Aspartame: How sweet it is!
“And finally”, the young woman before me continued, “I have a dull headache all the time but it gets worse in the afternoon and evenings. Mornings are my best time but by 10:00 AM I can usually count on a miserable day. I wish mornings would last forever!” Although Ms. B. was only 24, she had just recited, as if from the textbook, the symptoms of a rare and often malignant brain tumor. Not the sort of image one typically brings to mind when beholding a woman in the flower of her youth. However, I earn my keep by cultivating a pessimistic attitude. I expect the worst from people. That is, I expect the worst from their symptoms.
Though medical doctors graduate from training still ignorant in many areas of knowledge (for example: clinical nutrition), we don’t escape without having acquired the important attitude of expecting the worst of peoples’ symptoms. Bump your head; we think concussion. Bump your shin; we worry about a fracture. Cough; we rule out pneumonia. Blood in your stool; we think colon cancer. Diarrhea, we think parasites. Blurred vision and headache; we think tumor. Whatever a doctor lacks in bedside manner (or, for that matter, manners in general) he or she can make up for by not missing your rare or serious illness. Diagnosis by probability (“The odds are it’s all in your head…”) is meager consolation for those unfortunate enough to have the “rare” illness. We medical doctors worry about missing the rare diagnosis because we all
suffered through too much of that in the large training hospitals where death was always premature and somehow inappropriate. Relaxed or casual isn’t the thought process you want from your doctor. You want a pessimist.
As Ms. B. continued listing symptoms, each one felt like a nail in her coffin sealing her fate. She continued: “The headaches effect my vision and it feels like my head is in a vise. Sometimes I get nauseated. Sometimes I just have to go back to bed, draw the shades and try to sleep. What’s more, they are becoming more severe and more frequent.” With those ominous last comments, Ms. B. leaned back in her chair and peered at me through a fog of Demerol like a chess master observing an opponent she has just checkmated. My move.
“Did you have an MRI or CAT scan?” I began. “Yes. Both negative.” she replied. “Were they with contrast material?” (to help reveal blood vessel abnormalities), I asked. “I believe so.” she answered. “Did you have a spinal tap or EEG?” I hoped? “Yes. Both were negative” came her curt reply. “Are you on the pill?” I tried, knowing what havoc that can play with one’s endocrine and hormonal system. “No. Never have been.” Her answers were getting shorter either from pain or boredom. I felt like an under equipped magician on stage trying to pull some magic out of a bag while glaring into the spotlight of a patient’s expectant eyes. A lull. I tried to think of how to “tactfully talk tumor”. Fortunately, during that break in the action, Ms. B. reached into her bag. Therefrom she drew, to my delight and relief, a Diet Pepsi. Liquid aspartame, the real sting. “Hmmm.” I mused, feeling more confident. “Might I inquire as to how many of those diet drinks you consume each day?” Ms. B. tossed me a quizzical look before responding: “Five or six, sometimes ten. Why? “Want one? I’ve got a few here.” she said pointing the canister like a weapon towards me. “No thank you.” I smiled feeling no longer checkmated, “You see, diet sodas frequently cause headaches.”
These are over 70 excitatory amino acids that function as neurotransmitters. These substances are found naturally in the nervous system and, in the right balance serve to activate brain systems in order to facilitate memory, sensory perception, orientation in time and space, cognition and motor skills. However, only May West said that too much of a good things was great and indeed, if you are a typical American you are getting way too much of two particular excitotoxins called aspartame and glutamate. These chemicals, because of their prevalence in our diet and in our nervous tissue, wreak havoc.
Where do you get exposure to excess excitotoxins? Primarily from
artificial sweeteners (Nutrasweet, Equal, saccharine etc.) and from flavor enhancers including monosodium glutamine (MSG) which contains glutamate. The problem is that these substances, in excess, can kill brain neurons (nerve cells in the central nervous system) by overstimulating them. When exposed to excess excitotoxins, brain cells get excited, increase their “firing” response in order to respond to the chemical “threat” and eventually become excited to death. (This occurs by the excitotoxin allowing too much calcium to enter cells).
Recent research suggests that excitotoxins may be involved in a number of degenerative neurological diseases including: Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Chorea, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease. However, despite this research, MSG cocktails are routinely given to cardiac patients, “failure to thrive” infants and learning disabled patients at our nations’s top hospitals. Yet some scientists are concerned that early exposure to excitotoxins can lead to developmental brain defects, resulting in autism, learning disorders, hyperactive behavior and neurological problems such as seizures, headaches and migraines.
If excitotoxins are so problematic, why are over 50% of Americans using them on a daily basis? To understand why, we need to appreciate the economics and marketing. Aspartame was originally tested as a peptic ulcer drug but it proved too toxic causing its common side-effects of headaches and seizure. Apparently, the FDA would not allowed testing to proceed. However a marketer noted that aspartame is very sweet and since the food quality laws are more lax than those for drugs, this toxin was sold as a sweetener. Today, 50% of all Americans consume aspartame on a daily basis! Between 1990 and 1994, the FDA received over 4000 spontaneous letters from concerned citizens sharing that they had traced their headaches to MSG or Aspartame. They thought the FDA would be interested. Nothing has been done…
One tenant of freedom is that people deserve to be informed of pertinent matters as regards their health. Informed Consent, the doctrine which guides healthy doctor/patient as well as government/citizen relationships is based on the premise that the patient (or citizen) is smart enough to decide on matters of health for his or her self. As a medical doctor, my role isn’t to tell a patient to stop eating junk food, but rather to educate the patient about the probable consequences of that diet. So too with aspartame (Equal, saccharine, etc); I don’t tell them not to take artificial sweeteners, rather, in a Socratic method, I take out a pink packet of Equal upon which is written in red (ie almost illegible ) ink the following warning: Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Even reading labels can cause headaches I guess. That, and bruised faith in your fellow man(ufacturers).
Ms. B. is now headache-free for the first time in years having sworn off diet sweetners. It wasn’t a hard sell. I just asked her how many thin people she saw drinking lots of diet sodas…
To your health!