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Can Glutamate Imbalance Cause Panic Attacks? Symptoms & Treatment

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

The Glutamate-Anxiety Connection: What You Need to Know

Key Points:

Introduction: Understanding the Link Between Glutamate and Anxiety Disorders

Ever wonder if there’s more to anxiety than just your thoughts? In some cases, an imbalance in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters could be at play. One such neurotransmitter, glutamate, has recently gained attention for its potential link to anxiety and panic attacks.

This article delves into the world of glutamate: what it is, how our bodies produce it, its connection to anxiety, and the signs of high glutamate levels. We’ll also explore strategies for understanding your glutamate levels, and holistic strategies to balance your mood.

What is Glutamate?

Glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, plays a critical role in various functions like learning, memory, and mood regulation. It acts like a messenger, stimulating communication between brain cells, influencing how we perceive and respond to the world around us.

Simply put, glutamate facilitates effective communication between neurons, ensuring smooth information flow within the brain. However, too much glutamate can overstimulate the neurons causing damage.

Glutamate and GABA: The Balancing Act

Glutamate’s calming counterpart is another neurotransmitter called GABA. Ideally, these two chemicals work in a balanced way. Glutamate excites the nervous system, while GABA promotes relaxation. When this balance is disrupted, and glutamate becomes overly active, anxiety symptoms can arise.

Where is Glutamate Made? A Look at the Glutamate-Glutamine Cycle

Understanding Glutamate Production: The Glutamate-Glutamine Cycle

Glutamate, a crucial neurotransmitter, plays a significant role in brain function. But where exactly does it come from? The answer lies in a fascinating process called the glutamate-glutamine cycle.

Glutamine: The Building Block

The journey begins with glutamine, an amino acid that acts as a protein building block. Interestingly, your lungs, muscles, and even your brain contribute to glutamine production.

Glial Cells: The Glutamate Factory

Within the brain, specialized cells called glial cells take center stage. They play a vital role in converting glutamine into glutamate, essentially creating the “fuel” for neurotransmission.

The Cycle Continues: Recycling and Repurposing

This isn’t a one-way street. Glial cells can also take “used” glutamate and convert it back into glutamine. This recycled glutamine is then transported back to nerve terminals, where it’s transformed back into fresh glutamate, ready for another round of neurotransmission.

Glutamate’s Two Paths: Excitation or Inhibition

Once produced, glutamate has two key choices:

  1. Excitatory Neurotransmitter: It can directly stimulate communication between brain cells, influencing learning, memory, and even influencing how we respond to our environment.
  2. Transformation to GABA: Alternatively, glutamate can be converted into GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This acts as a calming counterpart to glutamate, helping to prevent overexcitation and promoting relaxation within the nervous system.

When Does Glutamate Cause Anxiety

Glutamate’s conversion to GABA is a crucial process for maintaining a calm and balanced nervous system.

GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter.

It acts as a natural antidote to anxiety, promoting relaxation and restful sleep. This conversion relies on an enzyme that requires vitamin B6 as a cofactor.

But what happens when you don’t have enough vitamin B6 in your body?

In that case, glutamate might get stuck and fail to convert into GABA. This, in turn, will potentially lead to an excess of glutamate and a deficiency in GABA.

The result is that glutamate continues to stimulate the nervous system and since nothing can hold it back from enhancing neuronal activity anymore, it can cause overstimulation and lead to anxiety.

Without enough Vitamin B6 to ensure the proper conversion of glutamate to GABA, your brain remains in a heightened state of alertness that can lead to anxiety and panic.

Vitamin B6: The Key to Glutamate-GABA Balance

We’ve established the critical role of adequate vitamin B6 levels in regulating mood and preventing glutamate-induced anxiety.

Here’s the good news: sufficient B6 intake promotes the conversion of glutamine to glutamate, which can then be transformed into GABA.

For those experiencing symptoms of high glutamate or low GABA, consider adding vitamin B6 to your regimen.

While low-glutamate diets or GABA supplements may seem appealing, they might not address the underlying issue. Often, a vitamin B6 deficiency hinders the proper conversion of glutamate to GABA. The simplest solution might be getting your B6 levels back on track.

For best results I typically recommend my clients take a combination of b vitamins.

Signs of High Glutamate

Generally, when glutamate levels become too high, you might experience a range of symptoms that affect both your body and mind.

Here are 5 signs that your glutamate levels may be at the root of your anxiety symptoms:

  1. Increased sensitivity to pain — Conditions like fibromyalgia, where you experience pain all over the body, are often associated with higher levels of glutamate (Harris, 2010).
  2. Mental and emotional overstimulation — High glutamate can lead to feelings of anxiety and difficulty regulating emotions effectively. Therefore, you might feel overwhelmed by situations that you would typically handle with ease.
  3. Physical restlessness — You might feel the need to move your body (even with ticks and spasms).
  4. Difficulties with attention — You might experience similar symptoms to ADHD.
  5. Obsessive compulsive thinking – Glutamate may trap your brain in intrusive or obsessive thoughts.

Testing for Glutamate Levels

If you’ve identified symptoms that are associated with high glutamate levels, chances are that you’re wondering what to do next.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many reliable tests for glutamate specifically.

However, there are a few ideas that can help you get started and find the root cause of your high glutamate:

1) Urine Amino Acid Testing

This urine test can give you an overall average of the amount of glutamate and GABA that are being eliminated in your urine. However, this amino acid test doesn’t give you much information on what’s actually happening with the glutamate in your brain.

2) Glutamate Blood Tests

Another way to test your glutamate levels is to do a blood test and measure the amount of glutamate in your blood. But in this case, the problem is that serum glutamate levels can rise and drop pretty rapidly, depending on factors like your current diet, stress, and overall health. Therefore, these tests only assess your glutamate levels in the blood in the given moment, instead of showing the chronic levels of glutamate activity within your brain.

3) MRI Scanning

fMRI technology allows us to look at what is happening inside the brain. MRI scans are effective in looking at where glutamate is being metabolized and pulling in the brain. While this can be a more comprehensive view than blood or urine tests, it also has the con — MRI testing can be really expensive and isn’t often covered by insurance.

Considering these limitations of glutamate testing, it’s important to think about balancing your brain and nervous system as a whole, instead of just looking at isolated neurotransmitters, such as GABA.

Taking Charge of Your Well-being: A Holistic Approach to Glutamate Imbalance

Given the limitations of testing, a holistic approach is essential for managing potential glutamate imbalances and promoting overall well-being. Here are some strategies to empower you:

Concluding Remarks

Understanding the potential role of glutamate in anxiety can empower you to take charge of your mental health. While testing limitations exist, a holistic approach focused on diet, stress management, and consulting a healthcare professional can help create a calmer, more balanced you.

Do you suspect a glutamate imbalance might be contributing to your anxiety? Learn more about healing the root causes of anxiety in the Holistic Wellness Collective.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.