Insights and Impact

A Glut of Hope


Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Katie Holton in the lab

Up to 250,000 veterans suffer from an illness from which there is no cure. But a new dietary intervention championed by CAS professor Kathleen Holton could provide some measure of relief from the debilitating chronic pain that has afflicted US servicemembers since they fought in the Persian Gulf War, more than 30 years ago. 
In March, the US Department of Defense (DOD) awarded Holton, a nutritional neuroscientist, a $6.4 million grant for a clinical trial to confirm the efficacy of a low-glutamate diet as a treatment for Gulf War illness (GWI). This study—which will focus on a diverse cohort of 160 veterans—builds on a smaller one Holton conducted that yielded positive results for 40 participants who suffered from, on average, more than 20 different symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, cognitive dysfunction, and gastrointestinal issues. 

“We saw widespread symptom improvements after one month on the low-glutamate diet, with an average of nine symptoms going away,” she says. Veterans, the majority of whom continued to follow the diet three months after the study wrapped, “reported significant improvements in cognitive function and quality of life.”

Now, Holton says, “We want to show that this diet will work for all veterans.”

A member of AU’s Center for Neuroscience and Behavior, she explores how food additives—including glutamate—contribute to neurological symptoms. A key neurotransmitter in the brain, glutamate is created chemically and added to foods as a flavor enhancer. It also occurs naturally in foods such as soy sauce, fish sauce, seaweed, mushrooms, and aged cheeses like parmesan. 

When there’s too much glutamate in the nervous system, it acts as an excitotoxin that can disrupt brain signaling and kill cells. Research has also shown that people with fibromyalgia and migraines have high levels of glutamate in the areas of the brain that process pain. High concentrations of glutamate have also been linked to some psychiatric illnesses and diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. 

Reducing glutamate exposure—while boosting consumption of micronutrients and antioxidants that protect against excitotoxicity—is the focus of Holton’s research with veterans of the Persian Gulf War.

Of the 700,000 Americans that deployed to the region from 1990 to 1991 as part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, GWI affects an estimated 25 to 35 percent—with rates highest among those who served in or near combat zones. According to the DOD, military personnel were exposed to low levels of chemicals, including chemical warfare agents released by the destruction of Iraqi facilities, widespread spraying and use of pesticides, prophylactic medications to protect against hazardous exposures, persistent dust and sandstorms, and effluent from oil well fires ignited by Iraqi troops. 

Soon after the war ended, US troops began developing chronic conditions and myriad mysterious symptoms and illnesses that defied explanation by established medicine. Holton says she’s honored to undertake research that may help veterans who’ve given so much and suffered for so long.

“If we see similar effects in this trial compared with the previous one, this diet could be implemented [as a treatment] throughout the country in the Veterans Affairs’ system,” she says. “We’re getting closer to realizing a treatment for veterans with GWI symptoms that has the potential to be more effective than medication.”