MSG and Headaches: What is the Relationship?

If you experience chronic migraines, you probably know that MSG is a trigger for most migraine sufferers. But do you know why MSG is bad for you? Once you understand how exactly MSG interacts with your brain and affects your body, it will be even easier to stay away from it and explain to others why they should avoid it as well.

To fully grasp the connection between MSG and migraines, we need to know a little about neurotransmitters and what MSG is. Let’s start with discussing neurotransmitters.

 

Neurotransmitters and Neurons

A neuron is a cell that transmits electrical impulses in the brain and is connected to other neurons through gapped connections called synapses. Simply put, neurotransmitters are like the keys to a car – they activate the neuron and cause it to fire electrical impulses. Continuing with our analogy, synapses are like the spark plugs of the car, transmitting the electrical signal to the next neuron and causing it to fire (or not fire, in some cases).

Each neuron has receptors, or “keyholes,” for the various neurotransmitters, or “keys,” found in the brain, of which there are many. The most common ones include:

  • GABA or gamma aminobutyric acid
  • Glutamate
  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin

Some neurotransmitters are excitatory, meaning they stimulate neurons to fire more rapidly or more frequently, and others are inhibitory, meaning they stop or slow neuronal firing. So what does all of this have to do with MSG and headaches? Before we can answer that question, we need to clarify what exactly MSG is.

 

What is MSG?

MSG is an abbreviation for monosodium glutamate and is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is naturally produced in the body and can be used to make glutamate. Therein lies the problem.

Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. This means that it excites neuronal synapses, encouraging them to fire more rapidly and more frequently. For migraine sufferers, this is bad news. If you eat MSG, your glutamate levels increase. If you are one of the many people who are sensitive to MSG, this increase in glutamate can over-stimulate your neurons and trigger a migraine.

 

Why is MSG Bad for You?

The FDA has determined that MSG is “generally considered safe” for humans, and most companies use MSG as an additive to enhance the flavor of foods. The ingredient is typically used in processed foods like cookies and other foods that aren’t healthy in large quantities. But MSG also occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes, dried mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and a variety of fruits and veggies.

Although MSG isn’t always harmful, it can still cause serious health problems in some individuals. In addition to triggering migraines and headaches,  MSG can cause fibromyalgia symptoms and a condition known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. For these reasons, many people choose to avoid MSG whenever possible.

Many migraine sufferers have found that when they do eliminate MSG from their diets, they experience migraines less often. So if you want to minimize the number of migraines you are experiencing, you may want to start avoiding MSG as well. However, if eliminating MSG from your diet doesn’t seem to make a difference, we suggest getting a professional diagnosis and trying alternative treatment options. Contact the National Headache Institute to schedule an appointment when you’re ready to find long-lasting migraine relief. 

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