The overlooked cause of migraines – and how to end them for good

Dr. Frank Shallenberger, MD

June 22, 2020



While there are a lot of things that can cause migraines, let me tell you a story that highlights one of the most common causes.

Connie had been suffering from migraine headaches for over 30 years.

The only solution that her doctor suggested was not all that great. Every time she had a headache, she had to call in sick for the day, go down to the emergency room, and get a pain shot.

Now this would not be an altogether bad approach if she was only getting the headaches once in a great while. But that was not the case. She was getting them two to three times a week.

Her job and, in many ways, her life was on the line.

When she first saw me, I realized that unless we were able to find out what was causing the migraines, we were going to be stuck with the same treatment approach her doctor suggested. So I asked her, “Do you react to MSG (monosodium glutamate)?”

You probably already know that MSG is a flavor enhancer that’s common in packaged, processed, and fast foods. You also can find it in almost every manufactured sauce.

And you probably know that MSG is not a good thing. But not everyone knows just how big of a problem MSG is, and how often it can be the hidden cause of all kinds of symptoms.

How to Know if You’re Sensitive

There are no tests for MSG sensitivity. So the only way to determine if your headaches are caused by a reaction to MSG is to eliminate it for a couple of weeks. If the symptoms go away, the likelihood is that you have a sensitivity to MSG. Then to confirm the diagnosis, start eating it again. If the symptoms return, you’ve confirmed the diagnosis.

So with Connie, it was easy. As soon as she started cutting out MSG from her diet, her headaches started to decrease. And every time she got a headache, she was able to go back and investigate what she had eaten. Sure enough, inevitably it contained some MSG.

But in doing this, Connie discovered the big stumbling block that people and doctors have when trying to eliminate MSG — just because a product does not list MSG as an ingredient, it doesn’t mean that it’s MSG free.

Since people are getting wise to MSG, many of the food companies now hide it on their labels. They hide it by listing other foods that have MSG in them. And the FDA isn’t helping. They require that each item be listed by its “common name.”

For instance, any foods that have the following ingredients may contain MSG: autolyzed yeast, barley malt, broth, bouillon, calcium caseinate, carrageen, flavoring, natural flavoring, gelatin, hydrolyzed oat flour, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, natural flavors, pectin, plant protein extract, soy protein, soy sauce, textured protein, whey protein, yeast extract, and yeast food. And that’s just a sample. There are over 40 ingredients that can contain MSG.

Obviously, not all of these will contain MSG all the time. As a result, it’s very hard to get around exposure to MSG unless you completely avoid all processed food. And companies aren’t going to stop using it unless the government forces them to – and that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Why Don’t Food Companies Get Rid of MSG?

It’s simple. They want to make a profit. So if MSG increases your appetite, you’ll need to buy more food. And they’ll make more money. They don’t want you to know how bad MSG is for you. And they definitely don’t want to remove it from their products.

So how can you know a food has MSG in it? The most obvious way is to look for products that specifically say, “MSG-free.”

Unfortunately, most companies don’t want to go this direction. Like I said, they want you to eat MSG, so they aren’t going to make it easy for you. You’ll need to take action to protect yourself.

So if you are a reactor, the only way to really be safe is to recognize your symptoms. Then when you experience the symptoms, you will know that you have recently eaten something with MSG in it. Then you can retrospectively determine where it came from. But here are a few other things that will help you know if the food you’re eating has MSG:

• Be aware of very salty foods. These are more likely to contain MSG.

• Avoid processed foods. Most of them contain MSG.

• Buy foods with a very short ingredients list (less than six items). The more ingredients there are on the list, the more likely it is to contain MSG.

• Ask your grocer if the wax used on the fruits has MSG in it (yes, many waxes contain MSG).

• Check the labels of your cosmetics and other personal care products, as they can contain MSG too.

• Ask your pharmacist if your prescription drugs contain MSG. Even some supplements can have it. Make sure you find out if the brand you use has MSG in it.

And one final note: just because you buy it at a health food store and it says natural or organic doesn’t mean you can trust the manufacturer. Read the label on everything you buy. Believe me, your waistline will thank you.



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