By Joel Brind
So I’ve been writing for a few years now about the benefits of supplementing your diet with glycine. (Full disclosure: I’ve also been selling glycine online, cleverly disguised as a sweetener called “sweetamine®”). I got into it because my studies on nutritional biochemistry and amino acid metabolism led me to try it out myself, both on lab rats and myself. I thought it couldn’t hurt, and could only help, by helping to get rid of excess methionine from my typical high-protein diet. But after some time of experimenting and studying the relatively scant literature on the subject, it became clear that glycine’s main benefits are to the immune system.
Of course, if your immune system appears to be functioning well, that is, you don’t get seriously ill, and when you are ill at all you get over it pretty quick, etc., it’s hard to recognize any benefit at all. What I ended up discovering—among other things—was the fact that the immune system itself is widely misunderstood, even by—or should I say, especially by—the health experts.
I studied immunology (one of my areas of specialization) in grad school (actually at NYU Medical School) back in the late 1970’s. The almost exclusive focus of the texts and the course was the quest for the “holy grail” of acquired immunity; the basis of vaccination and of specific immunity against specific bugs: The great mystery was how the immune system could be trained to make specific antibody molecules to microbes which it had never encountered before. After all, specific antibody protein molecules must be coded for by specific sequences of DNA, and you’re born with all the DNA you’ll ever have. So everyone in the field of immunology, it seemed, was consumed with the quest for a Nobel Prize for solving this great riddle. The mystery was solved, eventually, and maybe somebody got a Nobel Prize for it—I don’t know—but it did not really add any knowledge as to how to make a good vaccine, for example.
But I digress. Actually, the whole field of immunology digressed, and largely still does so today; still preoccupied with acquired immunity, to the neglect of the far less glamorous innate immunity. Innate immunity is the much less specific function that actually saves the rear ends of most of us when a new plague rolls into town; some new bug that nobody’s immune system has ever seen before. The challenge to the immune system: Kill that nasty bug before it kills us! So the effector cells of innate immunity—ameba-like cells called macrophages—are summoned to the scene by general chemical markers of bacteria or viruses or fungi—and they go into action, making hydrogen peroxide and other poisons. These poisons will kill the bugs all right, but they also kill normal body cells, as well as generally creating a war zone characterized by the classic signs of inflammation: redness, swelling, heat, pain and immobility.
Inflammation is a wonderful thing. When operating properly it is so well regulated and short lived that it is hardly noticed. Yet it is because of inflammation that, for example, most people exposed to the Ebola virus don’t even get sick (but they do get immunized).
But inflammation is also generally what happens in the case of injury, including blunt injury, in which there are no microbes to kill. That’s exactly why you put ice on it initially, to suppress inflammation. Otherwise, it takes longer to heal. So why exactly does inflammation happen when there are no microbes around to defend against? Why does your immune system go into action to kill bugs that aren’t there? Sounds like immune system paranoia, doesn’t it?
And that’s the main physiological function of glycine in the immune system: It regulates the macrophages so they can just go about the boring business of cleaning up the mess after injury, without getting activated to start shooting up the place with poisons! Although glycine is normally around in fairly high concentrations in body fluids, it’s not at levels that are high enough to keep the macrophages—resident in all bodily organs, including the brain—from trying to stop an infection that isn’t there.
So how was this simple fact missed for so many years, even decades, even centuries?
Because a deficiency of glycine is so universal, and because glycine was dismissed for so long as a “non-essential” nutrient.
When I say that glycine deficiency is nearly universal, I mean that we think of it as normal that injury produces inflammation (even though there seems to be no good reason for it). But what I learned on glycine supplementation is that it is not. So when I fell 4 feet onto a concrete floor directly onto my tailbone, but managed—through the intense initial pain—to finish what I was doing, and then (with no ice) had no problem literally going out dancing that evening, I knew that taking 8 grams of glycine every day was doing something BIG. The next morning, I not only felt fine, but all I had to show for my fall was a massive bruise on my lower back—the only proof my injury was not a dream!
The following summer I went to watch a ball game on a beautiful cloudless day; hatless, sunscreenless, in a tee shirt and shorts. About the fifth inning I noticed a warm sensation on my thighs, only to look down and see all my exposed skin the color of a boiled lobster. Wow! I had not let that happen to me since I was in my twenties. And I knew that that night, and for days thereafter, I would have tremendous pain and difficulty bathing, dressing and undressing. And after all that it would just blister up and peel off! So of course I immediately moved to a shady seat to watch the rest of the game. But then, an amazing thing didn’t happen! No pain, no immobility, and the redness just started to fade, leaving perhaps a hint of color the next day (alas, no real tan either!)
So eventually I put two and two (and some really spot on published research by a group at the University of North Carolina from the 1990s) together, and realized that inflammation doesn’t happen with injury where there is no infection. It just heals, and much quicker, too! Much better when your immune system isn’t paranoid!
Now at least it is widely acknowledged that most of what makes people sick and die these days is chronic inflammation. So why should that happen when there is not only no infection, but no injury either? That brings us to the subject of micro-injury; injury to just a small number of cells, or the natural death of some number of cells from a normal process. Such occur repetitively—chronically—even in a healthy body, but at low levels of which we are typically unaware. In a healthy body, such micro-injuries just heal, nbd. But what if the low level tissue injury produces low-level inflammation, because the body has insufficient levels of glycine to restrain those macrophages from activation? It produces chronic inflammation.
So here are some common examples:
- Blood flow: The arterial side of your circulatory system is a high pressure fluid system. In any such system, turbulence develops naturally at high-pressure branch points, e.g., where your coronary arteries, carotid arteries and renal arteries branch off the systemic aorta. Turbulence naturally produces micro-injury. If it just heals, nbd. If glycine is deficient, it produces inflammation, which chronically develops into atherosclerosis, causing heart attack, stroke, malignant hypertension, etc.
- Ovulation: In a young fertile woman, each month, an egg is ovulated from one or the other ovary. It is actually an explosive process, literally like the egg’s being shot out of a cannon!
Naturally, that produces local injury to the ovary. And it produces inflammation (at least in the usual state of glycine deficiency). And how many times a woman ovulates in her lifetime is directly related to her risk of ovarian cancer. That’s why having lots of kids and breastfeeding them, or taking contraceptive steroids (“the pill”), lowers the risk of developing ovarian cancer (which only happens, in my view, if one is glycine deficient).
- Vigorous exercise: Working out at the gym, or shoveling the snow, typically produces muscle soreness the next day, because some muscle fibers are torn. The body responds by building more muscle fibers (“No pain; no gain”), but the soreness is actually due to inflammation. It doesn’t happen when you supplement with glycine.
Of course, the prevention of atherosclerosis and cancer by glycine supplementation will not be proven for some years, as it takes lots of time for these chronic conditions to develop (although animal experiments and observational studies are already providing some good evidence).
At this point, I think one of the main impediments to appreciating the importance of glycine is what we might call the drug mentality. So let’s say you have chronic pain in my knee. I take 8 grams/day supplemental glycine, and in a few days, the pain goes away. So now you appreciate that glycine made your pain and inflammation go away, and after a time, you can stop taking it, because the condition has been “cured”, as if by a drug. But glycine is not a drug! A more accurate way to look at the situation is the fact that glycine made a difference is merely the proof that you were deficient in this nutrient to begin with! So your innate immune system was in a state of paranoia, attacking microbes that weren’t there, just because of chronic, low-level tissue injury. But the “immune system paranoia” will return, if glycine deficiency returns.
About the Author
Joel Brind, Ph.D. has been a Professor of Biology and Endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York for over 30 years and a medical research biochemist since 1981. Long specializing in steroid biosynthesis and metabolism and endocrine-related cancers, he has specialized in amino acid metabolism in recent years, particularly in relation to glycine and one-carbon metabolism. In 2010 he founded Natural Food Science, LLC to make and market glycine supplement products via sweetamine.com, which includes his own blog HERE.