The following information comes from H.J. Roberts’ book, Aspartame (NutraSweet*), Is It Safe? By H.J. Roberts, M.D. A more recent book, Excitotoxins, The Taste That Kills, by Russell L. Blaylock, M.D. is also an excellent indictment against this toxic substance. This article illustrates why substances isolated from whole foods or herbs can be dangerous, be they amino acids, vitamins, minerals, sucrose from whole sugarcane, fructose from fruit or aspirin from white willow bark.
The FDA approved NutraSweet on July 15, 1983 despite disapproval by in-house FDA scientists, concerned investigators and consumer groups. On Thursday, July 17, 1986, a consumer group petitioned the FDA to ban NutraSweet because of links to epileptic seizures (San Jose Mercury, July 18, 1986). Their petition cited research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology led by Dr. Richard Wurtman, who reported seizures in consumers of aspartame products. Wurtman believes that NutraSweet lowers the threshold to seizures.
However, an FDA spokesman maintained that aspartame is safe. Says Dr. Gerald Gaull, vice president for nutrition and medical affairs for the NutraSweet Company, “We have no new scientific evidence that in any way suggests that our product is anything but completely safe.” (Aren’t you relieved?)
Aspartame is consumed by over 100 million Americans in over 5000 products. Aspartame can be found in soft drinks, puddings, deserts, gelatins, cereals, hot chocolate, gum, fruit drinks, yogurt, ice cream, teas, and cookies. Aspartame is recommended by doctors, nutritionists, most diet centers and TV ads. Conscientious mothers choose sugar-free foods, thinking it is a healthy choice. Diabetics and dieters alike choose aspartame-sweetened foods and beverages. The per-capita consumption of synthetic sweeteners including NutraSweet and Saccharin increased from 6.2 pounds in 1975 to 16 pounds in 1985. As of 1989, NutraSweet claimed 70% of the synthetic sugar market (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 1989).
The effects of aspartame are not related to the dose. Effects have been observed from as little as a sip of diet soda, a stick of chewing gum or in a nursing child whose mother who drinks a diet soda. Others react after having consumed extraordinary amounts of aspartame, possibly induced by the intense thirst it causes.
Toxicity Mechanisms of Aspartame
The chemical name for NutraSweet is aspartame. Aspartame contains 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid, and 10% methyl alcohol (methanol or wood alcohol). Methanol is the first to be released during digestion. The lowest fatal dose of methanol observed was three teaspoons of a 40% solution. The body attempts to detoxify methanol by converting it to formaldehyde and finally to carbon dioxide. Methanol is poisonous to the brain, optic nerves, and retina. It causes double vision and blindness.
The FDA says that aspartic acid and phenylalanine from aspartame are metabolized just like any protein. Not so says Roberts. There is a profound difference between the rates of digestion, absorption and assimilation of whole-food proteins containing these amino acids AND aspartame. There is no unbalanced flooding of single amino acids into the system when proteins are slowly digested to produce single amino acids. Consuming phenylalanine as dietary protein does not significantly elevate plasma or brain levels of this amino acid. In fact, some amino acids compete with phenylalanine for brain uptake. By contrast, ingesting ONE aspartame drink can double the phenylalanine in the brain.
Neurotransmitters influence brain, nerve and endocrine function. Phenylalanine is the precursor to two neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. Others derived from amino acids include epinephrine, serotonin and acetylcholine. The marked increase of brain phenylalanine following aspartame ingestion can alter brain concentrations of this and other amino acid-derived neurotransmitters. Increased plasma phenylalanine is found in the well-known condition, PKU (phenylketonuria) but it is also associated with other conditions. For example, increased plasma phenylalanine is found in patients with chronic kidney failure, diabetes when the insulin level drops, iron deficiency, obesity, cirrhosis of the liver, malnutrition, infection, leukemia and in women on oral contraceptives. All of these people may be unusually susceptible to aspartame toxicity.
The epileptogenic effects of aspartic acid are discussed in my article on seizures.
Aspartame Toxicity Symptoms
Aspartame toxicity symptoms come from the ingredients forming it: excess phenylalanine, excess aspartic acid and methanol. It is easy to tell if your symptoms are caused by aspartame. Simply avoid using it and see what disappears! Aspartame toxicity symptoms may subside gradually or promptly when the causal agent is withdrawn.
Below are pertinent facts related to some of the more common complaints.
Headaches and seizures: Headaches, including migraines, are the most common complaint, occurring in nearly half of those who react to aspartame. The incidence of headaches in the general public is about 10%. People with hypoglycemia due to a sluggish thyroid or inadequate protein digestion are more vulnerable to aspartame related headaches. Headaches arise in prior sufferers and previously headache-free people alike. It is thought that the effects of phenylalanine and aspartic acid on major neurotransmitters is involved in the headache mechanism.
Dizziness, unsteadiness, tremors, confusion, memory loss, severe drowsiness and/or narcolepsy, numbness of limbs, slurring of speech): These symptoms are often misdiagnosed as neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinsonism and other seizure disorders. This has caused airline pilots and drivers to loose their licenses, and great loss of productive work among aspartame-sensitive employees in many fields. Think how angry you would be if your career were halted by an artificial substance that the FDA says is perfectly safe. This has also caused great animosity towards doctors, who have refused to believe their patients’ complaints about aspartame toxicity, have diagnosed them with psychological problems and have recommended psychiatry or psychotherapy.
Roberts gives many clinical examples. Here is one (page 111): An Air Force pilot was permanently grounded following diagnosis of an idiopathic partial seizure disorder, even though all symptoms ceased when he avoided aspartame drinks and were re-initiated upon resuming them. He said he developed uncontrollable tremors after consuming large amounts of aspartame drinks daily, because of marked sweating and thirst in a hot environment. After four months, he suffered a grand mal convulsion. Many of these sufferers are placed on toxic anti-epileptic drugs for a condition which is reversible simply by avoiding the initiating substance - aspartame.
A word about narcolepsy: Narcolepsy is an embarrassing, uncontrollable sleepiness. It can be induced by the cola break and the aspartame break (name your product!). Think how many diet-conscious people develop this syndrome and think that there is something wrong with them! Do not think that this is dosage-dependent. Narcolepsy was observed in one victim after chewing ONE stick of an aspartame-chewing gum. A postman developed narcolepsy and sleep apnea after consuming aspartame products over a six-month period. He also experienced severe dizziness, marked decrease of vision, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), memory loss, nausea, personality changes, severe thirst and frequent urination at night. All medical tests failed to provide a diagnosis. ALL symptoms disappeared within four weeks of aspartame avoidance except the tendency to narcolepsy. All symptoms returned within three days after resuming aspartame products.
Psychological-psychiatric symptoms: The most common of these are severe depression, severe irritability, anxiety attacks, marked personality changes involving mood swings, aggressive behavior, and insomnia. The following case is from my own experience. I was introduced to an insulin-dependent diabetic woman, who was intelligent, witty, laughed a lot and was an avid art collector. Gradually, I observed changes in her personality. She became increasingly aggressive, violent, irrational, and had violent mood swings as her diabetes went out of control. She became wheel chair ridden and died in an intensive care unit, of heart, kidney and diabetic complications, after having received many drugs over the years. After her death, I was told that she was advised to use aspartame as a sugar substitute. She always had a diet soda in her hand, and would not listen to me when I tried to tell her not to drink it. She said that her doctor told her to do it.
Diabetes: I will use blood sugar problems as a common example but there are many others documented in Roberts’ book.
The symptoms of abnormal (low or high) blood sugar are often exacerbated by aspartame products. For example, hypoglycemia, with all of its symptoms, may be exacerbated by diet sodas, which have zero nutrition and thus are incapable of modulating blood sugar. Diabetics are in special danger because aspartame is highly recommended by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and most physicians who treat diabetics. Roberts is a diabetes specialist and has observed that aspartame can affect patients adversely at all stages of this disease. He has observed: initiation of overt clinical diabetes, loss of diabetes control, more frequent reactions to insulin and oral anti-diabetic drugs, non-compliance with the recommended diabetic diet, and aggravated complications involving the eyes, the kidneys, and the peripheral nerves. For example (page 192), a 46-year old man with insulin-dependent diabetes was in complete diabetic control until he began drinking several aspartame beverages and ingesting up to five table-top packets of aspartame daily. He said, “My diabetes went haywire, and I had terrible insulin reactions.” Within one week of aspartame avoidance, his diabetes was again under control. The ADA continues to endorse these products, as do most doctors, whether they are treating diabetics or dieters, both of whom may suffer blood sugar problems.
Other drug-related inter-actions with aspartame: Roberts has observed drug interactions in aspartame consumers who take Coumadin (a blood thinner), Dilantin (anti-epileptic drug), anti-depressants, Inderal, Aldomet or Lidocaine (Xylocaine), used in dentistry. Think how many diet soda drinkers are given Lidocaine for dental work. Roberts devotes a whole chapter to aspartame-induced complications of these drugs.
Pregnancy: Even though aspartame was approved as a safe chemical for pregnant women and nursing mothers, please be advised! Roberts found severe abnormalities, including congenital deformities among infants whose parents consumed aspartame products at the time of conception, during the pregnancy or both. For example, a young couple who ingested large amounts of aspartame products prior to and during the wife’s first pregnancy delivered a child born with several defects. The child died three days after the birth. In another case, a pregnant mother who drank diet sodas daily during the pregnancy bore a permanently blinded child.
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