MSG and its link to migraines

aka MSG Symptom Complex

MSG symptom complex is not considered an allergic reaction but more of an adverse reaction to MSG itself. MSG can lead to many health problems, migraines being one of them.

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MSG and Migraines: What is the connection?

What is monosodium glutamate?

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is a naturally occurring amino acid found in protein. MSG is often added to foods to enhance flavor. In recent years there has been much talk about MSG and its association with many health issues.

But where did it all begin?

MSG was developed in Germany in 1908 by an organic chemist who wanted to create an inexpensive seasoning that would help digestion. The product, first isolated from sea kelp, was modeled after the distinctive taste known in Japan as “umami,” meaning “tasty” (Sand, 2005). This flavoring ingredient was labeled as MSG.

MSG began to be used throughout Japan and then America to enhance the taste of certain food. As awareness of the widespread use of food additives emerged in the late 1960s, people started experiencing a set of symptoms after eating foods that happened to be flavored with MSG (Sand, 2005). This set of symptoms became known as the Chinese restaurant syndrome, and today is called MSG symptom complex.

How can MSG lead to symptoms and migraines?

MSG symptom complex is not considered an allergic reaction but more of an adverse reaction to MSG itself. When MSG is consumed, it is broken down to glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter.

What does glutamate do in the body?

Glutamate can excite neurons, possibly leading to cell death. Glutamate can also elevate blood pressure and may cause muscle spasms (Shimada, 2013). The stimulation of these chemicals in the brain can cause symptoms of headache, backache, nausea, flushing, heart palpitations, and chest heaviness within 1 to 14 hours after ingestion (Yang, 1997). Symptoms usually last for one or two hours, but headaches and even migraines can be triggered and last for days (Gaby, 2011).

Why is MSG thought to be so bad for you?

MSG symptom complex is still a highly debated issue with very little research pointing one way or the other. Chemically speaking, there are slight differences between glutamate and glutamic acid.

Glutamate is a form of glutamic acid that is also naturally found in certain cheeses, meats, and tomatoes. People do not experience the same array of symptoms after eating whole food products—meats, cheese, or vegetables, for example—as they do when eating foods that have MSG. Pure MSG can be absorbed in the blood rapidly and can alter the concentration of glutamate in the body.

Glutamate that is food derived and mostly bound to protein is absorbed more slowly and does not affect glutamate levels as dramatically.

The breakdown

It is possible that the amount of adverse reaction to MSG depends on a higher serum glutamate concentration when compared to other amino acids (Gaby, 2011). The fact that glutamate in MSG is similar to an excitatory neurotransmitter could be the reason for the symptoms produced when consuming it. Since reactivity to MSG varies per individual, increased susceptibility to MSG-related symptoms really depends on how efficiently a person can clear metabolized glutamate from their bloodstream. Vitamin B6 can help break down glutamate, thus clearing it faster.

Therefore, the mechanism of action that occurs after ingesting MSG seems to play a part in how susceptible a person might be in developing symptoms and could vary based on the individual.


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Dr. Ellie Heintze, ND, LAc, is a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist in Bothell, WA at her practice Starting Point Acupuncture. She is a pain specialist, seeing people who suffer from chronic pain, migraines, as well as digestive issues. Offering pain relief injections, acupuncture, facial rejuvenation, and nutrition consults. Most insurances accepted. Dr. Ellie Heintze is also the author of the book, A Starting Point Guide to Going Gluten-Free on Amazon.


Bowers, E. S., I. C. (2014, June 20). “Does MSG Cause Migraines?” Retrieved August 3, 2015, from Everyday Health: migraine/does-msg-cause-migraines.aspx

Gaby, A. (2011). Nutritional Medicine. Concord: Fritz Perlberg Publishing.

Grant, E. C. G. (1979). “Food allergies and migraines.” Lancet, 966-969.

Kang, D. (2008, March). “Lamotrigine inhibits TRESK regulated by G-protein coupled receptors agonist.” Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 367(3), 609-615.

Rogawski, M. A. (2012). “Migraine and epilepsy-shared mechanisms within the family of episodic disorders.” Jasper’s Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies.

Sand, J. (2005, Fall). “A short history of MSG: Good science, bad science, and taste cultures.” Investigations, pp. 38-49.

Shimada, A., e. a. (2013). “Headache and mechanical sensitization of human pericranial muscle after repeated intake of monosodium glutamate (MSG).” The Journal of Headache and Pain, 14(2).

Yang, W. H., D. M. (1997). “The monosodium glutamate symptom complex: Assessment in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study.” Journal of Allergy Clinical Immunology, 99(6), 757.

Call or Schedule Now! (425) 686-4498

Call or Schedule Now!

(425) 686-4498

Dr. Ellie Heintze, ND, LAc

  • Master’s Degree in Acupuncture
    Bastyr University
  • Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine
    Bastyr University
  • Master’s Degree in Chemistry
    Northern Arizona University
Dr. Heintze Acupuncturist and Naturopathic Doctor

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