A few weeks ago someone asked me if one could get ill by drinking diet cola. I did not know but agreed to find out.
I had heard of several alcoholics and addicts who had been drinking large amounts of diet cola and had suffered side effects.
My friend is an alcoholic with 15 years sobriety. He said he had been drinking between 6 and 8 cans of diet cola daily for several months. He had been suffering for sometime several symptoms similar to when he was drinking. All his symptoms disappeared when he stopped drinking diet cola sweetened with aspartame.
His symptoms were;
- Mood changes,
- Cloudy thinking,
- Muscle aches and pains
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Upset stomach
- Abdominal pain (left side)
- Poor skin tone
- Psoriasis (red scaly skin patches)
- Skin rash
- Frequent urination
- He had been told his liver and kidneys were not working effectively
- He often felt compelled to have the first diet cola after breakfast, and
- He often craved for the next diet cola
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in diet cola and other soft drinks, chewing gums, pudding mixes, breakfast cereals, table top sweeteners, solid dry formulations. Aspartame replaces sugar and other sweeteners in most foods and is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
There’s a lot of anecdotal / experiential claims about aspartame on the Internet, but very little scientific backed data. As I understand that a very large amount of anecdotal experiences can indicate a real problem I decided to find any scientific papers which dealt with this matter.
Digestion of Aspartame
During digestion, aspartame releases methanol (10% of aspartame) and two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, into the body. These are biologically active chemicals which are known to disturb many metabolic processes, both directly and indirectly.
What are the Safety Issues?
The safety issues that have been raised in the past about aspartame have included:
- the possibility of toxicity from methanol, one of the breakdown products of aspartame;
- elevated concentrations of phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which could result in altering the brain’s chemical composition.
What is Methanol? (See Wikipedia)
Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, carbinol, wood alcohol, wood naphtha or wood spirits, is a chemical compound. It is the simplest alcohol, and is a light, volatile, colourless, flammable, poisonous liquid. It is used as an antifreeze, solvent, fuel, and as a denaturant for ethyl alcohol.
Methanol is toxic by two mechanisms.
- Firstly, methanol (whether it enters the body by drinking, inhalation, or absorption through the skin) can be fatal due to its depressant properties in the same manner as ethanol poisoning (drinking alcohol).
- Secondly, it is toxic by its breakdown (toxication) by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in the liver by forming formic acid and formaldehyde which cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve.
The initial symptoms of methanol intoxication are;
- central nervous system depression,
- lack of coordination,
- drowsiness, and with sufficiently large doses,
- unconsciousness and death.
The initial symptoms of methanol exposure are usually less severe than the symptoms resulting from the ingestion of a similar quantity of ordinary alcohol.
Ethanol is sometimes made undrinkable, by the addition of methanol. The result is known as methylated spirit or “meths” (UK use) or “metho” (Australian use).
What are phenylalanine and aspartic acid?
Aspartic acid – 40% of aspartame.
Too much of this amino acid can raise the blood plasma levels of aspartate, which in turn can then enter the brain and slowly destroy brain cells (neurons). Up to 75% of these neurons can be damaged before any clinical symptoms are noticed. In certain individuals the risk is greater due to areas of the brain not being fully protected by natural barriers (for example during childhood or minor brain damage by other acute conditions such as alcoholism / addiction).
Phenylalanine – 50% of aspartame
This is an amino acid normally found in the brain. People with a certain genetic disorder (PKU) cannot breakdown this amino acid and high levels in the brain are lethal.
A Specific Disorder – Phenylketonuria (PKU)
People born with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria or PKU cannot break down (metabolize) the amino acid phenylalanine. This amino acid occurs naturally and is found in aspartame. PKU is usually detected in babies by a routine blood test at birth. People with the disorder are placed on a phenylalanine-restricted diet and must avoid aspartame.
What are Other Effects of Aspartame?
One concerned scientist lists 22 chronic neurodegenerative diseases which could be exacerbated by aspartame.
Lipton S.A. and Rosenburg PA., Excitatory Amino Acids as a Final Common Pathway for Neurological Disorders, NEJM, 1994, 330, 613-20
Aspartame and Headaches
Thisexperiment provides evidence that, among individuals with self-reportedheadaches after ingestion of aspartame, a subset of this groupreport more headaches when tested under controlled conditions.It appears that some people are particularly susceptible toheadaches caused by aspartame and may need to limit their consumption.
Aspartame ingestion and headaches; A randomized crossover trial. NEUROLOGY 1994;44:1787; American Academy of Neurology. S. K. Van Den Eeden, PhD, T. D. Koepsell, MD, MPH, W. T. Longstreth, Jr., MD, MPH, G. van Belle, PhD, J. R. Daling, PhD and B. McKnight, PhD
Chewing Gum Headaches
Aspartame, a popular dietetic sweetener, may provoke headache in some susceptible individuals. Herein, we describe three cases of young women with migraine who reported their headaches could be provoked by chewing sugarless gum containing aspartame.
Chewing Gum Headaches. Dr Harvey J Blumenthal MD, Dwight A Vance RPh (1997) Chewing Gum Headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 37 (10) , 665–666.
Who is it Dangerous for?
Vulnerable groups of people include the elderly and any one whose health is already compromised such as alcoholics / addicts.
At particular risk are children, whose smaller body size results in proportionately greater exposure to the sweetener and whose developing tissues are uniquely susceptible to damage.
Aspartame has been added to the growing list of additives which act in concert to promote attention deficiency and hyperactivity (ADHD).
ASPARTAME CONCERNS; An overview for health professionals. Joanna Clarke, BSc. AIBMS MIBiol. CBiol. Additives Survivors’ Network, Glasgow, Scotland. May, 2000
In an American study of 78,000 middle-aged women, the rate of weight gain in aspartame users was paradoxically significantly greater than in any other group.
Blundell J.E. and Hill A.J. and Rogers P.J., Effects of Aspartame on Appetite and Food Intake, in ‘Dietary Phenylalanine and Brian Function’, Ed. R. J. Wurtman and E. Ritter-Walker, 1988, Birkhauser.
Aspartame and cancer
The results of this mega-experiment indicate that aspartame is a multipotential cancer causing agent, even at a daily dose much less than the current acceptable daily intake.
First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats. Morando Soffritti, Fiorella Belpoggi, Davide Degli Esposti, Luca Lambertini, Eva Tibaldi, and Anna Rigano. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Institutes of Health U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Nov 2005.
The range of reported adverse effects is enormous. The American Food and Drug Administration alone had a list of 92 in 1995.
These following list of complaints were reported by the USA, Food and Drug Administration and the combined averages for research conducted in the USA (1987) and confirmed by a survey in Britain in 2000.
The percentage of total complaints about Aspartame were;
- Headache, migraine, Dizziness 25%
- Mood changes, memory loss 14%
- Nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal pain 9%
- Vision disturbance 2.5%
- Fatigue, weakness, Fibromyalgia 3.5%
- Seizures 2.5%
- Sleep disturbance 2.4%
- Rash, hives 7%
- Numbness, tingling, Palpitations 1.8%
- Other 30%
Which products were associated with the complaints?
- Cold soft drinks 56.7%
- Table top sweetener /tablets 22.5%
- Desserts 7.0%
- Hot drinks 5.1%
- Chewing gum 2.7%
- Chewable multivitamins 0.1%
ASPARTAME CONCERNS; An overview for health professionals. Joanna Clarke, BSc. AIBMS MIBiol. CBiol. Additives Survivors’ Network, Glasgow, Scotland. May, 2000.
Occasional Use or Chronic Use
The Food Standards Agency in Britain has said that; ‘a normal adult would have to consume 14 cans of a sugar free drink every day before reaching the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and assuming that the sweetener was used at the maximum permitted level, before there would be an appreciable health risk’.
It can take several weeks of regular aspartame consumption before the symptoms of toxicity become severe.
Most people suffer no ill effects
The results of this study suggest that following a single 15 mg/kg dose of aspartame, no detectable effects are observed in a group of healthy volunteers with no history of aspartame intolerance, despite significant increases in plasma phenylalanine concentrations.
The neuropsychiatric effects of aspartame in normal volunteers; Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1990 May;30(5):454-60.; KA Lapierre, DJ Greenblatt, JE Goddard, JS Harmatz, and RI Shader.
Wikipedia has a simple discussion on the controversy surrounding aspartame.
There seems to be a small proportion of people who are sensitive and have side effects from drinking diet colas and eating foods with the sweetener aspartame.
Two groups of people who may be sensitive to aspartame, and ethanol in particular, are alcoholics and drug addicts. Indeed anyone who has abused any drug or medication. For these people will have damaged their bodies and especially the liver and kidneys.
Some alcoholics / addicts may also have PKU or an inherited sensitivity to phenylalanine.
The absolute cure is abstinence from all artificial sweeteners. Now this may be hard as most prepared foods contain some artificial sweeteners. You will need to find your own safe level.
When you stop using aspartame you may experience some acute withdrawal symptoms. Most who are reading this will be no stranger to the withdrawal process. However, please consult a doctor first. If possible the same doctor or treatment centre you consulted when you came off alcohol or drugs. Copy this page and take it with you.
Has any alcoholic / addict out there had any adverse experience with aspartame?