Saturday, October 1, 2016

MSG and Headaches

 In the small town in Ohio where I grew up, we can boast of many things when it comes to food. The best ice cream, the best chocolate, the best hamburgers, and in my opinion THE BEST Chinese Food. I grew up eating at Ming's Great Wall, weekly. Ming the owner, is from China and he makes the best Almond Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken and Chicken Fried Rice. My husband and I have made a point to eat Chinese food all over the world and we still believe Ming's is the best. Now when I look back and think of how much MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) I consumed over the years, well it almost gives me a headache.

Fourteen years ago when my migraines turned chronic, someone mentioned I should give up MSG, but I was given very little direction on how to do it. And it's no wonder, MSG is nearly everywhere and seemingly in almost everything, often hidden under other names. And giving up food, especially your favorite food, is really hard. What pushed me to finally start a diet elimination was multiple chronic health issues and modern medicine offering me very little to improve my situation.  I am a firm believer, there is almost always a diet component in chronic migraine.

Over the years, I believe I just always had a constant headache. Some days more intense than others and some days tolerable. When you live in this state it is nearly impossible to know if food is triggering headaches. I was completely unaware and honestly didn't give it all that much thought. I unknowingly consumed MSG everyday, and it wasn't until about a year ago after I had completely eliminated, I was able to decipher MSG as a major trigger for me.


MSG, which stands for Monosodium Glutamate is a food additive and a flavor enhancer that has been added to our food for over a century. It is the salt form of glutamic acid, which is a naturally occurring amino acid. The food industry injects MSG into our food because it intensifies taste, giving food a more salty and savory flavor. This excites your taste buds and stimulates the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Ever started eating Doritos and before you know it, have consumed half the bag? It's likely the added MSG, which will almost always leave you craving more. MSG can be found in everything from Chinese food to canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats, broth, stock, bouillon, seasonings, chips, and salad dressing. Sometimes it is hidden in the most unexpected places. We would not have processed foods without MSG.

MSG comes in different forms and names, so an ingredient label will not always specify monosodium glutamate. You can find other forms of MSG on labels under these names:
  • Hydrolyzed Protein (including vegetable/soy/plant/rice protein)
  • Yeast extract and autolyzed yeast
  • Natural flavors/flavorings
  • Soy Protein
  • Textured Protein
  • Whey Protein
  • Protein-fortified items
  • Malt extract
  • Malted barley
  • Maltodextrin
  • Carrageenan
  • Kombu (Seaweed Extract)
  • Sodium or Calcium Caseinate
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Gelatin
  • Fermented or cultured Items
  • Ultra-pasteurized items
  • Enzyme-modified items
  • Glutamate
  • Monopotassium Glutamate
  • Calcium Glutamate
  • Monoammonium Glutamate
  • Magnesium Glutamate
  • Natrium Glutamate

MSG can also be found in Skim milk and often added to diet food. But ironically it has also been linked to weight gain and overeating, mainly because glutamate stimulates senses in the brain. This ends up making you want to eat more (3).


Over the years, people have reported to the FDA unusual symptoms after consuming large quantities of MSG. These symptoms include:
  • Chest pressure
  • Tightening and pressure in the face
  • Burning sensation
  • Facial flushing
  • Dizziness
  • Headache pain across the front and on the sides
  • Abdominal discomfort (2).

The FDA has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe.” (4).  My faith in the FDA and what they choose to approve or not, has waned over the years. Because of the endless reports the FDA has received over the years about these adverse reactions, food companies are required to include the forms of MSG in their nutrition labels. But the use of MSG still remains highly controversial among experts. While a few studies have attempted to prove the correlation between MSG and headaches/migraines, there has been no definitive evidence to support claims.  It is extremely difficult to have success on these types of studies with migraine patients, mainly because there are so many other variables, triggers, and factors at play when it comes to headaches. A known headache trigger might not necessarily trigger a migraine every time (1). Like other headache triggers, MSG attacks by dilating blood vessels and exciting nerves in the brain. This can trigger electrical dysfunction in the brain which begins the migraine process (3). All of the major headache specialists and clinics in the US including Mayo, Cleveland Clinic and Diamond Headache Clinic, mark MSG as a major migraine and headache trigger and suggest avoiding it.

I never believed MSG was a problem for me, until I eliminated it for several months. With MSG, I will get a bad headache within a few hours of consumption. Although for other people a headache from MSG may not always develop the same day.  Sometimes they can develop 24-48 hours later (1). When I do get a migraine from MSG, it is usually because there are other factors at play. Migraineurs tend to have a certain threshold with several layers of triggers. Often if there are several factoring triggers at play, the chances of a full blown migraine are high. For example, I struggle with hormonal migraines, so if I eat MSG during a time my hormones are fluctuating, you can bet I will get a full blown migraine. If I add lack of sleep on top of these two triggers, well then, it's going to be a doozy! This is often the case for anyone with migraines, several triggers at the same time, will likely produce a migraine. If you have never eliminated MSG, it is another good place to start.


1. Buchholz, David. (2002) Heal Your Headache. New York: Workman Publishing Company.
2. Foods That Cause Headaches and Migraines. (n.d.) Retrieved September 2016 from Cleveland Clinic Online:
3. Xiong, J. (2009, November 15). Deciphering the MSG Controversy. Retrieved September 2016, from National Institutes of Health:
4. Zeratsky, K. (n.d.) What Is MSG? Is It Bad For You? Retrieved September 2016, from Mayo Clinic Online:

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