What the Heck Are Excitotoxins and Why Should You Care?

Excitotoxins are chemicals that overstimulate the nervous system and can damage the brain. They are rampant in our food supply and often have hidden names.

The food industry loves excitotoxins because they add flavor and stimulate our taste buds.  Unfortunately, they also stimulate our neuron receptors, so much so that our brain cells quickly tire out and eventually die.  This effect seems to primarily involve the parts of the brain that control behavior, emotions, puberty, sleep, and immunity.  As with many other toxins, a child’s brain is four times more sensitive to excitotoxins than an adult’s brain, according to research by John W. Olney, MD, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis.  Reactions can include behavioral disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), along with impaired learning and depression.

Fortune CookieExcitotoxins commonly appear in soups (Ramen noodles are a big one!), chips, frozen dinners, sauces, gravies, and many low-fat foods that would otherwise be tasteless.  The most well-recognized excitotoxin is monosodium glutamate or MSG, which has long been associated with Chinese takeout food. While many restaurants now boast of their “no MSG” menus, there’s a good chance you’re still being exposed to a steady stream of the stuff. Its use has doubled every decade since the late 1940’s! 

Sensitivity to MSG can lead to rashes, headaches, and increased heart rate. Food companies sneak MSG into a variety of products under alternative names.  The list below comes courtesy of Dr. Russell Blaylock’s book, Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills. If you see any of these words in an ingredient label, leave the product on the shelf:

  • Additives that always contain MSG:
    • Monosodium Glutamate
    • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
    • Hydrolyzed Protein
    • Hydrolyzed Plant Protein
    • Plant Protein Extract
    • Sodium Caseinate
    • Calcium Caseinate
    • Yeast Extract
    • Textured Protein
    • Autolyzed Yeast
    • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour

    Additives that frequently contain MSG:

    • Malt extract
    • Malt Flavoring
    • Bouillon Broth
    • Stock Flavoring
    • Natural Flavoring
    • Natural Beef or Chicken Flavoring
    • Seasoning Spices

    Additives that may contain MSG and/or other excitotoxins:

    • Carrageeenan Enzymes (Protease enzymes from various sources can release excitotoxin amino acids from food proteins.)
    • Soy Protein Concentrate
    • Soy Protein Isolate Whey
    • Protein Concentrate

Artificial sweeteners also fall into this category.  The most common are aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). Foods that contain glutamine or glutamic acid can also be considered excitotoxins. Wheat and casein are the biggest culprits.Molecular Structure Of Monosodium Glutamate (msg)

Concern over excitotoxins was previously dismissed as alarmist, overblown hysteria. But a growing number of research studies have linked prolonged exposure to excitotoxins to neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.  By the way, diagnoses of each of these conditions has increased dramatically in the U.S., during the time in which our food supply has become adulterated with these and other chemical additives.  

Here’s the good news. The same diet that helps you get lean and prevent chronic disease like cancer and heart disease can also help ensure you’re avoiding excitotoxins.  You’ve heard it before: choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Foods rich in antioxidants contain vitamins and other compounds called flavonoids, which can actually repair some of the damage caused by excitotoxins. These include leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, as well as cruciferous plants, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Berries are also beneficial, as is the spice turmeric and green and black tea. 

When you leave processed foods on the shelves at the grocery store, not only do you avoid excitotoxins but you also spare yourself the disruption of intestinal flora as well as the inflammation that they cause.  The easiest way to do it is to base your diet around real food: meat, fish, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds, with occasional inclusion of safe starches based on activity level. Nothing new there!


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