Along with spring rolls and chicken with broccoli, “no MSG” is listed on many Chinese food menus, and for good reason. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an amino acid used as a food preservative and flavor enhancer, but it’s been implicated as the cause of many migraines. It’s not limited to Chinese food and it goes by many aliases, making it harder for you to detect on packaged foods. Here’s what you need to know about MSG’s role as a migraine trigger.
MSG first developed a bad reputation in the 1960s, when the additive was connected to an adverse reaction that includes a bad headache. Other symptoms of “MSG Symptom Complex” include flushing, sweating, numbness, nausea, heart palpitations, chest pain, and weakness. Since then, many restaurants have stopped using MSG in their cooking. But the additive still lurks in many of the processed foods we eat, including soy products and even chips.
MSG: Migraine Maker or Innocent Additive?
Does MSG truly cause migraines, or is its link to headaches overblown? The research says “guilty.” Studies have consistently found that about 10 to 15 percent of people with migraine headaches are sensitive to MSG.
People sensitive to migraines from food triggers were more likely to get a headache after consuming MSG than they were after consuming a placebo, according to early research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
“There is indeed a scientific reason behind this observation,” said Mitra Assadi, MD, director of headache medicine and pediatric neurology at Capital Health System in Trenton, N.J.
There are a few theories as to why MSG causes migraines in some people. For one, the glutamate in MSG is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which causes increased activity in certain brain areas, explained Nilay Shah, MD, a neurologist with Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco in New York. Put simply, MSG causes the electrical equivalent of a migraine in the brain. Glutamate also seems to widen blood vessels, which can lead to headaches.
Mission Possible: Avoiding MSG
Unlike other food triggers, an MSG reaction usually happens within 30 minutes, so it’s often easier to assign blame. However, MSG-related migraines can also show up as long as three days later, which makes pinpointing the exact food that triggered your headache more problematic, said Michael Wald, ND, PhD, nutritionist and integrated medicine specialist at Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco.
Unless you get a near-immediate reaction, instead of trying to play MSG detective, the most effective way to avoid an MSG-related headache is to steer clear of MSG in the first place.
“The best remedy for migraines triggered by MSG is prevention,” said Dr. Assadi. “If you’re trying to avoid MSG, read food labels.” MSG is in many processed foods, including ramen noodles and just about any product that contains soy proteins. In addition, unless they specifically say they don’t use MSG, Chinese restaurants throughout the country use the additive.
In some cases, you won’t see “monosodium glutamate” on labels, so you have to look for its many aliases:
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Glutamic acid
- Hydrolyzed protein, including plant or vegetable
- Sodium or calcium caseinate
- Autolyzed yeast
- Yeast extract
- Yeast food or yeast nutrient
- Textured protein
- Any ingredient listed as a natural flavor or natural flavoring
- Whey protein, whey protein concentrate, or whey protein isolate
- Soy sauce, soy protein isolate, or soy protein concentrate
- Malt extract or flavoring
- Malted barley
- Any ingredients that are protein-fortified
- Fermented ingredients
- Any ingredients that are ultra-pasteurized
- Any ingredients that are enzyme-modified
Still Want Chinese Food?
Can’t give up your favorite Chinese dish? You may be able to minimize the headache-causing effects of the additive by eating at least 1 cup of a complex-carbohydrate grain along with the food that contains MSG. So whether you go out or call in for Chinese, don’t forget the rice, (and if you want to be extra-healthy, make it whole-grain brown rice).