Julia Lupine

Ramen. Cheese Doodles. Bad Chinese food. What do these three things have in common?

MSG, you probably answered. Monosodium glutamate. We know it’s supposed to be bad for us, it tastes good, it has that elusive “fifth taste” called umami and it stimulates our appetite to makes us inhale vast quantities of moo shoo pork. Some people avoid MSG because it is “bad.” Others are obsessed with it, singing its praises as they dump those little foil packets of chicken or beef flavor into their food. So what are MSG’s effects in the body, if any? Is it bad for us, and if so, why?

The simple version: glutamate functions as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the body. It stimulates the nerves. People who are naturally high in glutamate are often intelligent but prone to anxiety and nervous tension. They are the types of people who can’t sleep because they’re obsessed with some topic (for example, how MSG works – how do you think I write these things?), and they can’t rest until they’ve stayed up all night, all synapses firing, pacing around the house and scattering pages of incomprehensible ramblings in their wake.

Although it is natural to the body, an excess of the body’s own glutamate is actually toxic to neurons. If glutamate is too high, it can cause seizures. Even higher, it can cause hallucinations. Glutamate levels are high in bipolar disorder, and even higher in schizophrenia.

The GAD gene is what creates the enzyme that converts glutamine to GABA. GABA is the body’s main calming neurotransmitter. It makes us chill out, stand back and assess all those pages of notes and that mess of dishes without getting overwhelmed. This is what happens normally.

But if your glutamate levels are too high, either due to a common polymorphism (mutation) of the GAD gene which makes carriers less efficient at the glutamine to GABA conversion, or excess monosodium glutamate from that Ramen you ate for lunch, or lack of the cofactors B6 and magnesium and ATP which are needed to complete the reaction, whatever the reason, your glutamate levels may skyrocket and it won’t all get converted to GABA. So you may have trouble relaxing, and also the unused by-products of the incomplete conversion will build up, which leads to less energy, more agitation, inflammation, gut issues and more anxiety, more freaking out, which leads to eating more MSG . . . it’s a viscous cycle.

Common psychiatric medications work on different areas of the glutamate-GABA pathway. Some anti-convulsants such as Topamax work by inhibiting the glutamate receptor, and others such as Lyrica work by reducing the presynaptic calcium influx, which reduces the release of glutamate. Xanax works by activating the GABA receptor. Valerian helps to enhance the effects of GABA, and cannabinoids help to maintain the balance between glutamate and GABA.

Interestingly, valerian, a common bedtime tea that smells like dirty socks, affects one in five people as a stimulant instead of a sedative, which leads me to think that these people may have something going on with their GAD gene. Kava, another so-called sedative herb that is a GABA-enhancer, also sometimes affects people as a stimulant.

So what about MSG, you ask? Well, it probably won’t kill you, since your brain makes it all the time. But if you tend toward over excitability or mental disorders, it may not be a good thing for you.

Still crave the taste of ramen? You might want to try miso, which contains natural glutamate but is full of branched-chain amino acids, which help to metabolize the glutamate (Kelp and bone broth also contain natural glutamate and the cofactors needed to metabolize them). A tub of miso runs about $10 and lasts for 50 or so bowls of spaghetti. Just add a spoonful to the spaghetti after it’s cooked, and it tastes a lot like ramen (but it doesn’t come in chicken, beef or shrimp). I like it also on vegetables or chicken. Miso and a little cumin, plus a few spoonfuls coconut cream and some sea salt, fools people into thinking I know how to cook – I highly recommend it.

Julia Lupine is the author of “Road Dogs” and “Yellowstoned: A Sideways Look at Yellowstone.”