MSG: From headaches to brain damage?

When I was growing up, Tuesday night was Chinese food night. We went to the local restaurant and ate all our favorite dishes: soup, egg rolls, lobster sauce…

I never really wondered why I often had a headache later and went to bed as soon as I got home. I was a kid and figured I was just tired.

Now, I know better.

I still love Chinese food, but I make sure to order it without one ingredient that was the cause of those headaches. In fact, it causes a lot more than just headaches. And it’s in a lot more foods today than just Chinese food.

The culprit is actually a derivative of one of nature’s own flavor-enhancers. But in its artificial form, it’s become a real health problem for many people who have a sensitivity to it, and can be troublesome for type 2 diabetics who have a hard time keeping their blood pressure in check.

Here’s all you need to know about this rather controversial ingredient.

MSG: the unnatural “natural” substance

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG for short, is an artificial flavor enhancer that is derived from glutamate, an amino acid both sourced from diet and synthesized in the body. When salt is combined with artificial glutamic acid (produced by fermenting starches), you get MSG.

In its natural state, glutamic acid is a chemical messenger with some important functions.

It helps to remove the ammonia that builds up in muscle cells after intense exercise. It also plays a part in carbohydrate metabolism.

But mostly, it’s a neurotransmitter that acts as “brain food,” increasing the firing of neurons and adding to mental alertness and clarity of thinking.

Don’t be fooled, though. MSG is anything but good for your brain or your body.

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“Chinese restaurant syndrome” is for real

The after-meal headaches I got as a child were part of a syndrome aptly named “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” People who are sensitive to MSG experience headaches, and a lot more. Symptoms including:

  • sweating
  • flushed skin
  • numbness or burning in the mouth and throat
  • nausea
  • fatigue

In some people, more dangerous symptoms can occur:

  • chest pain
  • rapid heartbeat
  • swollen throat
  • trouble breathing

Does this sound “safe” to you?

The FDA would have us think that MSG is perfectly safe. As they have with so many other food additives, they have declared that MSG to be “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS), no different from the salt or pepper you use on your food.

But take a look at the chemistry behind how glutamate acts on the brain, and you’ll see a very different picture.

Glutamic acid is one of the few nutrients able to cross the blood-brain barrier and have a direct effect on the brain.

Since glutamic acid is a nerve stimulator, excessive amounts of it can cause a condition known as excitotoxicity. Basically, this means that the nervous system is dangerously over-stimulated, causing nerve cell damage or death.

Excitotoxicity has been associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as with anxiety, stroke, and fibromyalgia.

In studies with rats, MSG has been shown capable of inducing excitotoxic brain damage.

If it’s so safe, why hide it?

The FDA requires companies that add MSG to their foods to include it in their ingredient list. But, as is often the case, companies have found a way around this.

There are ingredients that go by other names, yet contain MSG. Ingredients like:

  • autolyzed yeast
  • textured vegetable protein
  • yeast extract
  • glutamic acid
  • soy protein isolate
  • soy extracts

If you are eating these, you’re eating MSG. For a complete list of hidden sources, check out this link at

And even if you don’t have a “sensitivity” to this chemical, you’re still at risk.

There are plentiful epidemiological studies that link MSG to diabetes, hypertension, obesity and iron deficiency. Why take a chance, when there are so many wonderful, natural ways to flavor your food?

How to avoid MSG

More than anything, eating a fresh, natural diet will automatically keep you safe from MSG.

Here are some foods and ingredients you should definitely avoid:

  • processed meats – deli meats, hot dogs, bacon
  • fast food
  • canned soups
  • iced tea mixes
  • gravy mixes
  • soy sauce

Read all labels, and be aware of the other ingredient names that are really MSG in disguise.


  1. Excitotoxicity and cell damage — Science Daily
  2. Epidemiological Studies of Monosodium Glutamate and HealthJournal of Nutrition & Food Sciences
  3. Glutamic Acid — Amino Acids Guide
  4. About Glutamate Toxicity — Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education at Stanford
  5. Protective Effect of Calendula officinalis L. Flowers Against Monosodium Glutamate-Induced Oxidative Stress and Excitotoxic Brain Damage in RatsIndian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry
  6. The Effects of Monosodium Glutamate and Tannic Acid on Adult RatsIranian Red Crescent Medical Journal


Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.