Glutamate Consumption Linked to Chronic Pain

By Marcia-Ruth Ndege ’21

Figure 1. A 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that over 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain.

Chronic pain, defined as pain that lasts more than three months, is triggered by the activation of pain sensors in the body due to sustained firing of electrical signals from nerve cells. There are many known causes of chronic pain including nerve damage, past surgeries, and even headaches. A new pilot study conducted in Meru, Kenya, is looking to add the consumption of glutamate, a neurotransmitter and excitotoxin, to the list. A neurotransmitter is a chemical signal that transfers impulses between nerve cells, while an excitotoxin overstimulates and thereby damages or kills nerve cells. This particular study focused on monosodium glutamate (MSG), a sodium salt that is used to enhance flavor in savory foods but is also naturally found in foods such as tomatoes, cheese, and soy sauce.


Kathleen Holton, assistant professor of health studies at American University, was the lead author of the study, collaborating with professors from the University of Science and Technology in Kenya as well as researchers from the University of Michigan. The study included 30 participants who had experienced chronic pain in at least three different quadrants of the body. Participants were separated into four groups. The first group received a seasoning substitute that contained no MSG. The second group, too, consumed no MSG and was instructed to increase water consumption to eight cups per day. Subjects in the third group consumed MSG daily and were also instructed to increase daily water consumption. Finally, the last group, which acted as the control, was only administered acetaminophen, the common treatment for chronic pain in Meru. Researchers found improvement in the symptoms of the participants who cut monosodium glutamate from their diets while increasing water intake.


This small-scale has shown enough promise to justify a larger epidemiological survey, the results of which could impact millions of lives worldwide.



  1. K. Holton, et. al., Dietary correlates of chronic widespread pain in Meru, Kenya. ScienceDirect (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2018.01.016.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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