MSG Won’t Hurt You | The Myth of Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome (part 1)

msg part 1

Part One: “Mono-who-dium What-amate?”

Why does aged cheese taste like a different food altogether, compared to the processed stuff?

Why does the restaurant down the block taste so much better than the one across the street?

What makes Doritos so addictive, you just can’t stop going back for another?

Three letters. One magical ingredient: MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a naturally-occurring chemical. It has a distinct, savory taste known as umami – somewhere between sweet and salty. It’s an unsubtle, but wholly unique flavor that’s been feverishly pursued by cooks since we first began roasting things on sticks. The chemical in its concentrated form has been around for about 100 years, but the cultivation of high-salt, high-glutamate foods stretches back more than 10,000 years. If you’ve ever eaten a well-aged parmesan, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms – even an anchovy: you’ve enjoyed the taste of MSG.

The concentrated, powdered form used in today’s kitchens was first formulated in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda. He was trying to isolate the taste of kombu – a savory seaweed stock used in most Japanese dishes. The seasoning quickly exploded in popularity, spreading across east Asia. From there, Chinese immigrants brought it to the United States, where it became an essential ingredient in the Chinese-American classics we enjoy today.

In its pure, concentrated form, MSG doesn’t taste like much. Rather, it’s an enhancing ingredient. In solution, it dissolves into a sodium ion and a glutamate anion. These two charged particles chemically bind to existing flavor compounds in a dish, amplifying what’s already good about it. It makes unlovely cuts, lovely; a simple lime, sublime.

Unfortunately, that’s not where this story ends. It’s not really even where it begins.

Because, chances are you’re at least a little confused by my attitude towards MSG, so far.

“MSG? Isn’t that stuff really bad for you? Didn’t companies start taking it out of their food? Don’t they have to put, like, warnings on the label? What do you mean they still use it in restaurants? Haven’t people sued over this?”

I can’t blame you. I first heard about it from my parents, then the news, then my teachers. And if they all agreed something was true? It was. That was my world.

They called it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Growing up – and still to this day – there was this widespread, popular belief that MSG causes, among other things: headache, stomachache, vomiting, diarrhea, acid reflux, cognitive dissonance, and somehow, several forms of cancer. But MSG’s longstanding reputation as a harmful substance is, like many widespread and popular beliefs: a patently false and transparently racist fabrication. Albeit, an unintentional one.

This is the story of the world’s most infamous secret ingredient.

Foggy, Hungry, Angry | The Consequences of Dehydration


If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.


Water is absolutely essential. The right amount keeps the body running; the wrong amount can kill us. It plays a critical role in every step of every process necessary to live – digesting our food, flushing out toxins, regulating temperature, and maintaining brain function. The ratio of water to electrolytes – like sodium and potassium – must remain within a specific range of concentration. All our cells rely on the equilibrium of these chemicals.


Life began in the sea. Tens of millions of years later: here we are. Still unable to survive on land without carrying an enormous amount of salty water with us. And we’re constantly losing it.


Dehydration usually isn’t a severe condition. With correct water levels being such a basic need, humans have evolved to be very good at keeping it in check. It’s recommended to drink 11-15 cups of water a day – and you can undoubtedly drink that much without consequence – but we already get most of that water from our food. 


Still, dehydration is no laughing matter. It comes on rapidly, and the symptoms grow exponentially worse with time. Not only is it physically uncomfortable – it affects the way the brain works, as well. If you’re not drinking enough water, your body slowly loses its ability to perform optimally – piece by piece, system by system.


Mild dehydration can make us tired and irritable – dampening mood, increasing fatigue, and causing cluster headaches. As you dry out, it can lead to decreased cognitive performance. Recent literature suggests that just a 1–2% body water loss can impair reaction time. The brain and nervous system struggle to send electrical impulses when the water level falls too low.


Most people can function through mild dehydration, losing up to about 3-4% of their total water volume before experiencing the more severe symptoms. But even this seemingly-negligible lack of water leaves a person disoriented, dizzy, and nauseous. 


But that’s not all: if you’re not drinking enough water, it can trigger hunger pangs – making it harder much more challenging to lose weight. In that way, overheating can lead to overeating.


Dehydration works along the same neural pathways as hunger. When you’re hungry, your body releases a hormone called “ghrelin” into the bloodstream. Ghrelin triggers a signal in your brain that tells you to eat. Your stomach also grows in size and sends out acid to help break down the food. The more ghrelin in the bloodstream, the hungrier you feel. And when you dry out, your brain triggers the ghrelin hormone once again. But the gut only hears “I need sustenance” – not “I need water, specifically.” We’re often unable to differentiate between the two sensations. So, if you’re feeling hot or tired, not drinking enough water, or all of the above: know that your body’s going to crave food, too.


The problem is that many people aren’t aware they’re dehydrated until it’s too late. They’ve already reached the point of diminished control over their mental and physical functions, but they don’t realize it because they’ve become so accustomed to feeling crummy.


So drink more water! Chances are, you could use a little more, and it’s almost impossible to over-hydrate (although it can happen, ironically causing many of the same problems as dehydration due to electrolyte imbalance in the other direction.) An excellent way to start getting more is simply drinking a glass with every meal. Water aids with digestion and helps you feel fuller, faster. And if you’re exercising regularly – drink more. Supplement with electrolyte powder if you start to feel foggy. But ultimately, trust in your body’s signals. It’ll tell you when things are out of whack.


Just remember: by the time you’ve lost more than 15% of your total body water, cells begin to rupture. And around 20%, we die. Keep an eye on it! 


nature walk

Like all other animals, humans gravitate towards the things, places, and features that resemble those present when we evolved. As such, we have this innate tendency to seek out natural spaces. Our bodies sense that we have a past there, and strongly prefer it to any other setting.

Evidence for this phenomenon comes in the form of preferences. Consider our relatively-slim range of preferred temperatures. Consider how, in visual spaces, we prefer to see, but not to be seen – a combination of prospecting and refuge-seeking behavior that yields, ultimately, comfort. We love Nature so much that we bring it into our homes, in the form of pets and houseplants. The omnipresence of Nature, and our careful cultivation of it, must convey some benefit. Otherwise, Evolution wouldn’t have preserved these behaviors.

Observe: the profound, untold health benefits of a simple walk in the woods.

For one, nature walks seem to have memory-promoting effects that other physical activities can’t replicate. In a study by the University of Michigan, students who walked in Nature reliably performed up to 20% better on brief visual memory tests than those who walked through the center of town. The same study was replicated for individuals with Major Depressive Disorder (Berman, Kross, et al.) and produced even more shocking results. They seemed to disproportionately benefit from Nature walks – over 53% of the sample group exhibited a significant increase in memory span after the nature walk, relative to an urban walk.

Past this single example, a meta-analysis of 10 other studies on the subject (performed by the same authors as above) showed that the mentally ill seem to benefit from disproportionally exposure to Nature. The presence of water resulted in even more substantial improvements. And while the depressed participants also showed marked increases in mood, the mood effects in Berman, Kross, et al. did not correlate with the memory effects, suggesting separate, biophysical mechanisms are at work.

An example of those biofeedback systems: Nature changes our stress response in measurable ways. Tons of researchers have observed hormonal changes brought on by Nature – with a powerful impact on the cortisol system. Study after study shows forest environments reduce cortisol, decrease heart rate, and tame blood pressure. One intensive study on 280 Japanese citizens found that forest walks resulted in a decrease of cortisol of around 15%, a reduction in heart rate of 4%, and a dip in blood pressure of about 2% for nearly all participants. Even among office workers, a window view of Nature seems to result in lower stress and higher job satisfaction.

But the benefits don’t stop there. At this point, the power Nature has over us seems to take on a supernatural tone.

Japanese traditional medicine has, for many years, considered forests to be a form of preventative medicine. “Shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” is a popular, oft-referred therapy for the many residents of Japan’s highly-urbanized central region. Clinical research on the practice is still in the earliest possible phases. But preliminary studies yielded such exciting outcomes, it became impossible to ignore the power of the forest.

Long-term residents of areas with greater forest coverage were found to have much lower cancer mortality rates than their urban counterparts. There are thousands of confounding factors making it difficult to establish a causal relationship – but the signs are there. When we analyze the blood of forest-dwellers, they have demonstrably higher levels of proteins known to target and kill cancer cells. They also seem to have much higher immune functioning, in general. Hopefully, in the next 5-10 years, we can discover precisely what’s causing the improvement. Until then, we should simply trust the trees. When it comes to health, it’s less important that we know how this occurs and more vital that we experience it for ourselves.

But what about city-dwellers? Are we simply supposed to accept that we might have a diminished quality of life?

The good news is: you don’t need an entire forest to reap most of these benefits. Parks convey many of the same effects – especially for nature-starved urbanites. Countless studies are proving this. Take the Dutch study Maas et al., for example. Researchers considered a sample size of over 250,000 city dwellers. They discovered that mere proximity to a green space had significant impacts on perceived general health – meaning that city dwellers feel better simply knowing they have access to natural areas.

So, the next time you’re feeling crummy, walk around some trees. That green space isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. And if you’re not so fortunate as to have immediate access, it’s probably closer to you than you think. Regardless, it’s always worth the journey.

You’re going home, after all.



Last night, I took my very first class in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu: the not-so-gentle art of folding clothes while someone else is still inside them.


I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a freight train.


I could barely move this morning! Why does it take more than 24 hours for our muscles to really feel sore after a workout? Why not right away?


Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, is a poorly-understood, universal phenomenon experienced by athletes of all levels. Simply put: when the body takes on a physical load it’s not used to, we experience a painful soreness, peaking in intensity around 24 to 48 hours after the causal event occurred. DOMS can come from any intense activity we’re not used to – but why doesn’t the pain occur right away? How can we account for that delay, and what does it mean for our athletic performance?


The current thinking is that our nerves, not our muscles, are actually responsible. When we exercise, we create microscopic tears in our muscle fibers. Like with a broken bone, our body does extra repair to the damaged areas, preventing further injury and ultimately increasing muscle strength and volume. In the case of DOMS: the muscle performing the activity gets microscopic damage, but the damage isn’t significant enough to cause pain right away. Individually, microscopic tears in muscle fiber don’t create enough trouble to activate our pain receptors. Instead, it’s the repair process that’s causing the pain.


Our body’s “repair mode” relies on inflammation – itself, a significant cause of discomfort – and the immune system. When our muscles are damaged, they produce a host of signal chemicals and molecules that do activate our neurons, which work to send extra proteins, glycogen, and white blood cells to repair the broken tissue. It’s as if our muscles call for paramedics.


However, the repair process also makes the neurons inside the muscle more sensitive to movement. After all, it’s harder for a muscle to heal if we continue using it. And it’s a slow process. Protein synthesis is one of the more complex biological events, usually taking 24 to 48 hours. In this way, pain becomes the body’s built-in way to restrict our movement during the healing process. After a challenging workout, it’s not that our neurons are sensing more damage to the muscles – it’s that they’re becoming more sensitive to movement after the damage. A plaster cast of psychological origin.


It gets even weirder. If you do an exercise you aren’t used to; you get pretty severe DOMS. But if you do that same exercise 2-3 times a week – even for just a few weeks – the DOMS goes away entirely. You can add significant resistance to the exercise, but the DOMS will never be as bad as it was in the first few weeks. The body just ‘gets used to it,’ even though the same level of damage takes place. 


Take a couple of weeks off, and boom: the DOMS comes back.


This further suggests that DOMS isn’t the direct result of damage, but of a temporary modification to how our nerves experience the world, instigated by our muscles themselves and mediated by the brain.


In my own experience, I’ll be fine after a day or two of sleeping and eating well. But when I return to the exercise, I’ll still have pretty extreme DOMS. At that point, it would seem counterintuitive to work out while sore. But within a few minutes, the soreness dissipates significantly. I know I can’t use DOMS as an excuse not to exercise! Unfortunately for new athletes: more exercise is the only thing that’ll make the pain stop. It’s also the very thing that makes it tough to begin moving again, in the first place. 


Motion is lotion, as my Dad always said. Turns out; there’s more to that than statement than either of us imagined.