According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition, MSG, the abbreviation for monosodium glutamate, is defined as a causative agent of headaches. Unfortunately, the most recent review of the scientific studies on humans found no correlation between MSG and headaches. The authors believe that the relatively few number of studies, only 10, combined some poor experimental design means that further research is needed to determine if MSG causes headaches.
Well that’s good, because just about every migraineur will tell you that MSG is a trigger.
To back this up, there is a sound physiological reason as to why. The bad guy in MSG is the G for glutamate. Glutamate is the most common neurotransmitter in the human body whose sole purpose it to excite neurons. When there’s too much glutamate the pathway becomes over stimulated so the nerves get more and more excited. Excessive glutamate can lead to the death of nerve cells. In response to overstimulation by glutamate, the nerve cells create a chemical to neutralize the glutamate, our old nemesis nitric oxide (NO). Neuronal nitric oxide synthases (nNOS) kick into action releasing NO at the nerves.
Excessive glutamate doesn’t just send NO production into overdrive, it also kick starts the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) pathway, especially in migraineurs who experience aura. The migraine beast is fully awaken by the negative feedback loop of excess NO production causing the swelling of the blood vessels (vasodilation) within the brain, which in turn push on the nerves causing pain. The physical pressure of the swollen blood vessels on the nerves results in the nerves releasing CGRP which in turn causes more vasodilation and therefore more pain. Remember she’s a nasty beast.
The problem for migraineurs is how much glutamate is too much. There are no recommended daily allowances for glutamate. This is because glutamate is really important in the function of the human body, especially the brain. It is found in everything we eat. Animal protein consists of 11-22% glutamate by weight and plants as much as 40%. Australians consume on average 0.590 g/day with those in the top 97% consuming as much as 2.330 g/day. This is low compared to Europe where consumption ranges from 5-12 g/day.
So how much more MSG do you need to induce a headache? Well the two studies that have been able to induce headaches with MSG gave a single dose of 5 g. So basically they doubled the daily intake. You can repeat this on yourself by simply eating a single meal that has been highly seasoned with MSG.
Most migraineurs insist that the foods they eat are free from MSG. Or at least they think they are.
Humans are carnivores, sorry my vegan friends. So we have a taste that signals to the body “Hey here’s some protein! Yum eat more because we need it to stay alive.”. This taste is the 5th taste umami, which is defined as the the taste of glutamate. It is a sweet-salty-savoury flavour.
Food manufacturers have cottoned onto this and artificially create the umami taste on non protein foods from honey soy potato chips to breakfast cereals with glutamate. It makes you want to eat more, yes that’s why you can’t put those chips down. They also use it purely as a cost saving exercise to enhance flavour without forking out for real ingredients to create the flavour.
Food manufacturers are not fools so when their marketing teams told them that MSG was associated with headaches they stopped using the salt MSG. Because glutamate is readily available in so many foods, it can be extracted from them to be used as a flavour enhancer. Since it’s not the salt MSG, they legally don’t have to put it on the labels. Instead they have a natural extract in the ingredient list. The beauty of it is that extracted MSG can even be vegan or organic. Glutamate laden food goes straight to “healthy food” isle and food manufacturers are laughing all the way to the bank.
Folks, while we weren’t paying attention, MSG has snuck it’s way back into so many foods. The most common sources of added glutamate are listed as:
- yeast extract
- flavour enhancer
- hydrolysed vegetable protein
- soy extract
There are actually 129 different names for MSG and glutamates that can appear on an ingredient list.
Another major hidden source of MSG are malted barley and malted barley flour. They are pervasive in breads. Malted barley and malted barley flour are added as a high source of glutamic acid (=MSG) to enhance colour and flavour. As a result, you need to check your breads, crackers, cereals and even the flour you use for baking for hidden MSG.
So here’s a big project for you this week; clean out the refrigerator and pantry of hidden MSG.
This is probably going to break your heart, but you need to go through everything, reading every label. If it has any MSG by another name or preservatives then either give it to an unsuspecting neighbour or toss it. Make a list as you go of things you need to replace.
Please don’t think that you’ll replace that bottle of soy sauce, box of cereal, stock cubes etc when it’s gone. Until then you will essentially be contributing to a migraine every time you use it. Every time.
Set aside a good hour or two to go to the shops to replace them with preservative free and no added MSG products. Don’t be surprised if this makes you, as it did me, cry.
Getting MSG out of your life requires an exceptionally high level of vigilance and effort. It will be worth it to get this hidden migraine trigger out of your diet.
Glutamate, like NO, is essential for life. There are lots of great sources of glutamate and they impart fantastic flavours into our foods. Next week we’ll take a look at foods naturally rich and low in glutamates and how you can use them to create flavour. Until then, enjoy my friends.
As always, whenever making lifestyle changes be sure and consult your healthcare team. Under no circumstances should you stop or start taking medication or supplements without their consent.