How does toxic food and ingredients can effect the brain? Can food really be toxic?
The brain remains in large part a mystery even today. We know how our kidney’s serve as a filter, our heart as a pump and our lungs to breath. But we still don’t understand how the brain functions as an information processing organ.
We do know that the brain is generally resilient, but there are certain areas within the brain which are very sensitive. The brain is like a factory of infinitesimal amounts of chemicals. For healthy functioning, these chemicals need to be in the correct balance.
When this delicate balance becomes disrupted issues can arise. Increasingly common disruptions are excitotoxins. These accumulate and over time lead to serious neurodegenerative diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as cause seizures, autism and potentially migraines headaches. (1)
Excitotoxins are chemicals which overstimulate the brain via neurotransmitters and nerve receptors. These chemicals excite neurons to fire excessively and eventually lead to nerve cell death. With excess levels of excitotoxins, neurons can fire continuously until they exhaust themselves and die. (2) They are also an underlying cause of neurological inflammation.
This problem accumulates over time. It can take years to develop, but once symptoms are experienced, the damage has already been done. (3) That’s why it’s so important to limit excitotoxin damage.
Diseases that result from the cumulative death of glutamate receptor neurons (the type of neurons which excitotoxins attack) in the brain include Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’s and ALS. (2)
Excitotoxins are found naturally in the body, but over the last 50 years they have been added to our food supply in huge quantities.
Excitotoxins stimulate your taste buds and distort the real taste. The most common excitotoxins hiding in plain sight are:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
Typically these are used as artificial flavor enhancers in processed and artificial foods which wouldn’t taste the same without them. Natural foods have much greater nutritional value and don’t require this type of flavor enhancement.
Excitotoxins found in food can over stimulate or overexcite neurons to the point where they fire so rapidly and continuously that they become exhausted and die.
Some companies which produce these excitotoxins have claimed that since glutamate is found naturally and abundantly in the brain, additives that contain it such as MSG and aspartame are “natural” and therefore not harmful.
This is misleading because it fails to take into account that glutamate only exists in very tiny concentrations in the body. If concentrations rise above a certain level your neurons can become overexcited, misfire and perish.
Some individuals may be more genetically susceptible than others. Migraine headaches have been described as an abnormally overreactive response to otherwise normal stimuli. It would not surprise me if high levels of excitotoxins or excitotoxin neuronal damage (including inflammation) were found amongst those with migraines. This has already been described as a potential cause of migraine in published studies. (1,4,5)
Processed foods which are full of excitotoxins should be treated with extreme caution by those who experience migraines, hypoglycemia, seizures, head injury or other neurodegenerative diseases.
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Excessive excitotoxin levels can also cause neurological inflammation. Inflammation occurs from the release of inflammatory mediators such as CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide). (1) Neurological inflammation can result from the overstimulation of neurons and nerve pathways in the nervous system and brain.
Excitotoxins aren’t the only contributor to neurological inflammation but they play a major role. Other factors which are involved are:
- Genetic factors which inhibit optimal performance
- Environmental factors, including metal& other chemical toxicity levels in the body
- Infectious agents such as viruses or bacteria
Symptoms of neurological inflammation include:
- OCD behaviors
- Disturbing thoughts
- Lack of concentration “brain fog”
- Loss of memory
- Poor judgment
- Anger mood swings
- Poor problem-solving
- Depressive disorders
Neurological inflammation disorders include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), MS (Multiple Sclerosis), Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE,) Myasthenia gravis and autism. Migraine headaches are also linked to neurological inflammation. (5)
Toxins in our food
According to retired neurosurgeon, Russel Blaycock, author of ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’ excitotoxins such as MSG and aspartame are added in enormous amounts to food.
In the US, over 100 million people use sweeteners regularly. Headaches are the number one complaint. (2) Companies who make a fortune from these ingredients formed the Glutamate Association to keep MSG and other sweeteners on the market. The Glutamate Association have been so successful at lobbying that today they don’t even have to list MSG on the label unless it’s pure MSG. Anything mixed with MSG may be hidden from your ingredients list. Many spices, natural flavorings and artificial flavorings can contain 60% MSG without telling you!
Lots of foods contain these ingredients at levels which quickly become toxic within our body. Before reading this list below it is important to note that it is not possible or advisable to eliminate every source of excitotoxin. We do need low levels of glutamate for optimal brain function. It’s the excessive levels of intake that need to be stopped in order to avoid excessive stimulation, inflammation and increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Foods to Avoid
Sources of MSG
- Hydrolyzed protein or hydrolyzed oat flour
- Sodium caseinate or calcium caseinate
- Autolyzed yeast or yeast extract
- Glutamic acid
- Monosodium glutamate
Excitotoxic food ingredients
- Autolyzed anything
- Autolyzed yeast
- Autolyzed yeast extract
- Calcium caseinate
- Carrageenan (or vegetable gum)
- Chicken/pork/beef “base”
- Chicken/pork/beef “flavoring”
- Disodium caseinate
- Disodium guanylate
- Disodium inosinate
- Dough conditioner(s)
- Guar gum
- Hydrolyzed anything
- Hydrolyzed oat flour
- Hydrolyzed plant protein
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Kombu extract
- Malt extractMalt flavoring(s)
- Malted anything
- Malted barely flour
- Malted barley/barley malt
- Meat flavorings (chicken, beef etc.)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Natural flavor(s)
- Natural flavoring(s)
- Plant protein extract 1-cysteine
- Seasoned salt
- Seasoning(s) or spices
- Smoke flavoring(s)
- Sodium caseinate
- Soup base
- Soy extract
- Soy protein
- Soy protein concentrate
- Soy protein isolate
- Soy sauce
- Spice mixes that contain glutamate or MSG as an ingredient
- Textured protein vegetable gum
- Whey protein
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Yeast extract
Foods that damage the nerves
- Anything enzyme modified
- Anything fermented
- Anything protein fortified
- Anything ultra-pasteurized
- Anything vitamin enriched
- Anything with corn syrup added
- Anything with milk solids
- Baked goods from bakeries
- Barbeque sauce
- Body builder protein mixes
- Bottled spaghetti sauce
- Boullion (any kind)
- Canned and smoked tuna, oysters, clams
- Canned soups (certain brands) Canned refried beans
- Canned, frozen, or dry entrees and potpies
- Caramel flavoring/coloring Catsup
- Certain brands of cold cuts/hot dogs
- Chili sauce Chocolates/Candy bars
- Citric acid (when processed from corn)
- Corn chips (certain brands) Dough conditioners
- Dry milk or whey powder
- Egg substitutes
- Flavored chips (certain brands) Flavored teas, sodas
- Flowing agents
- Fresh and frozen pizza
- Fresh produce sprayed with Auxigro, instead choose organically grown produce
- Fried chicken from fast food sources
- Frostings and fillings Gelatin
- Gravy Master
- Instant soup mixes/Stocks Kombu extract
- Low-fat/Diet foods
- Many salad dressings/Croutons
- Most salty, powdered dry food mixes
- Non-dairy creamers
- Parmesan cheese
- Salted peanuts (certain brands)
- Powdered soup and sauce mixes (certain brands)
- Processed cheese spread Ramen noodles
- Skim, 1%, 2%, non-fat, or dry milk
- Some bagged salads and vegetables Some peanut butters
- Some spices
- Soy sauce
- Supermarket turkey & chicken (injected)
- Table salts
- Tofu and other fermented soy products
- Tomato sauce/Stewed tomatoes
- Whipped cream topping substitutes
- Worcestershire sauce Xanthan gum/other “gums”
- Restaurant gravy from food service cans
- Restaurant soups made from food service Soup base
- Sausages/Processed meats/Cold cuts
- Seasoned anything
A Brain-Friendly Diet
A diet that minimizes the level of excitotoxins and neuroinflammation supports the brain. After a long list of foods which no doubt contain some personal favorites where can you find food that you can eat?
Fortunately there are many capable nutritionists and doctors who can provide great information about what you should eat. For more about the best migraine diet refer to this article.
The decision to change your diet is up to you. But if you hope to improve your condition Author & Docter Amy Yasko writes “children with autism or adults with neurological conditions must eliminate excitotoxins, food ingredients and substances that cause overstimulation of the nerves and nerve damage.”
This means eliminating these foods and substances that cause over stimulation. It is not a complete elimination of every food on the list. That is simply not realistic or advisable. Remember, our brain runs on a delicate biochemical balance. Toxins like excitotoxins disrupt this balance when consumed in excess. Migraine patients and other at-risk groups who are prone or vulnerable to neuronal “excitability” should be especially aware of just how what you eat can affect your migraine condition.
Try reducing your excitotoxin intake for 2 weeks. See how you feel. Use the cookbook or dietary resources shared above to plan out your meals for the next 2 weeks and see what difference it makes for you.
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1) Peroutka, Stephen J. (October 2005). “Neurogenic inflammation and migraine: implications for the therapeutics”. Molecular Interventions (Mol Interv.) 5 (5): 304–311. doi:10.1124/mi.5.5.10. PMID 16249526.
2) Blaycock, Russell. “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills.” Sante Fe, New Mexico: Health 1997.
3) Yasko, A. “Autism: Pathways To Recovery”. Neurological Research Institute. 2004.
4) Longoni, M., and C. Ferrarese. “Inflammation and excitotoxicity: role in migraine pathogenesis.” Neurological Sciences 27.2 (2006): s107-s110.
5) Williamson, D. J. and Hargreaves, R. J. (2001), Neurogenic inflammation in the context of migraine. Microsc. Res. Tech., 53: 167–178. doi: 10.1002/jemt.1081
Hi Carl I’ve always thought that a lot of foods that you listed caused me to get a migraine. It’s nice to know I’m not imagining things
No your not imaging things. It’s unfortunate the list is so long. So much of what we eat today can cause problems. I try to eat as much natural food you can find in a fresh food store as possible. Local markets are helpful to find locally grown natural and organic produce that haven’t been sprayed with harsh chemicals.
Thanks for this article. After many years of experiencing migraines I took the time to try to identify cause and effect eventually identifying MSG as the culprit for me and once identified I was able to determine that I have degree of tolerance but once the tipping point is reached its too late.
If I can anticipate an MSG encounter, I will take an ibuprofen as soon as I get. It seems to help. I have found that ibuprofen tablets have a quick response and enables me to get some sleep and recover by the morning.
However the anxiety of anticipating an MSG induced migraine often dampens what should be an enjoyable experience.
My pleasure Patrick.
MSG is a challenge for me too.
But anxiety is a mental battle and seperate. It can often make us more vulnerable overall due to the stress response it can create. I’ve found a healthy combination of sleep, exercise and meditation or relaxation training have been very helpful in controlling anxiety.
Thank u for this article I eat clean have been for a few yrs now I was getting 20 migraines a month Dr would not help me figure it out just a script for meds and I refuse meds so I kept a journal on anything that went in my mouth I got a water review it was not good so I got a filtration unit also went gluten free now iam eating clean I eat nothing in a bag or box but was using xanthan gum I will now be using chia seeds in place of that for my flat bread thank you for posting this was very educational
I hope it has assisted Nunnie. Glad to hear you’re eating healthy.
This is mind blowing. Thank you for sharing!
I’m still coming to terms with how important diet is in the management of migraine.
I’m glad this helped T.
ok I might as well kill myself now. Unless I become an organic farmer and raise all of my food, I am doomed according to this list, even though I shop organic and mostly health food store and health food section of grocery store. Even the produce now is cut up, sprayed, and packaged…how utterly depressing.
It’s tricky at the start and easy to feel overwhelmed, but no one is perfectly strict 100% of the time. Aim for eating a little less of the problem foods and shift gradually over time to make things more manageable.
Yes, I believe everything on this list is a trigger for me. I also had to give up coffee, tea (tannins are in decaf tea too) and/or any form of caffeine (even decaf Swiss water processed coffee). I have religiously followed the “How to Heal Your Headache” book to the tee. In order to keep my threshold low, I have also have decreased my histamine load by cutting out spinach, nuts, avocado, strawberries, eggs and anything that has been sitting in my fridge for longer than 3 days. It has dramatically improved my migraines.
I’m so glad to hear that you have found relief Nicole! Congratulations!
I have suffered with migraine for 32 years now and in the past 15 years have been diagnosed with cluster/hypnic migraine.
Still do not know what is causing the pain which I have every morning which wAkes me after 3-4 hours of sleep hence also suffering from sleep deprivation!
If you have hypnic headache then that is the cause of the waking every morning after only a few hours of sleep. Hypnic headache is treatable. Improving your sleep will also likely improve any chronic headache or migraine disorder. Definitely worth speaking to the doctor about it. Good luck!
I’m suffering as I type from a horrendous migraine. I ate hot sauce that has zantham gum in it. I am constantly plagued with what I call
”getting poisoned” by food! I feel as if my head is going to explode. I’m afraid to eat Even when I cook, certain meats are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, and it’s not on the label. For years, I’ve tried to avoid msg, and had to learn the hard way that all those ingredients that you listed are also triggers. I’m so afraid I have permanent damage, as I now have really bad ringing in my ears, and my brain is always sensitive, feeling like a headache is just about to flare.
What can I do to protect my brain and to detox these built up toxins in my body? What kind of Doctor can help me? It seems that every professional I speak to about this knows nothing about it. I’m so frustrated.
A functional medicine doctor or a naturopath who has a track record of success with migraine patients could be a starting point for looking more holistically. Finding a good one who knows about migraine is the tricky part. Some of the best things you can do to protect your brain from toxins (and just protect your brain generally) is to have a healthy diet that minimizes processed foods, exercise regularly – the brain loves exercise and get good quality sleep – which the brain uses to rejuvenate and perform important self-maintainence. Good luck Anya!