Healthy cells and cancer cells both need glutamine to survive.
The simple answer is yes, there appears to be a link between glutamine and cancer.
Many cancer cells seem to use glutamine to grow, survive, and multiply — so much so that they can become dependent on it.
In fact, glutamine is believed to be such an important part of tumor progression that some researchers have studied it as a
What exactly is glutamine?
Although glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the blood, it’s considered nonessential.
That’s because cells can create glutamine from other things in the body. It’s also found in various foods.
Glutamine is used as a source of nitrogen and carbon. It helps to produce proteins and support the gut and immune system, providing fuel for the likes of white blood cells.
It comes in two forms: L-glutamine and D-glutamine.
The former plays all of the important roles mentioned above and is the name some glutamine supplements are sold under. But D-glutamine doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as important.
The exact role of glutamine in cancer is still being understood.
This is interesting for researchers because cancer cells need to take glutamine from the environment outside of the cell. If that area is deprived of glutamine, where are the cancer cells getting it from?
They may have increased levels of an enzyme that can make glutamine from other abundant materials, such as glucose. They may also engulf other cells and take away their nutrients.
“Cancer patients and those in remission may benefit from treatments that address the disease’s marked dependence upon this amino acid,” says physician and medical researcher J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD.
Glutamine supplementation may even
If you have cancer or are in remission, avoid taking any supplements or changing your diet until you discuss it with your doctor.
You may read the opposite advice online: to avoid foods containing glutamine. But this is likely to have no effect.
Remember that glutamine is naturally produced in the body. And as the research shows, cancer cells are highly adapted to sourcing glutamine.
There’s still much research to be done on glutamine and cancer, so there are no specific recommendations if you have a higher risk of developing the disease.
This may change in the future. But right now, there’s no strong evidence that glutamine supplements or similar can reduce the risk.
“Individuals with variations in some genes related to glutamine metabolism may have a relatively greater predilection to develop cancer later,” says Ulm.
“Some oncogenes — mutated genes that enhance a cell’s growth (or bypass growth checkpoints), potentially giving rise to cancer — can specifically impact glutamine metabolism, most prominently a gene family called Myc,” he adds.
Myc is “involved in carcinogenesis (the onset of cancer) in many different cancerous subtypes,” says Ulm.
Similarly, there’s no evidence that consuming a certain level of glutamine in your diet can help prevent cancer.
General advice to maintain good health is to eat a well-balanced diet consisting mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.
Does glutamine cause cancer?
Cancer is complex. But glutamine doesn’t cause it.
Many types of cancer cells do appear to use glutamine to grow and spread. But cancer itself is caused by genetic changes that then affect how cells grow and divide.
This can be due to DNA damage from harmful environmental factors, like UV rays or cigarette smoke, or inherited from your parents.
Is there anything you can do to block or reduce glutamine naturally?
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the bloodstream. Plus, your body produces it by itself in addition to getting it from your diet.
So, there are no realistic ways of reducing glutamine levels through the likes of dietary changes.
Is glutamine in food?
Glutamine is found in a range of foods.
Food with a high protein content tends to have the most amount of glutamine — think meat and other animal products like milk and cheese.
But you’ll find glutamine in anything containing protein, including the likes of white rice, cabbage, and raw spinach.
Are there certain foods you should avoid to reduce your risk of cancer?
“It’s been known for some time that dietary modifications — in particular, reduced consumption of red and processed meat, fast food, sugar, and alcohol, shifting toward regimens rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — is associated with reduced cancer risk, regardless of other confounding risk factors,” explains Ulm.
It’s still unclear where glutamine falls into this.
Some research indicates that “higher blood glutamine levels may actually be protective against some disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, and that glutamine supplementation may paradoxically inhibit tumor growth and metabolic processes,” says Ulm.
But there are still no firm conclusions or specific recommendations.
So, sticking to a well-balanced diet rich in plant-based foods is the best advice available.
Are there certain foods you should avoid if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer?
Again, there’s no evidence to suggest you should avoid foods containing glutamine if you have cancer — mainly because the body is likely to produce enough by itself and because glutamine is needed as it plays numerous important roles.
Having cancer can affect your appetite and the way your body deals with nutrients. So, trying to eat as well as possible may help your body cope with both the disease and any treatments.
This usually means consuming a balanced diet and upping your protein and calorie intake if you lose weight. Your doctor may actually advise having more calorific snacks and swapping to high fat options.
They may also recommend steering clear of certain food and drink that can impact the side effects of treatment. This can include spicy foods, raw meat or seafood, and alcohol.
Consult with your cancer care team to find out what’s right for you.
Both healthy cells and cancerous cells need glutamine. So, cutting glutamine out of your diet isn’t recommended.
Plus, your body makes its own glutamine, so dietary changes are likely to have little effect.
But whether glutamine could help treat cancer or be a target for such treatment is a question that still needs to be answered.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.