By Christine Lydon, MD
Reprinted from OXYGEN MAGAZINE October 2005 issue
I have used aspartame for years. I've also wholeheartedly recommended products containing NutraSweet to my clients, as well as promoting its use in recipes. So, when I was recently contacted by a sports nutrition company to do some consulting work on the health risks associated with aspartame ingestion, was understandably reluctant to accept the assignment. I questioned their marketing director, What if I don't think there are any significant health risks associated with aspartame?" His response was to send me a couple of scientific publications. "Just read the articles. If, in your medical opinion, aspartame poses no health risks, then we won't pursue it further."
The next day I sat down with a pile of literature two inches thick. After making it through the first 10 pages, I stormed into my kitchen and fed every item of food containing aspartame to the garbage. Since that time, I have not had so much as a stick of aspartame sweetened gum.
Scientifically known as 1-aspartyl 1-phenylalanine methyl ester, consumers recognize aspartame in the forms of Equal, NutraSweet and Spoonful. Aspartame has three components: phenylalanine (50 percent), aspartic acid (40 percent) and methanol, also termed wood alcohol (10 percent). Those in support of this popular artificial sweetener, state that the two primary amino acids, which comprise 90 percent of aspartame by weight, are a harmless and natural part of our diet. They insist that aspartic acid is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, which is present in the human central nervous system. This is only a partial truth.
Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are amino acids that are normally supplied by the foods we eat; however, they can only be considered natural and harmless when consumed in combination with other amino acids. On their own, they enter the central nervous system in abnormally high concentrations, causing aberrant neuronal firing and potential cell death. The neurotoxic
effects of these amino acids, when consumed as isolates, can be linked to headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and possibly seizures.
The damage caused by excitotoxin food additives is not usually dramatic. In most instances, the effects are subtle, cumulative and develop over a prolonged period of time.
Excitotoxins have also been shown to stimulate the generation of free radicals (charged oxygen molecules with an unpaired electron). These can have a negative impact on tissues and organs outside the central nervous system. Evidence indicates that free radical production accelerates many degenerative illnesses such as atherosclerosis, cancer, coronary artery disease and arthritis. It comes as no surprise that joint pain is a major complaint among aspartame reactors (individuals who have reported adverse reactions).
Potentially more worrisome is the 10 percent of aspartame that is absorbed into the bloodstream as methanol (wood alcohol). The Environmental Protection Agency defines safe consumption as no more than 7.8 milligrams per day of this dangerous substance. A one-liter beverage, sweetened with aspartame, contains about 56 milligrams of wood alcohol, or eight times the EPA limit!
Aspartame's breakdown products, or metabolites, are even scarier than its components. Phenylalanine decomposes into diketopiperazine (DKP) a known carcinogen, when exposed to warm temperatures or prolonged storage. Even if products are consistently kept at cooler temperatures we are not safe. At cold temperatures, methanol will spontaneously give rise to a colorless toxin known as formaldehyde. Independent studies have shown formaldehyde formation, resulting from aspartame ingestion, to be extremely common. It accumulates within the cells, and reacts with cellular proteins such as enzymes and DNA. This cumulative reaction could spell grave consequences for those who consume aspartame-laden diet drinks and foods on a daily basis.
Are We All at Risk?
The blood-brain barrier is a system of specialized capillary structures that are designed to prevent toxic substances from entering the brain. There are a number of medical conditions from diabetes, hypertension and smoking, to simple aging which can render the blood-brain barrier incompetent. Therefore, aspartame reactions have a tendency to be magnified
among individuals who fit these profiles.
Prior to birth and during the first 12 months of life, the blood-brain barrier is incomplete; thereby allowing dangerous excitotoxins, such as aspartic acid and phenylalanine, free access to the nervous system. Additionally, the concentrating effects of the placenta are able to magnify the levels of phenylalanine in the blood by as much as four-to six-fold in a fetus. Fetal phenylalanine has the potential to reach levels that kill cells in tissue culture. It's not much of a stretch to presume these concentrations harbor the threat of birth defects in the developing infant. Experimentally, it has been determined that infants are four times more sensitive to excitotoxins than adults. During the first year of life, irreversible brain damage can occur through agents contained in breast milk. Despite this, the American Dietetic Association still recommends aspartame for pregnant and nursing women.
Aspartame disease refers to a constellation of symptoms attributed to the use of products containing aspartame. Common occurrences include: headaches, dizziness, and everything from confusion to ringing in the ears and slurred speech. Since its introduction as a food additive in 1981, aspartame has accounted for more than 75 percent of all complaints reported to the FDA's Adverse Reaction Monitoring System. In February 1994, the US Department of Health and Human Services released this extensive list of aspartame-induced reactions which encompassed everything from chronic fatigue syndrome and seizures to infertility and death. By the FDAs own admission, less than one percent of those who experience a reaction to a product ever report it. This expands the 10,000 documented accounts to roughly a million people who have experienced reactions to aspartame. Moreover, most victims don't have any idea that aspartame may be at the root of their problems.
Brain Damage and Seizures
Cerebral disfunction, resulting from aspartame, is believed to occur through flooding the brain with large amounts of phenylalanine, disturbances of your endogenous neurotransmitters, methanol-induced cerebral edema and other additional resulting irregularities Aspartic acid is a neuroexcitatory toxin present in damaging amounts even at the accepted daily intake for aspartame.
Formaldehyde, which is derived from methanol, accumulates in certain areas of the brain which correspond to the neurodegenerative symptoms of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and ALS (Lou Gerig's Disease). These conditions are all associated with free radical injury, a known effect of the excitotoxins phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Although aspartame is probably not a primary cause of neurodegenerative diseases, it may precipitate these disorders and certainly exacerbates their symptoms.
Recent studies have established that aspartame has seizure-promoting activity in animal models. It is believed that the sweetener can increase seizure frequency among epileptics and even initiate seizures in susceptible individuals with no prior history.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there has been a 10 percent increase in the incidence of common primary malignant brain cancer since 1985, and perhaps as early as 1984. This phenomenon occurred one to two years following the licensing of aspartame for beverages in July 1983. It includes a disproportionately high rise in alioblastoma, astrocvtoma and primary lymphoma among young woman known to consume considerable amounts of aspartame. There has also been an increased occurrence of glioma among children whose mothers consumed aspartame throughout their pregnancy. The significance of this escalation is underscored by the high incidence of brain tumors in rats after the experimental administration of aspartame.
The individual components of aspartame, as well as their multiple breakdown products are potentially toxic to the retina and optic nerves. Methanol poisoning is notorious for causing vision impairment leading to blindness. Formaldehyde, its primary metabolite, is also known to cause retinal damage. Aspartame has been linked to visual disturbances which include blindness in one or both eyes, blurred visibility, eye pain and more.
Dr. H.J. Roberts of West Palm Beach, FL has treated hundreds of aspartame reactors. One fourth of his patients experienced decreased vision or blindness; which, in Dr. Roberts opinion, is "the most serious complication." According to Dr. Roberts, optic nerve swelling, retinal degeneration and visual impairment, that is associated with heavy aspartame use, is identical to the pathology observed in recorded cases of methanol toxicity from drinking wood alcohol throughout the days of prohibition.
If you haven't been frightened off aspartame yet, take a lesson from the armed services. In the May 1992 edition of their journal, flying Safety, the United States Air Force warned all pilots to stay off aspartame, stating: some people have suffered aspartame related disorders with doses as small as that carried in a single stick of chewing gum. This could mean a pilot who drinks diet sodas is more susceptible to flicker vertigo, or flicker-induced epileptic activity. It also means that all pilots are potential victims of sudden memory loss, dizziness during instrument flight and gradual loss of vision."
Consumption of significant amounts of aspartame has been known to cause vocal slurring, loss of equilibrium and other neurological sequelae. Methanol toxicity secondary to aspartame has been so frequently misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis, that some experts recommend deferring diagnosis of MS for several months following an abstinence from NutraSweet and related products. In the cases of methanol toxicity, the neurological symptoms resolve once aspartame has been eliminated from the system.
Many diabetics experience difficulties specifically attributed to ingestion of aspartame products. Effects include the loss of diabetic control, intensification of hypoglycemia, the occurrence of presumed insulin reactions (including convulsions) and the precipitation, aggravation or simulation of impaired vision and neuropathy. In most cases, symptoms improve once aspartame products are discontinued. Despite overwhelming evidence that aspartame use can worsen diabetic complications, the American Diabetic Association continues to promote aspartame use for diabetics.
Headaches are the most frequently reported adverse reaction to aspartame products. It is a major complaint in half of all aspartame reactors. Aspartame products must be considered as a causative agent and/or aggravating factor in people with unexplained headaches. Similarly, patients who are subject to migraine and other types of recurrent headaches should avoid exposure to all products containing aspartame.
Dozens of aspartame reactors, with no previous history of hypertension, experience elevated blood pressure after ingesting products containing the sweetener Others with known hypertension are not adequately controlled on their maintenance medication when using even small amounts of aspartame. The elevation in blood pressure presumably reflects the effects of
phenylalanine and its metabolic products, which include norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Unintentionally, the United States government, in conjunction with soda companies, has succeeded in performing a large scale aspartame experiment on humans. During the Persian Gulf War, truckloads of diet soda were sent to the troops. The cans sat for up to eight weeks on pallets in the 120+ degree Arabian sun. Thirsty soldiers drank it up, bottle after bottle. Is it any surprise that Desert Storm Syndrome symptoms are identical to aspartame disease? Thousands of troops returned home complaining of memory loss, vision problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, confusion, dizziness, joint pain, headaches, equilibrium problems and manic depression. The Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Immunologic Disease Society (CFIDS) claim 6000 troops, to date, have perished as a result of the Desert Storm Syndrome.
Dieting Without Aspartame?
In a cruel and ironic twist, aspartame may actually cause weight gain. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, found in aspartame, stimulate the release of insulin. Rapid, strong spikes in insulin remove all glucose from the blood-stream and store it as fat. This can result in hypoglycemia and sugar cravings. Additionally, it has been demonstrated to inhibit carbohydrate induced synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which signals that the body is satiated. Inhibition of serotonin leads to food cravings, increased carbohydrate consumption and, ultimately, weight gain. In a recent study, a control group switching to an aspartame-free diet resulted in an average weight loss of 19 pounds.
The consumption of aspartame has vastly exceeded expectations at the time of the original toxicology testing in the early 1970s, by the Illinois-based and patent owning, Searle & Company. Sold in 1985 to the St Louis-based Monsanto Corporation; today it sells close to one billion dollars annually, through its subsidiary NutraSweet. Many would argue that the current ingestion of aspartame products by over half the adult population in the United States constitutes an imminent public health
hazard. Even so, the industrial-medical complex fails to warn even high-risk groups about potential dangers. You may wonder how this stuff was ever approved by the FDA in the first place.
For over eight years, the FDA refused to approve aspartame because it was known to produce seizures and brain tumors in lab animals. One pivotal study by Searle's researchers, known as the "Waisman Study," initially indicated that ingestion of aspartame caused convulsions and death in primates. However, official conclusions could not be reached because the study was never completed. Searle blamed -limitations in adequately skilled laboratory personnel- for their decision to terminate the study. By Searle's own acknowledgement, his team lacked competent research staff. Two FDA investigative task forces presented scathing reports on the quality of the company's research and in 1976, the FDA's general counsel requested a federal grand jury investigation of the company. For reasons unknown, the investigation was never undertaken.
Initially, even the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) rallied against the use of aspartame. An excerpt of a protest submitted for congressional review in 1983 reads:
"Searle has not characterized the decomposition products of aspartame in soft drinks under temperature conditions to which the beverages are likely to be exposed in the United States. Collectively, the extensive deficiencies in the stability studies conducted by Searle to demonstrate that aspartame and its degradation products are safe in soft drinks intended to be sold in the United States, render those studies inadequate and unreliable."
Soon after President Reagan took office, he appointed Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes as the new FDA commissioner. In 1980, a Public Board of Inquiry asked to review scientific data on aspartame voted three to zero to keep it off the market pending further studies on the brain cancer issue. The board of inquiry was overruled, and in 1981, aspartame was licensed by the FDA for use as a tabletop sweetener. In July 1983 it was approved for use in beverages.
Of approximately 100 independent studies conducted on aspartame, over 90 percent have demonstrated significant health risks. This would lead to the question "why hasn't aspartame been banned?" In 1996, ignoring the fact that aspartame breaks down faster when heated above 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the FDA decided to remove any remaining limitations on its use. Presently, there are thousands of companies using aspartame in diet sodas, powdered drinks, gelatin, tea, coffee, cocoa, juices, frozen desserts and even vitamins and medications. This translates to billions of dollars worldwide. Unfortunately, this is more than enough to provide agency officials with lucrative future employment, politicians with campaign funds, non-profit foundations with endowments, scientists with research grants and the media with advertising dollars.
Presently, FDA officials continue to resist proposals from concerned scientists, physicians and other groups for comprehensive studies regarding the safety of aspartame.