Could This Common Ingredient be Worsening Your Child’s Autistic Symptoms?

by Casey Ames

Could This Common Ingredient be Worsening Your Child’s Autistic Symptoms?

You may have heard about MSG in the past. Its full name is monosodium glutamate. It received a lot of media attention in the past with what was known as the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which was just a letter that someone wrote about how he would get headaches 15 to 20 minutes after eating Chinese food. This letter lingered on, even though there seems to be little scientific evidence to find this link between MSG in Chinese food and headaches.

We don’t need to discuss that letter, as it has been critiqued by both sides quite a bit. Before we dive into how glutamate directly relates to autism, let’s take a quick look at what glutamate is.


What is monosodium Glutamate?

Glutamate is an amino acid that we naturally find in foods and create in our body. There’s also two types of glutamate we should be aware of. First is bound glutamate, which is connected to a whole protein, which means that it is easier to digest and absorbs slowly.

Then there is free glutamate, which is not bound to other amino acids and is thought to absorb into our bodies much more rapidly.

 We naturally encounter glutamate in even healthy foods. This seems to be ok for healthy individuals, as glutamate has been shown to not cross the blood brain barrier in healthy adults. The blood brain barrier is a lining that protects your brain from things that it shouldn’t be in contact with. If you have a healthy gut lining and healthy brain blood barrier, you probably tolerate MSG pretty well since it won’t get to places in your body that it shouldn’t go.

 However, since children with autism tend to have leaky gut and chronic low levels of inflammation, they are extra sensitive to glutamate. Being sensitive to glutamate is referred to in the scientific community as glutamate dysfunction. Glutamate, if your body can’t deal with it properly, can cause some problems.

 One study found that glutamate dysfunction is correlated with cognitive impairments. There is substantial evidence that glutamate dysfunction and autism are directly related. It appears that children with autism have higher levels of neurotensin, which intensifies the bodies glutamate signaling, causing a higher sensitivity.

 There’s still more linking glutamate and autism. It was found that individuals with autism have specific abnormalities in the AMPA-type glutamate receptors and how glutamate is transported in their brain, which may be directly related to the expression of autistic symptoms.

More ways that glutamate can affect autistic children is that glutamate and GABA, a neurotransmitter or chemical in the brain, are directly related. It has been found that people with autism have reduced GABA levels, brain inflammation, and too much glutamate.

This causes problems because glutamate and GABA are influential in the development of brains at younger ages. To properly do their job in constructing the nervous system, glutamate and GABA receptors need to be expressed at the right time and in the right places.

To summarize the above section, children with autism have unusual levels of GABA and glutamate, along with dysfunctional glutamate receptors, piled on top of their leaky gut and chronic inflammation. This basically means that they would be extra sensitive to MSG and that consuming MSG could cause them to have abnormal behavior.

Now that we are coming to understand these factors, we can use diet and other activities to help their bodies function better. Let’s look at how we can get MSG out of your child’s diet.


MSG is Everywhere. Here’s How to Avoid it

To begin with, you should know something that makes removing MSG tricky. There are over 50 different ways MSG can be labeled on food labels that give no sign that there is MSG in there. MSG is in about 95% of our processed foods, so it’s tough to avoid if you aren’t eating clean, whole foods.

Some of the ways MSG can sneak into your food is by being labeled as:

  • Natural Flavors
  • Citric Acid
  • Yeast Extract
  • Protein Additives

Check out the full list of different ways MSG can be listed here. I would recommend printing this list out to help you make better food choices.

Gluten and casein, which we talked about in our article on gut bacteria and autism, also have higher amounts of free glutamate, which is just another reason to avoid them.

The best way to avoid MSG is to cook everything from scratch. Now, I understand this can be difficult with a busy lifestyle, but it can be done. Some quick tips for this are:

  • Plan out meals on Sunday
  • Prepare as many things at once
  • Get a few go-to meals
  • Look into Paleo recipes and cooking books
  • Meal prep with friends and other families

One last tip is to supplement with B12. Specifically, Methylcobalamin. It has been shown to help protect against the effects of glutamate toxicity.



Removing MSG from your child’s diet can possibly have a big impact on their behavior. It may seem strange that such a small ingredient could have such an effect on your child, but the studies we looked at above seem to show that children with autism are extra sensitive to MSG.

Have you removed MSG from your child’s diet or are thinking about doing so? Leave us a comment below!

Casey Ames
Casey Ames


Casey Ames is the Founder of Harkla.

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