Healing gut disorders is often one of the most complicated, daunting and challenging aspect of all health issues. There are multiple systems that all have to work in harmony and one tiny defect can affect everything downstream. If you are lucky, sometimes a simple probiotic, glutamine or digestive enzyme will fix the issue. However more often than not, simply diagnosing the root cause is buried underneath a pile of confusing symptoms. Because many gut disorders heal much faster with the assistance of glutamine it is important to understand the side effects that it can cause and what they mean.
When you read about glutamine on the various online resources (some being more accurate than others) it sounds like a miracle for treating anything from leaky gut to Crohn’s disease. Generally speaking, glutamine is absolutely lovely for two specific problems.
- Supplying energy for the cells of the small intestine. The cells of the small intestine use glutamine instead of glucose as an energy source.
- Supporting fast healing of almost any damaged tissue of the digestive lining.
These make glutamine a keystone remedy for repairing conditions like burning mouth syndrome, gastritis, stomach and duodenal ulcers, leaky gut syndrome of both the small and large intestine, damage from chemotherapy, food poisoning and irritants like gluten. However, if you haven’t identified the cause of the damage, then taking glutamine is like trying to patch a crack in a dam that is expanding everyday. Although it can produce noticeable improvement, glutamine deficiency is rarely the core cause of digestive problems. Interestingly, unexpected side effects to glutamine can help guide you to the root of the problem. Here are the main ones I’ve seen in my practice.
#1 Increased bloating with glutamine:
There are only two possible things that can cause increased bloating with glutamine. First, and more common, is constipation or undigested food that is stagnant in the digestive system. Many patients may not even be aware that they are constipated. A simple way to find out is to do the beet test. Simply eat some red beets and see how long it takes for them to come out. Believe me, the blood-red color is unmistakable. Anything over 24 hours is quite suspicious.
Glutamine can sometimes improve normal churning movements in the gut known as peristalsis. If the patient is constipated the churning movement can move undigested food that is in the stool or trapped behind it into new areas where bacteria are waiting for their next meal. The bacteria produce various gasses as a byproduct of digesting these foods.
The second cause is glutamine-eating bacteria. The first time I saw this was in a patient with a severe case of SIBO. None of my other colleagues had ever seen it before and it took me quite a while to figure out what it was. It turns out that there are some bacteria that are happy to use glutamine as a food source. In this patient’s case she had glutamine-eating bacteria in her small intestine where no bacteria should have been growing. They would produce extreme bloating within 30 minutes of taking glutamine.
#2 Glutamate-type effect:
Some bacteria convert harmless glutamine into glutamate. Glutamate is most commonly known in monosodium glutamate (MSG). It has excitatory effects on the nervous system and is a known “excitotoxin”.
Common side effects include dialation of pupils, feeling wound up or anxious, headaches or aggravation of migraines, a tight sensation in the diaphragm and, if severe, heart palpitations. In this case it is important to identify and diminish the populations of the offending bacteria before continuing the use of glutamine.
*It took me 15 years to understand why some patients had this reaction to glutamine. Dr. Katherine Pollard’s talk at the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science finally revealed the missing piece.
#3 Allergies or other immune reactions to glutamine:
Any immune reactions to glutamine are ALWAYS due to either to added ingredients or to residues from the source of the glutamine (usually an animal source). It is not possible to have an immune reaction (allergy or otherwise) to glutamine by itself. The immune system is not capable of recognizing individual amino acids as a threat. Pure glutamine does not clump or cake and will homogenize quickly in liquids. If the glutamine you are using does not have these properties then it probably contains fillers.
Aside from classic histamine-type allergies that produce itching, swelling and nausea, it is possible to have other types of immune reactions to a substance that have nothing to do with an actual allergy. This is very common in leaky gut syndrome where various types of immune cells are recruited to deal with different substances that have breached past the intestinal lining. For example, neutrophils normally attack bacteria. However they are known to react to some food proteins that mimic antigens (proteins) on the surface of bacteria. Lectins from beans are a common example. An immune reaction after taking glutamine can manifest as an allergy or an exacerbation of the existing symptoms. For example, if acne, joint aches or interstitial cystitis has developed from leaky gut syndrome (this is not the only cause of these conditions), there will be a very obvious flare within 4 hours of taking the glutamine. In this case consider trying an alternative brand or a pharmaceutical-grade, synthetic glutamine that has no residues. Although there are hundreds of supplement manufacturers, most obtain their ingredients from a handful of bulk suppliers. Therefore, even an alternate brand can produce the exact same effect if they get their glutamine from the same bulk supplier. There is one way to avoid getting the same bulk glutamine from a different brand. Contact the company from whom you obtained the glutamine. Nicely explain that you have had a reaction to it. Ask them what the source is of the glutamine (so you can identify the offending residue) and the name of their bulk supplier. Once you have this information, you can contact other supplement companies and identify ones that don’t use the same bulk supplier or source. If you want to help others, feel free to post your discoveries here.