L-Glutamine (Glutamine for simplicity’s sake) so popular in the sports
nutrition industry? Why is it so success as a recovery agent after any kind of
trauma including post-surgery recovery?
What is L-Glutamine?
To begin with, Glutamine is one of the 20 amino acids and is the most abundant amino acid in the human body. It is second only to glucose as the primary cellular energy source. The body can synthesize this amino acid from scratch, but this rate of synthesis is limited: when the body is going through physical activity, as in sports training, or when it is stressed due to some trauma. One of the prime roles of Glutamine is the same as for any other amino acid; it is the building block of proteins.
But there are a few other qualities that make it very unique on its own.
Acidity & Alkalinity
1. Glutamine is involved in acid-base regulation in the kidneys. It does this by producing ammonium (ammonia with an additional hydrogen atom). In this way, Glutamine is very important in helping with the elimination of excess acid from the body.
As mentioned in my article on sports nutrition, Sports & Greens (on the importance of alkalinity in the body), this acid-base regulation action is very important, especially when one is engaged in physical activity. Acid slows down recovery (either from exercise or from trauma) and muscle growth. Not what you want.
Nitrogen & Carbon Donation
2. Secondly, Glutamine is an essential nitrogen and carbon donor for a number of very important reactions. Specifically, nitrogen donation is important for forming the building blocks of our genetic code and is essential for any tissues which are in the process of rapid cellular division and turnover. The best examples of this are the cells of the gastrointestinal tract (i.e. the absorptive lining of the intestines), the cells of the immune system (millions die and millions are formed each day), and any tissue which undergoes a healing process (a process which requires rapid cellular division and thus DNA synthesis).
Carbon donation is also important in the context of forming new DNA, but Glutamine’s other role is to replenish carbon atoms in the Krebs Cycle. This is the most important biochemical cycle in the body, responsible for turning energy molecules (i.e. glucose) into energy. In the context of sports nutrition, skeletal muscles (the muscles we work out during physical training) do not require much nitrogen to form new DNA. When muscles grow, they increase in size, not in number. But replenishing the carbon molecules for the Krebs Cycle is essential for the energy needs of muscle and for post workout recovery.
Examples of where these qualities of Glutamine can be useful are:
conditions of the gastrointestinal tract
good gastrointestinal health
the immune system (when there is an infection, prophylactically or when someone
is immune deficient)
and supporting healing post trauma of any kind
condition involving the kidneys by supporting their acid/base regulatory role
3. With regards to sport application there is one more very important quality of Glutamine. It has been shown to stimulate the release of growth hormone from the anterior pituitary. It’s a small gland and part of the brain which is responsible for the release of many hormones, one of them being growth hormone. This hormone is responsible for muscle growth (during growth spurts and post-training). It also has antiaging qualities. Too much of it can cause health problems (the condition is called acromegaly), but this is encountered when there is a growth hormone-releasing tumor of the pituitary that is releasing this hormone in excessive amounts. It does not happen with Glutamine supplementation.
4. Another role of Glutamine is the transport of ammonia in the blood in such a way as to make the ammonia non-toxic. Normally, ammonia is toxic to cells. It is formed everyday as a by product of metabolism of all tissues and then eliminated by the kidneys. Glutamine helps ensure that before excretion ammonia in the blood does not cause any cellular damage.
The Cancer Connection
As always there are two sides to the story. Just like Glutamine is essential for tissues that are undergoing rapid cellular division, so too it is essential of tumors and cancers. These tumors are undergoing uncontrolled rapid cellular division (this is how they get big in a short amount of time) and need more nutrients than healthy tissues. This also applies to Glutamine. This is why Glutamine should not be supplemented by someone who has a tumor or cancer of any kind. Some people claim that with tumours, one should actually go on a very low calorie diet to essentially starve the tumor to its extinction. It needs more energy and nutrients than healthy tissue. Thus, it should starve to extinction before healthy tissue when undergoing an extended fast or a very low calorie diet. At least so the theory goes.
Of course this approach should not be overdone. A person with a tumor or a cancer is under physical stress and should not be stressed more with a prolonged fast. With this approach, it is important to have a very nutrient-rich (for healthy tissues) but very low calorie diet. One example is basically living off juicing nutrient-rich/low sugar vegetables, especially vegetables with anti-cancer properties such as cabbage, kale and spinach. Please take note that this is not a standard medical approach, but it does make sense from the physiological standpoint.
That’s all for now. Thank you and see you next time.