Health

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome- Is This a Real Thing

You will sometimes see some people experiencing headache and swearing after eating at Chinese restaurants. These symptoms are sometimes called Chinese restaurant syndrome. Medically it is called MSG symptom complex.

MSG or monosodium glutamate is a food additive that is used in a number of dishes to enhance flavor. Many restaurants and pre-packaged food units use it. There is not much scientific information available on it but people suffering from it have reported it to be common.

As a result of this limited information, MSG has a controversial status. You will see many Chinese restaurants advertising themselves to be MSG free. Read more on MSG syndrome and how it affects your health.

What should you know about Chinese restaurant syndrome?

Chinese restaurant syndrome is also called MSG symptom complex. Chinese restaurant syndrome is not any medical or professional term. It has just been made up by the people to explain their symptoms. The common signs of having MSG are as follows.

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Pain in chest
  • Facial flush
  • Dizziness and headache
  • Numbness in mouth
  • Burning like pain in the mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Facial swelling

All these symptoms may look like a casual thing but sometimes they can become severe. A case reported in Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine tells about a patient who experienced severe oral swelling after he ate Chinese food. He also exhibited speaking difficulties and even swallowing saliva. You can read this case by clicking here.

What causes MSG symptom complex?

MSG symptoms are linked with MSG intake. The researchers are not sure about what causes these symptoms exactly. MSG affects not everyone. It only affects people that are sensitive to substances or who have food allergies.

While MSG may not affect everyone, it appears that some people are extremely sensitive to it or other food additives.

What is MSG?

MSG is a flavor enhancing substance that is usually added to recipes of meat. It is made from glutamate, which is one form of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid by the structure and is naturally a part of many foods.

The human body is also able to produce glutamic acid and it is essential for performing various bodily functions. These include learning and memory building functions. In foods, the use of MSG is for enhancing flavor. In Chinese food, this is used commonly. You may also find it in processed meats and canned meat products.

As per Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of USA, MSG is generally safe for use. It means it doesn’t have any side effects on people But the FDA have received many complains against MSG causing discomfort in people. The restaurants and food industries are now required to mention MSG as an ingredient.

What does research say about it?

Some of the recent researches have investigated the effects of MSG on health. A study based on 130 people who self-reported the symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome explains the effects of it on health. All these participants were studies with MSG administration and placebo both. Out of all the subjects, only 38.5% reacted to MSG whereas 13.1% reacted to the placebo effect. A total number of 14.6% reacted to both MSG and placebo.

Those who were affected by MSG, however, showed mild symptoms. When the amount of MSG was increased without the presence of food, it caused a reaction. The researchers are not able to replicate the same results again. It suggests that it may not be the MSG alone but various outside factors which contribute to the MSG symptoms complex.

Another study from 2011 tells that MSG is linked with weight gain in Chinese adults but it is not accepted as it is due to the report of conflicting results. More research is needed to understand the working of MSG more.

Is there a treatment for it?

The options for treatment are varied on the basis of symptoms and severity on an individual. In mild cases, there is no treatment required and the symptoms go away with time. Mild symptoms can be treated with doing any of the following things.

  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Taking a rest
  • Drinking a herbal tea i.e. ginger or peppermint tea (for nausea)
  • Taking any over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers (for pain)

In case of severe symptoms, it is advised to seek medical assistance. The doctor may recommend OTC or any prescription based medications to relieve the symptoms. The options for treatment include antihistamine medications or the shot of epinephrine/ adrenaline. The antihistamine helps in breathing issues, swelling, heart problem etc. The use of adrenaline is made in extreme life-threatening cases only.

How to prevent it?

There is no way to prevent MSG syndrome complex when you know that you are sensitive to it and still eat Chinese food or any food that has MSG in it. The only prevention is to avoid eating any food that uses MSG in it.

Eating small portions of the foods that have MSG in it may prevent the mild symptoms. For severely sensitive people, any food that uses MSG as an additive is dangerous. Always read for labels when you are buying processed food or ordering food at a Chinese restaurant. Remember, MSG is sometimes mentioned by its full name that is monosodium glutamate. Double check for full name and abbreviation before purchase.

You are likely to find MSG in the following products.

  • Packaged foods
  • Processed meats and its products
  • Meat extracts
  • Bouillon
  • Potato chips
  • Chicken soups
  • Chicken stocks

MSG has other common names too. Some of them are;

  • E621
  • hydrolyzed protein
  • maltodextrin
  • modified food starch

Make sure to check all these names next time. It is better to ask the restaurants staff for MSG-free food, if you are sensitive to it.

When should you see a doctor?

In case the symptoms become severe, the person should see a doctor right away. The symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest pain, or swelling of the throat need immediate medical care.

The doctor may ask any of the following things to assess the condition and severity of sensitivity.

  • When did you last eat Chinese food or processed food?
  • Did you check for the MSG to be present inside it?
  • Have you ever experienced a reaction before?

Depending on the symptoms, the doctor may check the following things.

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Electrocardiogram to know any abnormal heart rhythm

The final word

MSG is not a disease but a set of symptoms. The name Chinese restaurant syndrome is not a professional term. It is just used to identify the symptoms. These symptoms are mild and usually go away on their own. People start to feet better after a few hours. Just in case the symptoms become severe, make sure to see a doctor right away.

Sources

  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5278591/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11080723
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3095503/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20370941

Areeba Hussain

The author is a Medical Microbiologist and a healthcare writer. She is a post-graduate of Medical Microbiology and Immunology with distinction. She is an author of six research papers and currently working as a research associate in a Research Lab.

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