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Is MSG – contributing to a rise in anxiety and depression statistics?

I want to talk about MSG. First, let's look at what msg is. MSG stands for monosodium l-glutamate, what that means is that we have a molecule of the amino acid glutamate (from glutamic acid) combined with a sodium molecule (salt). MSG is a flavour enhancer and is used in a lot of flavourings for packaged foods, chances are it's in about 30% of the things in your cupboard, depending on how many processed, packaged goods you buy. If you're not aware of what it's in, you can find it hidden in labelling on foods as things like yeast extract, hydrolysed protein, malt extract, natural flavour, seasoning, under the chemical name 621, e621, or 631. What should be said is that it is also a naturally occurring substance in some foods (in small quantities), but in 1908 a Japanese chemist found a way to synthesise it in a lab. This is when it started being added to processed foods as a flavour enhancer.

2 minute noodles are notoriously full of MSG, monosodium glutamate

You’ve probably heard that MSG is bad for you and it can cause a range of side effects, that’s right. It’s actually quite a long list;

  • abdominal discomfort
  • abnormal heart rhythm in ventricles (ventricular arrhythmia)
  • asthma
  • eczema
  • atopic dermatitis
  • chest pain
  • facial pressure
  • headaches
  • increased body mass index (BMI)
  • increased hunger and food consumption
  • metabolic syndrome
  • neuropathy
  • non-alcohol fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • obesity
  • reduced birth weight
  • skin rashes (urticaria)
  • strong rapid heartbeat (palpitations)

It's pretty fair to say that this is something that shouldn't be in all of our foods. And something that we should be clearly told about when it is in our foods? - (don’t even get me started on the labelling nonsense that happens on foods in Australia, between the ridiculous star rating and the heart foundation tick, yep! you can completely ignore those).

MSG powder

In the last decade, rates of anxiety and depression related disorders have risen dramatically, this is no doubt due to range of factors. Below I explore the contribution that MSG consumption may potentially have on this rise in statistics.

But the point that I'm making today, is that adding glutamate to our foods, (sodium or non-sodium forms) can have a detrimental effect on our moods, attention spans and neurochemistry. A balance of neurotransmitters is needed to have a stable mood, normal reaction to stress and normal relaxation response. These neurotransmitters balance each other out and ‘fight for dominance’ in a sense, 2 main neurotransmitters that act on brain neurochemistry are GABA and glutamate. If you have too much glutamate you'll be highly anxious, overreact to a stressful situation, be excitable, have trouble winding down, have trouble relaxing, and have trouble sleeping long after stressful situation has come and gone. However, if you have adequate levels of GABA you'll be able to respond effectively in a stressful situation, calm down soon after stressful situation has dissipated, and will be able to relax and go to sleep easily at night. To paint the picture glutamine can be seen as the accelerator and GABA can be seen as the brake. If your speeding around all day getting things done you need glutamate to get that done but if you ever want to come down from that stressful situation relax you need GABA to do that for you.

This necessary balance of neurotransmitters can be achieved by having a balanced diet. When that balance is lost, we can experience a range of negative side effects, such as depression, anxiety, digestive problems (due to being stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode), difficulty concentrating, memory problems, headaches and many more.

One major piece of advice would be to remove all forms of MSG foods from your cupboards - if you're eating adequate amounts of protein - you have sufficient levels of glutamate coming in from your diet. A general rule of thumb for most people is to eat .8g of protein to each kg of body weight, this works out to about 80g of protein for someone who weighs 100kg (of course, there is some variation in protein requirements based on age group and activity levels). To put that into perspective, about 125g of steak = approximately 20g of protein. Other foods and drinks that will help ensure your brain has adequate levels of GABA are whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, halibut, broccoli, potatoes, brown rice and green tea.

If you find that you are experiencing any of the mentioned side effects, or depression, anxiety, or problems with memory or concentration then you should consider going through your pantry and make a list of suspect items and get rid of them. You could also look at getting your protein from whole food sources mentioned above to help you to get a balance of the right foods that lead to healthy brain chemistry, along with adequate fruit and vegetable intake for required cofactors (vitamin C, B vitamins, and various minerals).

Another way to target this dysregulation of neurotransmitters is ‘Amino Acid Therapy.’ As some of the more important neurotransmitters are amino acids, these can be supplemented in specific amounts to achieve the desired balance and get the body and mind back into synergy. Please seek the advice of a qualified health professional if you wish to go down this route.


Americans Say They are More Anxious than a Year Ago; Baby Boomers Report Greatest Increase in Anxiety

Shimada-Sugimoto M, Otowa T, Hettema JM. Genetics of anxiety disorders: Genetic epidemiological and molecular studies in humans. Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2015;69(7):388-401. doi:10.1111/pcn.12291

Twenge JM. Time Period and Birth Cohort Differences in Depressive Symptoms in the U.S., 1982–2013. Soc Indic Res. 2015;121(2):437-454. doi:10.1007/s11205-014-0647-1

Quines CB, Rosa SG, Da Rocha JT, et al. Monosodium glutamate, a food additive, induces depressive-like and anxiogenic-like behaviors in young rats. Life Sci. 2014;107(1-2):27-31. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2014.04.032

Vitor-de-Lima SM, Medeiros L de B, Benevides R de DL, Dos Santos CN, Lima da Silva NO, Guedes RCA. Monosodium glutamate and treadmill exercise: Anxiety-like behavior and spreading depression features in young adult rats. Nutr Neurosci. 2019;22(6):435-443. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1398301

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