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Aspartame and brain health: not-so-sweet side effects

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Aspartame is a widely used artificial sweetener that has been associated with various health concerns, including seizures,[1] insomnia and migraines in children, adolescent and adults.[2] [3] Indeed studies suggest that aspartame can actually be a common trigger for migraines, especially when consumption is prolonged. 

Aspartame is composed of phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. Phenylalanine is an important regulator of neurotransmission, whereas aspartic acid actually acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.[4] When ingested and then digested, aspartame is broken down in the gut wall into these aforementioned constituents.[5] [6] Methanol, which constitutes 10% of aspartame and can also be produced by conversion from aspartic acid, is oxidized in the body to form formic acid, formaldehyde[5] and numerous other carcinogenic and toxic derivatives.[3] Formaldehyde, a carcinogen,[7]  is known to bind with nucleic acids and proteins, forming adducts that are difficult to remove via normal metabolic pathways and thus can accumulate within the body.[8]

The consumption of aspartame has been linked to various neurological and behavioural reactions.[9] One study showed, shockingly, that healthy adults who were given just half of the the maximum acceptable daily intake level of 40-50 mg/kg body weight/day for just 8 days had a more irritable mood, exhibited more signs of depression and performed worse on orientation tests than those given a low aspartame diet.[9] Although some studies have found that aspartame did not cause more headaches than placebo, other evidence strongly suggests that it may be a trigger in people who consume moderate to high amounts (900 to 3000 mg/day) over a prolonged period of time.[3] Aspartame’s headache-causing properties are potentially a result of regional increases in neurotransmitters in the brain, including norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine.[11] It has also been shown that aspartame disrupts protein structure and metabolism, amino acid metabolism, the integrity of nucleic acids, nervous system function and hormone balances.[12] Aspartame breakdown products such as phenylalanine, aspartic acid and phenylalanine methyl ester cause neurons to fire excessively, which can indirectly cause a high rate of brain cell activity.[13]

The link between aspartame ingestion and headaches, on top of all the other toxic side effects of aspartame, mean that its consumption should be avoided, particularly by those susceptible to headaches and migraines. This is especially important, as adverse effects have been seen in doses as low as half the currently recognised “safe” limit. Perhaps, therefore, it is not just our consumption that needs to change, but also the regulations that claim to be protecting us.

 

 

[1] Maher, TJ, Wurtman, RJ. (1987) Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive. Environ Health Perspect. 75. 53-7.

[2] Millichap, JG, Yee, MM. (2003) The diet factor in pediatric and adolescent migraine. Pediatr Neurol. 28(1). 9-15.

[3] Sun-Edelstein, C, Mauksop, A. (2009) Foods and supplements in the management of migraine headaches. Clin J Pain. 25(5). 446-52.

[4] Humphries, P, Pretorius, E, Naudé, H. (2008) Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. Eur J Clin Nutr. 62(4). 451-62.

[5] Jacob, SE, Stechschulte, S. (2008) Formaldehyde, aspartame, and migraines: a possible connection. Dermatitis. 19(3). E10-1.

[6] Oppermann, JA, Muldoon, E, Ranney, RE. (1973) Metabolism of aspartame in monkeys. Nutrition. 103. 1454-9.

[7] Swenburg, JA, Moeller, BC, Lu, K, Rager, JE, Fry, R, Starr, TB. (2013) Formaldehyde Carcinogenicity Research: 30 Years and Counting for Mode of Action, Epidemiology, and Cancer Risk Assessment. Toxicol Pathol. 41(2). 181-9.

[8] Trocho, C, Pardo, R, Rafecas, I, Virgili, J, Remesar, X, Fernández-López, JA, Alemany, M. (1998) Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo. Life Sci. 63(5). 337-49.

[9] Lindseth, GN, Coolahan, SE, Petros,TV, Lindseth, PD. (2014) Neurobehavioural effects of aspartame consumption. Res Nurs Health. 37(3). 185-93.

[10] Maher, TJ, Wurtman, RJ. (1987) Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive. Environ Health Perspect. 75. 53-7.

[11] Fernstrom, JD. (1988) Effects of Aspartame Ingestion on Large Neutral Amino Acids and Monoamine Neurotransmitters in the Central Nervous System In Effects of Aspartame Ingestion on Large Neutral Amino Acids and Monoamine Neurotransmitters in the Central Nervous System. Springer, US.

[12] Filer, LJ, Stegink, LD. (1988) Effects of Aspartame on Plasma Phenylalanine Concentration in Humans In Effects of Aspartame Ingestion on Large Neutral Amino Acids and Monoamine Neurotransmitters in the Central Nervous System. Springer, US.

[13] Fountain, SB, Hennes, SK, Teyler, TJ. (1988) Aspartame exposure and in vitro hippocampal slice excitability and plasticity. Fundament Appl Toxicol. 11(2). 221-8.
 

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