Excitotoxins – Nothing To Get Jazzed Up About
Did you know that brain-damaging poisons lurk in dozens of everyday so-called “health” foods — with the full consent of the FDA? These not-so-friendly additives are called “excitotoxins,” and they play a critical role in the development of serious neurodegenerative damage such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, migraines, and seizures.
What, you may wonder, is an excitotoxin, exactly?
Excitotoxins are substances, usually amino acids, that stimulate taste receptors on the tongue. Not preservatives and with no nutritional value, excitotoxins are nothing other than “chemicals added to foods to make them ‘tastier,’” explains Dr. Cathie Lippman, founder of the Lippman Center for Optimal Health.
The Most Common Excitotoxins
The most common excitotoxins are aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Glutamate also happens to be the most commonly used neurotransmitter by the brain, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s safe to ingest. It’s not. That’s because the body produces glutamate only in tiny concentrations, whereas when you consume glutamate as an additive in your food, its concentration is significantly higher. And that’s just too much excitement for your brain (and your whole body).
“Excitotoxins cause a brain cell to become very excited and your neurons basically fire spastically until they finally burn out,” Lippman explains. But far worse is the neural death that occurs several hours after this this spastic neural firing. Yes, the neurons simply die, as if they’ve been literally excited to death. Once you lose those neurons, they are gone for good. The damage cannot be repaired.
Excitotoxins also generate extreme levels of free radicals that cause additional cell death. Dr. Russell Blaylock, author of the 1995 book Excitotoxicity: The Taste that Kills, has researched and written extensively on excitotoxins. In 2007, he wrote in his Blaylock Wellness Report: “Newer studies have shown that feeding MSG to animals not only dramatically increases the free radicals and lipid peroxidation products in the walls of their arteries, the increase lasted for what would be the equivalent of decades in humans.” In addition, these chemicals can cross the placental barrier, possibly harming the brains of unborn children.
Blaylock says that we now “know that the excitotoxic process plays a major role in many life-threatening maladies.” He cites possible associations between excitotoxins and a slew of serious health conditions, including:
- brain injury
- brain tumors
- degenerative brain diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease)
- neurological Lyme disease
A Taste Of Things To Come
Unfortunately, the practice of adding dangerous excitotooxins to food is completely legal and has grown increasingly common since these chemicals were first introduced into our food supply in 1945.
Associate professor of Japanese history and culture Jordan Sand details the pathway of these taste-spiking chemicals after their development by the food industry shortly after World War II. That’s when researchers isolated MSG from the Japanese seaweed kombu. The process of isolating MSG involves stripping away the healthy components of the kombu, including the enzymes and minerals. The MSG that remains is many times, perhaps even thousands of times, more concentrated than the glutamate that would be naturally occurring in the seaweed.
Today, MSG shows up in virtually all prepared foods, including restaurant food. This is true even for restaurants whose menus proudly proclaim that they add no MSG. That’s because restaurants don’t need to add MSG — it’s already loaded plentifully into the food they get from their suppliers.
According to Blaylock, Americans are practically drowning themselves in MSG, with a generous chaser of aspartame. The artificial sweetener is derived from the amino acid aspartate and used to sweeten diet sodas and coffee — blue and pink packets — and sugarless candies and gum. Since the 1980s, Blaylock claims, Americans have consumed 282,000 metric tons of MSG and 800 million pounds of aspartame. “The amount of MSG consumed every decade doubles. Both are excitotoxins and are found in foods, drinks, medications, vaccines, and even fertilizers,” he says.
From the moment excitotoxins first hit the market, research scientists have been sounding the alarm. The first truly damning studies came in 1957, when, Blaylock says, “a couple of curious researchers were conducting an experiment to see if (glutamate) could help repair a diseased retina. They fed rats the glutamate (also called glutamic acid) in the form of MSG. What they found shocked them. The retinal cells that allow vision had been swept away as if by a great windstorm. They reported their findings in an obscure ophthalmology journal, where it was quickly forgotten.”
Despite being swept under the medical rug, these opthamology studies were not trivial. To the contrary, they were groundbreaking, and should have, in the view of many of today’s experts, been show-stoppers.
“Initial studies on mice showed that MSG destroyed the cells in the retina of the animal’s eyes,” Blaylock says. “Further studies showed that this applied to the whole brain. One dose of MSG could destroy the sensitive cells in the hypothalamus, which is a tiny organ in the brain very important for hormonal function and directing other processes in our bodies.”
Notably, experts don’t believe that excitotoxins are the direct cause of neurological diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, but research does show that excitotoxins increase one’s susceptibility to these diseases. Furthermore, as Blaylock explains, excitotoxins are known to cause migraines, seizures, neurological disorders, blurred vision, increased appetite, overeating, infertility and reproductive disorders, impaired brain function, cancer, and heart and cardiovascular damage. And other researchers speculate that up to 90 percent of migraine headaches could be linked to exposure to excitotoxins and other additives, and to other food allergies.
Children in utero, infants, and young kids who are rapidly developing are especially prone to damage from exposure to excitotoxins. “The younger the child, the greater the potential damage,” Lipmann says. “This is particularly significant when we consider how many pregnant women get these chemicals in the processed foods they eat.”
FDA: Blind Eye, Deaf Ear
Despite the tireless efforts of many — and despite reams of truly shocking research — the FDA has staunchly resisted taking action against aspartame or MSG. Indeed, the FDA has even resisted efforts to require clearer food labeling for excitotoxins. “After this (research) became available, food companies continued to use MSG, and the FDA did nothing about the potential damage to babies … until Congress intervened,” Lipmann says. “So the companies stopped using straight MSG and started using hydrolyzed vegetable protein instead.”
In practical terms, this means that food companies are deliberately adding dangerous chemicals to the food they sell in order to stimulate your hunger and disturb your natural appetite control. And they’re doing so with the full complicity of the FDA, the very agency charged with protecting the public from just this sort of profit-driven and health-harming manipulation. Yet, the reality is that the research against excitotoxins is too compelling and too longstanding to be ignored.
Dr. Carolyn Dean is a medical doctor, nutrition expert, and author of Future Health Now Encyclopedia. She argues that the root of the problem is the American food industry, which would find it difficult or impossible to get rid of excitotoxins in food. Instead, she says , the food industry tells us and the FDA that excitotoxins are safe. Unfortunately and not surprisingly, nearly all the excitotoxins research conducted in the United States is funded by the companies who use excitotoxins in their products, an obvious conflict of interest. Many critics also point out that the FDA itself is strongly influenced by food industry ties.
In fact, as far back as 1981, the FDA’s own doctors recommended that aspartame shouldn’t be approved based on the studies of mice exhibiting brain tumors. Dr. Adrian Gross, former FDA toxicologist, testified before the Senate on the aspartame issue, stating, “It is clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that aspartame has caused cancer in laboratory animals.” Unfortunately, it didn’t make a difference. The recommendation fell on deaf ears.
Today, this health-harming substance, just like MSG, is totally legal in the United States.
Protect Yourself From Toxic Excitement
You may think that if you’re a natural foods devotee, you’re avoiding exposure to excitotoxins. Sadly, that’s just not the case.
Today, more than 70 excitotoxins lurk in most packaged and processed foods, including soups, sauces, gravy mixes, frozen dinners, diet foods, beverages, chips, and fast foods. The main culprits are MSG, aspartame (NutraSweet), cysteine, hydrolyzed protein, and aspartic acid.
Unfortunately, MSG goes by at least 30 different names on food labels, including, as I mentioned, the simple and oh-so-harmless-seeming word, “spice.” Lippman’s office provides a handout with a detailed list of hidden names for excitotoxins.
For now, we clearly can’t rely upon so-called “watchdog” agencies like the FDA to keep excitotoxins out of our food and off of our dinner tables. Instead, we need to actively screen our purchases. This requires compulsive label reading to spot excitotoxins in all their guises, including the “natural flavoring” listed suspiciously on a popular brands of “organic” vegetable stock and upscale, natural salad dressing.
Once you adjust to reading labels for food additives, it does get simpler to avoid these chemicals. And remember, how we spend our money (or more importantly, how we don’t) is often the most effective form of protest.
Consumer demand drives continued production of so many foods containing excitotoxins — and that means consumers can force a change. But even if you don’t think that kind of change is likely, you can still protect yourself and your family.
Buffering Yourself In An Excitotoxic World
By far, most important thing you can do to avoid excitotoxins is to avoid processed food and keep reading those labels obsessively. Once you get a handle on offending products, you can cross off them off your shopping list and replace them with better alternatives. For example, raw organic honey or stevia make great sweeteners, and you can bring these with you when you eat out.
In addition, nutritionists — including Lippman — recommend several natural supplements you can take to increase your body’s ability to protect itself from excitotoxins, including magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, red clover, and, of course, antioxidants.
How much magnesium is the right amount depends on the person. Dean has found that the average effective dose in her patients is 600 to 700 milligrams daily, almost double the USRDA. And some of her patients need three to four times that much to experience benefits. “Eventually you’ll need less; when you have enough in your body, you get a laxative effect, which isn’t dangerous,” says Dean, who also recommends a balance of other minerals: “One-quarter or one-eighth teaspoon of good sea salt in every 16 ounces of water that you drink is ideal because that gives you a good amount of 72 trace minerals.”
Ultimately, we must keep raising our voices for political action. We can’t give up, even when we can’t control the outcome. Meanwhile, we can control what we choose to purchase and ingest. Money speaks, and so do our intentions. Ultimately, the fastest and most powerful way to stop the flood of excitotoxins into our food supply may be to strive, whenever and however possible, to withhold our dollars from this toxic marketing scheme.
Photo by Daniel A.V./Flickr.