Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What is Bad in Our Food - Excitotoxins

So, this is the part that I had left out of the Aspartame post last time. I know it's been a while, but now that I have finished reading The Crippled God and A Memory of Light I have a lot of free time

The Brain 101

First, let me talk about the blood brain barrier. It's not exactly a 'barrier' in how we normally think of them, but it's probably the best way of thinking of it.  There are blood vessels that reach into our brains, and it is essential that they do so since our Brain uses 20% of the bodies dissolved oxygen and 25% of the glucose. The barrier exists to prevent harmful chemicals from entering the brain and causing damage to the cells.  This is achieved by having a wall of very tightly packed cells surrounding the blood vessels.  In order from a substance to enter into a brain they need to pass from the blood vessels, through the wall of cells (the barrier) and then into the brain cells.  This is a mechanism that is solely in place to help protect the brain.  Although this isn't true for the entire brain, since the circumventricular organs exist outside of the blood-brain barrier, it is true for the majority of the cases.

This tight control is necessary to prevent malfunctions that can effect motor skills, balance, memory, cognition, and the excretion of enzymes and hormones. In the case of the brain, a little goes a long way in that a little damage can have large consequences.

What is an Excitotoxin??

Excitotoxins are compounds that cause the over-stimulation and eventual death of brain cells.  There are many that exist today, but the ones that we are most likely going to come into contact with are Aspartame, Glutamate (usually in the form of Monosodium Glutamate) and hydrolysed vegetable protein.

Now that we have some background knowledge of the brain, let's talk about how the damage occurs.  The Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB) is able to function because of specific 'gate channels.' Basically, the cells are closed to diffusion (the mass movement of particles) unless a specific chemical is able to open the gate.  You will see this a lot in muscle tissues where there is a sodium-potassium ion gate.  Sodium and Potassium work in your muscles by changing the chemical potential.  One will make the cell environment very positive and the other will make it very negative.  This allows your muscles to contract and relax.  The gate channels of the BBB are a security measure that (usually) ensures that the channel only opens when the appropriate nutrients are being let in.  The key to the gate is usually sodium or calcium.  The chemical formula for the excitotoxins is such that the body is fooled into thinking it is a nutrient and is allowed entry into the brain. Once nutrients enter the neurons, they are now able to fire and transmit neural impulses to allow the body to do what it needs. The problem that occurs with excitotoxins is that they block the lock and key mechanism causing the neuron to continuously fire until it dies.  This is why they are called excitotoxins.

Most people who consume Aspartame are addicts.  They enjoy drinking a diet soda or a sugar free yogurt because of the taste or feeling they get.  Some people may or may not be aware of the high that they are getting by consuming aspartame.  Before a neuron dies there is a flash of massive neural activity which will give that euphoric feeling.  This is why most diet soda addicts will generally drink 1 to 2 litres a day. At least the advantage most people have now is that companies are required to label Aspartame on products

Aspartame may be bad, but MSG is worse.  Within the brain, there are at least 3 main types of Glutamate receptors. Our body has this since Glutamate is actually very common in the body and in it's pure form has many functions that include neural communication, memory formation, learning, and regulation.  Unfortunately, since glutamate is freely allowed into these neurons (in the cortex, striatum, hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus, cerebellum and visual and auditory systems) these areas of the brain are susceptible to the same damage that we see in neurons exposed to aspartame.

Can it be Stopped?!?

This is a yes and no kind of question.  The damage itself is permanent and is indeed cumulative over time.  It has actually been shown that newborns and toddlers are at an even higher risk than adults since they are 4 times more sensitive to the effects than an adult.  Although developing brains can rewire themselves to compensate for damage, this will only occur up to six or seven years of age.

Now for the yes part of the answer.  While the excitotoxins tend to block the lock and key mechanism, zinc, magnesium and glycine are able to kick out (so to speak) the offending toxin and close the gate.  Unfortunately, most people have a diet that is extremely low in these nutrients.


Okay, let me talk a little bit about studies that have looked at this.  In 1957 Lucas, DR; Newhouse, JP looked at the effects of MSG on animals and found that 100% showed damage to nerve cells on the inner layer of their retinas. 1968 Dr. Olney from the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University, conducted studies that investigated the effects of MSG and Aspartame on animals and found that damage was not restricted to retinas, but in fact showed destruction of the neurons to the hypothalamus and other adjacent areas of the brain. Thanks to Dr.Olneys study, MSG was removed from baby food in 1969.

We all know that whenever they do studies, it is necessary to use extremely high levels so that they can get results within a shorter period of time.  Now many people have the funding necessary for a longitudinal study.  The key, however, is the fact that damage is cumulative over time, therefore, regardless of the concentration they used, we do face a real danger.  Additional studies have shown that when MSG is given as a certain percentage of body weight, humans retain 20 times more than monkeys and 5 times more than mice.  Whatever effects that happened in the animals should be occurring to a greater extent in us.

Something I have always wondered about is why the studies are so old.  If there is a danger here, then why has it not been looked at extensively over time. Evidently it has been looked at, and looked at extensively, sadly, almost all of these studies have been financed by the companies themselves.  Do we honestly think that a multi billion dollar industry would finance and then publish a paper that proves that their product is poison? Ha, It would be like getting a $100,000 tax refund and then telling the government it was only supposed to be $10 and they can have their money back. It will never happen!

Other Concerns

This is a list of other things to look out for, and also keep an eye on.

Lets think about the effects that we saw with excitotoxins.  They cause neurons to keep firing until they exhaust themselves and then die.  This is a much greater concern for people who are hypoglycemic.  In this condition you have the tendency of having low blood sugar.  This is not necessarily a hereditary condition, it can happen to all people including athletes who push themselves too hard.  Eventually you will reach a point where your body sugar is extremely low causing the glucose to you brain to drop.  These cells all become undernourished and are weakened.  The solution here is to simply get a good meal and then rest, allowing your body to recuperate. If, however, in this condition you consume high levels of the aforementioned excitotoxins, you will be putting your body in real danger since your cells have less of an ability to resist the damage.

One point that I have come to realize through my research is that not only is this a controversial topic for researchers and the companies themselves, but the companies HIDE the fact that their additives are in food.  If this is not a telling sign I don't know what is.  Everyone has known for years that MSG is something that is not good for you. Some people look for it on food labels, while some people do not bother.  Now that people have begun to read labels, companies have been finding ways to sneak the bad in under a vague ingredient. The Glutamate Association was formed in 1977 to help keep MSG and Aspartame on the market. They lobbied to reduce the labelling requirements on foods and to allow MSG to not have to be listed on the label unless it was pure. However, spices, natural flavorings and flavorings can all contain from 30% to 60% MSG and do not need to be indicated.  Do yourself a favour.  Go to the cupboard, look at your can of soup, or pasta sauce, or even a jar of pickles and look to see if there is one of these vague ingredients.  From what I have observed, if I want to avoid MSG in any amount there is nothing I can get from the grocery store (unless there is an organic section) other than produce.  This stuff is in EVERYTHING!!!

Another point to keep in mind is the cycle that happens with excitotoxins.  First, these chemicals enters your blood stream, some of it is then transferred to the BBB where it then makes it to your brain.  This process takes a bit of time, and the excitotoxins will actually remain in your brain for up to 24 hours.  If you are someone who regularly drinks 3-4 diet sodas a day, throughout the day, there is really no time where your brain is free of these high levels of excitotoxins.  I met one individual who told me that it is impossible to have enough aspartame in your body to have an effect.  This is a guy who drinks at least 4 diet cokes a day from what I saw.  Unfortunately, as humans, we will believe what we want to believe.  I could be wrong here, this could all be just premature non-correlated results.  I prefer to believe that given the choice, I will stay on the side of caution. Not consuming MSG or Aspartame will NOT have any negative health effects, while consuming them may have massive long lasting effects.  Why would I want to take that chance?

What about the long term effects? We have been talking about the fact that the brain cells become damaged as a result of these toxins, but what are the consequences of this? In the beginning you can look forward to a slow degradation of memory, cognition and motor skills.  It has been seen that areas in the brain that have very high concentrations of glutamate receptors are those that are associated with Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s Disease.  Therefore, when exposed to high levels of excitotoxins over your life time, you can look forward to the possibility of developing one of these diseases later in life.

Last Remarks

The last thing I want to put on here is a small list of things to look for.  It's like a what not to eat type of deal.  I have essentially gotten to the point that I do not trust ANYTHING that is pre-packaged.  I make all of my own food from sauces to breads to salad dressings.  It takes a bit of effort, but I truy believe that my health and the health of my family is worth it 100%

Foods to watch out for include: Soybean milk (naturally high in glutamate / often has hydrolyzed vegetable protein added to it), kombu, miso, and soy sauces all contain MSG. 

Sources of MSG include: MSG, Monosodium Glutamate, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Vegetable Protein, Hydrolyzed Plan Protein, Plant Protein Extract, Sodium Caseinate, Calcium Caseinate, Yeast Extract, Textured Protein, Autolyzed Protein, Autolyzed Yeast, and Hydrolyzed Oat Flour. 

Additives frequently containing MSG: Malt extract, Malt Flavoring, Bouillon, Broth, Stock, Flavoring, Natural Flavoring, Natural Beef or Chicken Flavoring, Seasoning and Spices. 

Additives that may contain MSG or Excitotoxins: Carrageenan, Enzymes, Soy Protein Concentrate, Soy Protein Isolate, and Protein Concentrate. Protease enzymes of various sources can release excitotoxin Amino acids from food proteins.