptors than goat milk” (Source). If you’re wondering where you would get camel milk, Desert Farms is a pasture-raised and grass-fed source my mom told me about. I actually just this moment applied to do a review of Desert Farms milk, so stay tuned!
What else have you found helpful for boosting GABA?