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Migraine Headaches and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Lauren Harned



For a countless number of years now, my sister has experienced excruciating migraine headaches; ones that keep her out of school too much during the year.  She has seen different doctors and they have all tried to figure out what the cause is, but so far, it is yet to be done.  I started looking around and saw that MSG has been know to trigger migraine headaches, and it occurred that this could be a possibility in my sister’s case. 


Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a salt added to foods to enhance flavor.  This additive helps to bring out natural flavors that make foods taste their best.  MSG is made from starch, corn sugar, or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets and is produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used over time to make foods like beer, vinegar, and yogurt.  (


MSG and Head Pain


Because MSG is a flavor enhancer for foods, many competitors in the food industry use lower quality foods and just add it in because of its cheap price.  This allows the manufacturer to have a large gain in the economy.  There is a large investment in MSG that leads food giants and glutamate manufacturers to get together to finance “medical research studies” to prove the safety of the additive to the consumer.  Obviously, the research done in these studies funded by the manufacturer will “prove the safety” of MSG.  The FDA’s Advisory Board consists of food industry reps as opposed to an unbiased group.  It would only seem natural that the board accepts these research studies. When doctors look at these reports, they see that they are industry funded and don’t take into consideration that MSG could be causing their patients’ pain.  ( 


MSG – A Hidden Additive


MSG can be difficult to pinpoint in many foods because it can be “hidden”.    Food processing companies disguise it with many names (permitted by the Food and Drug Administration).  Sufferers try to avoid foods with MSG on the label, completely unaware of the additional names that MSG goes by.  Patients also believe that their symptoms are due to an allergic reaction to the product, which isn’t the case.  They are experiencing signs of toxic poisoning, and anyone who intakes MSG in a sufficient quantity can experience this as well.  (


So Where is the MSG Hiding?

The following are a few products that ALWAYS contain MSG:



The following products may contain MSG or create MSG during processing:


According to FDA’s definition, all MSG occurs naturally, which doesn’t mean safe.  People who suffer from symptoms due to MSG should avoid all items on the “always contain MSG”, however, natural flavors can be misleading as well, and can contain anywhere from 12% to 33% MSG or none at all.  The only way to know for sure if a product contains MSG is to write the manufacturer and continue to check back with them frequently because oftentimes, manufacturers will change ingredients in their products. 


Potential sources of hidden MSG are soft drinks, iced tea mixes and concentrates, “sports drinks” (Gatorade, Powerade, etc.), candy, and chewing gum.  (



Controlling/Treating This?


One way to control the effects of MSG on migraines is to start an MSG-free diet.  This may be difficult because of the hidden aspects of the additive, but it is possible to do it.  First, all labels will have to be examined to check for anything on the list of “hidden names” of the additive.  Here are some tips to remember when choosing common foods:

( &


It can be difficult to consider what is safe when dining out in restaurants.  There are some establishments that are completely MSG-free, but a person has to be careful and just remember that some foods may have the additive.  Not all severs or cooks will be able to give a definite answer as to whether or not they use MSG.  Just use caution when dining out.  (


My Conclusions

A migraine sufferer collected most of this information.  He or she found that MSG was triggering his or her pain.  Although many doctors haven’t yet deduced MSG to be a known cause for migraines, it is safe to assume that it can have its affects that lead to migraines in some people because of testimonials with the additive.  (  Although MSG may not be the cause of all migraines, eliminating the additive out of the diet could be a smart start in trying to decrease the pain.


Is There a Link Between Diet and Headaches?

Studies have been done to determine whether or not there is a strong relationship between diet and headaches – it has been known to be a possible agent causing these symptoms.  Although writings have shown conflicting views of this, there are certain foods, which are commonly implicated with migraines.  MSG was among a list of direct-acting vasoactive substances that can cause diet-instigated migraine headaches.  A symptom associated with the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is headache.  This syndrome occurs within 30 minutes of eating a Chinese meal or any high-MSG food products.  Sensitive people should avoid these types of meals.  (Diamond, Prager, and Freitag, 1986)


MSG Complex


A study was done to test the validity of the symptoms supposedly being caused by MSG.  “Self-identified MSG-sensitive subjects” were tested to find the significance of the additive on their symptoms.  These subjects were people who believe MSG to be the cause of their symptoms.  The test was conducted in a double-blind manner with 5g of MSG or placebo given to the subjects.  Subsequent tests were conducted according to the subjects’ reactions to only a single test agent; doses of placebo and 1.25, 2.5, and 5g MSG were administered.  There were also certain qualifications for the subjects being tested.  They had to be:


The following estimations were made in regard to the likelihood of responses to MSG:


Sample sizes of 27-71 were required to show a difference between placebo and MSG at a significance level of 0.05 and power of 80%.  A sample size of 60 was used. 


The design of the study was as follows:

In an initial challenge, 5g of MSG or placebo were, in random order, ingested by subjects, on different days, on an empty stomach.  This act would filter out negative and ambivalent responders.  The other subjects to only one challenge doses underwent another challenge where more tests could identify a dose-response curve and decrease the likelihood of placebo responses.  MSG was dissolved in 200mL of citrus beverage and the placebo was the same beverage without the additive.  A positive reaction was defined as the occurrence of ³2 index symptoms (those identified by subjects before the challenge).  The subjects were unaware of the definition of response.  If fewer than the required number of index symptoms occurred, it was considered a negative response.  Subjects were questioned every 15 minutes regarding their symptoms.  If no symptoms were present after 2 hours, the subject was released.  If the subjects had the symptoms, they were challenged again at a later date.  The interval between tests was at least 1 day.  Subjects who didn’t respond to either test agent or both of them didn’t participate in further study.  Subjects who only responded to one of them were rechallenged.  To determine the severity of the symptoms, subjects used a scale of 1-3.  (1=mild, noticeable but causing only slight discomfort, 2=moderate, definitely troublesome but not incapacitating, or 3=severe, having significant impact on the subject.) 


The following are statistics of the group tested:

n = 634 subjects

(Yang, Drouin, Herbert, Mao, Karsh-1997)

In the following graphs, GI-Gastrointestinal tract

The following are the results of the rechallenge in 36 subjects: (Yang, et al.-1997)





MSG (g)








Number (%) responding

8 (22)

12 (33)

21 (58)

25 (70)


Median no. of symptoms (sum)







0 (23)

1 (41)

2 (64)

2 (76)



0 (22)

0 (26)

1 (57)

1 (49)



0 (45)

1 (67)

3 (121)

4 (125)


Median severity of symptoms (sum)






Sum of severity of index symptoms

0 (35)

1 (55)

2 (99)

4 (143)


Average severity of index symptoms

0 (22.5)

1 (28.2)

1 (41.5)

1.5 (55.2)


Sum of severity of other symptoms

0 (36)

0 (41)

1.5 (84)

1.5 (95)


Sum of severity of total symptoms

0 (71)

1.5 (96)

4.5 (183)

6 (238)


Average severity of total symptoms

0 (22.3)

1 (29.1)

1.3 (44.7)

1.6 (56.7)


**Statistically significant







Overall Conclusions to Study


MSG is such a common additive in so many foods.  It is generally know to be a safe additive.  There is evidence, however, that some people may be MSG sensitive and they have the potential to have more severe reactions than those not sensitive to MSG.  The average daily intake of MSG is 0.3-1g, but some restaurant meals may contain up to 5g.  MSG has been blamed for many ills – in this study, it is shown that among the people who identified themselves as MSG-sensitive, many of their symptoms occurred while being tested.  These symptoms were specific ones that they previously identified by the subjects. 


It’s quite obvious by looking at the charts and graphs, that the rechallenge given to the 36 subjects showed MSG to play a significant role in instigating certain symptoms, despite the fact that they are somewhat skewed to what we may have thought the results to be.  My whole intent in investigating this topic was to find the role, if any, that MSG played in the instigation of migraine headaches.  In researching, however, I was presented with more information, finding out that MSG is known to cause more than just headaches, as shown in this study.  Before looking into studies done on the topic of MSG’s effects on migraines, I deduced that there could possibly be a link between the two, however, this study gives much stronger evidence that MSG is troublesome more to some people than to others.  





Diamond, S., Prager, J., & Freitag, F.G. (1986).  Diet and headache. Is there a link?  Postgrad Med, 279-86


Drouin, M.A., Herbert, M., Karsh, J., Mao, Y., & Yang, W.H. (1997).  The monosodium glutamate complex: assessment in a double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study Journal of Allergy Clinical Immunology, 757-62


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