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     Aspartame in the Brain


    A Bitter Sweetener

    From Complementary Health


    Aspartame, known to the public as NutraSweet, Equal, and Spoonful, has been the subject of controversy since it first became an ingredient in food products in 1981.  In 1985, Americans used 800 million pounds of Aspartame, with an average intake of 5.8 pounds per person.  They consumed more than 20 billion cans of aspartame-sweetened soft drinks in 1985 alone.

    A study of available literature on the subject reveals that over the years more and more indications have arisen that suggest that the public is at great risk through its repeated use.  Serious consideration should be given to discontinuing the ingestion of aspartame until the safety or lack thereof is firmly established.

    For this article, the Complementary Medicine Association interviewed authorities George Schwartz, M.D. and Mary Nash Stoddard.  Dr. Schwartz is a trauma surgeon and the author of In Bad Taste: the MSG Syndrome.  Ms. Stoddard, editor of The Deadly Deception, founded the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network and the worldwide Pilot's Hotline for reporting adverse reactions to aspartame.  We will also refer to a comprehensive text entitled Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills by Russell L. Blaylock, MD.  We are grateful to these individuals for their support.

    What does aspartame do?

    First, aspartame releases aspartate during digestion.  Aspartate is a neurotransmitter used by the neurons in the brain.  It is a type of excitatory amino acid.  Excitatory amino acids are normal and necessary brain chemicals, and as such, they are allowed to cross the blood-brain barrier.  Aspartate, the principal chemical component of aspartame, is a neurotransmitter and a type of excitatory amino acid.  It is a natural and necessary body chemical.  Neurotransmitters cross the blood-brain barrier.

    The blood-brain barrier is designed to protect the brain from the invasion of harmful chemicals.  When normal neurotransmitters such as aspartate and glutamate cross this barrier in excess, they will cause poisoning and lead to the death of the nerve cells within the brain and spinal cord.  The blood-brain barrier cannot discern the amount that is needed from too much.  So these neurotransmitters can build up undetected until a toxic level is reached.  This accumulation seems to be particularly insidious in its effect on the developing brains and nervous systems of children.

    "The nervous system is designed to control the concentration of excitatory amino acids in the fluid surrounding the neurons, the extracellular space.  The main ones concerning us are glutamate and aspartate.  The nervous system does this by pumping the excess back into glial cells which surround the neurons and supply them with energy.  While this pumping system is very efficient, it uses enormous amounts of ATP, a high-energy compound that all cells in the body use for energy.

    "If energy production is reduced in the brain, the protective pumps begin to fail and glutamate begins to accumulate in the space around the neuron, including the area of the synapse.  If the energy is not restored the neurons will burn up;  they are literally excited to death."1

    What are the risks to children who consume excess aspartame?

    The protective enzymes in a baby's brain are still immature, and therefore are unable to effectively detoxify the excitotoxins that enter its brain.  This would mean that in the case of a pregnant woman eating meals high in excitotoxin taste enhancers, the baby could be exposed to these high glutamate levels for many hours.  It is not unreasonable to assume that mothers will eat several meals and snacks containing various forms of excitotoxins such as MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and aspartame.  This could produce a high concentration of glutamate exposure in the baby's brain several times a day.  Also significant is the fact that the immature brain is four times more sensitive to the damaging effects of excitotoxins than the adult brain.  Thus, following a dose of MSG, the baby's blood level of glutamate may remain high for many hours.  Since no experimental work can be done on pregnant women or children, we must look to animal research studies for some clues.

    "In a study with mice and rats Toth and Lajtha found that, when giving aspartame and glutamate either as single amino acids or as liquid diets over a prolonged time (several hours to days), they could significantly elevate brain levels of these supposedly excluded excitotoxins. Brain tissue levels of aspartic acid rose as high as 61% and glutamate levels rose 35% in brain tissue over prolonged feeding... Humans are exposed to high concentrations of excitatory food additives throughout the day by consuming a variety of processed foods and diet drinks."2

    Plasticity of the brain is important in the learning process.  Even when the baby is in the womb, the brain of the infant is being stimulated by sounds, touch, and even light, causing changes in the brain's structure in important ways.  Babies move and play with their toes, suck their thumbs, and react to noises and music after only six weeks in the womb.  All of this stimulation causes the pathways in the brain to change and develop.

    At birth the baby's brain chemistry functions homogeneously -- the biochemical reactions occur evenly throughout the brain.  But soon after birth, the brain undergoes a rapid acceleration in growth and function.  During this period the level of glutamine, the precursor of glutamate, rises very rapidly in some of the areas of the brain.  Glutamate helps to regulate the development of the wiring of nerves in the new brain.  As the child grows, even beyond teen years, these developing connections grow as well.

    This process of molding the brain continues throughout life, but the majority of growth takes place within 0-7 years of life.  During these critical years, if unborn and young children are fed drinks or food containing aspartame, over-stimulation can occur.

    It is important to appreciate that many of the toxic effects of excitatory amino acids occur at a time when no outward symptoms develop.  The child does not become sick or throw up, or have any behavior that would alert the parents that something is wrong.3

    How was aspartame approved?

    Dr. Schwartz was asked to elaborate on a statement attributed to former Senator Metzenbaum, now of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, DC who said, "The approval process of aspartame has had a questionable history."

    Dr. Schwartz:  "When aspartame was first introduced for approval by the FDA, it was considered to be a sweetener, not an additive or a drug, and with a great deal of lobbying, the discussions were propelled through the approval proceedings, and the numerous case reports from individuals with adverse reactions were ignored."

    From Dr. Blaylock's book we learn that, "In 1975 the drug enforcement division of the Bureau of Foods investigated the G. D. Searle company as part of an investigation of "apparent irregularities in data collection and reporting practices."  The director of the FDA at that time stated that they found "sloppy" laboratory techniques and "clerical errors, mixed-up animals, animals not getting the drugs they were supposed to get, pathological specimens lost because of improper handling, and a variety of other errors, (which) even if innocent, all conspire to obscure positive findings and produce falsely negative results."

    "The drug enforcement division carried out a study under the care of agent Jerome Bressler concerning Searle's laboratory practices and data manipulation.  This important report was buried in a file cabinet, never to be acted on by the FDA.

    "Although aspartame-produced tumors in rats do not equal tumors in humans, after aspartame consumption began, there have been more brain tumors.  In the years 1973 to 1990, the number of brain tumors in people over sixty five has increased by 67 percent (National Cancer Institute SEER Program Data)."4

    Is it proven that people drinking, or eating artificial sweeteners don't lose weight?

    Mary Stoddard says, "It's well documented that excitotoxins like aspartame have the reverse affect on weight.  People drinking diet drinks and eating diet food will get more hungry.  The FDA no longer allows manufacturers of diet supplement drinks and foods containing aspartame to label them as weight reduction products, but requires that they be labeled as diet drink or diet food.  A study of 80,000 women who use sweeteners were evaluated through the Centers for Disease Control.  It was found that they gained rather than lost weight using artificial sweeteners."

    Why do pilots need to avoid aspartame?

    Mary Stoddard explains, "In a letter to the editor and in one article published in the United States Air Force AirMen's News, it was noted that aspartame ingestion causes elevated spiking on the EEG, resulting in grand mal seizures and blackout episodes in the cockpit.  Dozens have lost their jobs due to aspartame-related medical problems."

    How does aspartame affect vision?

    Dr. Schwartz states, "Diet drinks with aspartame release small amounts of methanol when the aspartame is broken down through digestion in the small intestine.  It is well documented that methanol interrupts the retina and optic nerve transmissions and causes visual problems.  Even though the FDA has thousands of cases of visual disturbances on record from individuals drinking too many diet drinks with aspartame, there have been no formal, unbiased, scientific studies done.  Vision studies need to be done."

    Is there a known connection between increasing consumption of diet drinks and headaches?

    In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Donald R. Johns reported what appeared to be a connection between a case of migraine and the consumption of large amounts of a beverage containing NutraSweet™. A thirty-one-year-old woman with a known history of well-controlled migraine headaches began drinking six to eight 12-ounce cans of diet cola sweetened with NutraSweet, 15 tablets of aspartame, and other foods containing aspartame (approximately 100 to 1500 mg) daily.  About two hours after ingesting the drinks, she noticed stomach upset and a throbbing headache.  When taken off aspartame, she noticed steady improvement and eventually the headaches disappeared altogether.

    In the May 1988 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, two letters appeared from the following physicians regarding headaches and aspartame.  In the first, Dr. Richard B. Lipton and coworkers at the Montefiore Headache Unit reported that, in their studies using 171 patients, 8.2 percent of the patients who had headaches were sensitive to aspartame.  They found that stress and tension also trigger migraines and other headaches.  Dr. Lipton concluded that "sufferers of migraines or other vascular headaches should be warned to avoid NutraSweet."  If you are a person who suffers headaches from low blood sugar levels, you also should avoid excitotoxins, including aspartame, because they aggravate hypoglycemia."5

    A group of headache sufferers who have identified aspartame as the trigger setting off their headaches where given 30 mg/kg/day to study their aspartame sensitivity under double-blind controlled conditions.  Of a total of 32 subjects, randomized to receive aspartame and a placebo in a two-treatment, four-period crossover design, "18 completed the full protocol, and 7 completed part of the protocol before withdrawing due to adverse effects.  Three withdrew for other reasons.  Two were lost to follow-up;  one was withdrawn due to noncompliance, and one withdrew and gave no reason.  Each experimental period lasted 7 days.  Individuals receiving aspartame reported having headaches on 33 percent of the days as compared with 24 percent for the placebo treatment group (p = 0.04)."6

    Individual subjective evaluation of aspartame versus placebo was shown to be statistically significant.  It appears that some people are particularly susceptible to headaches caused by aspartame and may want to limit their consumption."6

    Is there an aspartame connection to other health conditions?

    In treating stroke victims, researcher Roger Simon has shown that energy-starved neurons are infinitely more vulnerable to excitotoxin damage.  There are a growing number of conditions affecting the nervous system that are related to accumulations of excitotoxins.  Excess excitotoxins can have a devastating effect on the nervous system.

    Dr. Blaylock states that a primary concern is the possible effect of these powerful brain cell stimulants on the adult's brain, especially related to the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's dementia, Huntington's disease and ALS.  The brain uses excitatory amino acids as normal neurotransmitters, but there exists a delicate balance of excitatory and inhibitory chemicals in the brain.  When this balance is upset, serious disorders of the nervous system can result.7

    "Those who suffer mood disorders seem to be very vulnerable to the effects of aspartame.  A study required that 40 patients with unipolar depression and a similar number of individuals with a psychiatric history receive 39 mg/kg/day or placebo for 7 days.  The project was halted by the Institutional Review Board of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine after 13 of 40 individuals with a history of depression experienced severe reactions.  There was a significant difference between patients taking aspartame and those taking the placebo in the number and severity of symptoms that these patients with depression reported.  Individuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to aspartame, and its use should be discouraged."

    Three cases are reported from patients who had episodic movement disorders triggered by foods or other components of their diets.  One of those cases told of rhythmic contractions of the arms and legs that were triggered by aspartame.

    Can seizures be triggered by aspartame?

    In 1985, Dr. Richard Wurtman reported several cases of seizures brought on by drinking too many diet drinks.  The first case involved a woman with no previous seizure activity who developed seizures after drinking seven liters of NutraSweet-containing beverages per day.

    In the second case, a woman 27 years old had a grand mal seizure after drinking 4 to 5 glasses of Crystal Light™ containing NutraSweet.  This patient experienced twitching, trembling, jerking, and hyperventilation.

    The last case was a 36-year-old male professor who drank one liter of ice tea sweetened with NutraSweet every day and developed grand mal seizures after several days.  He had no previous history of seizures nor of aspartame consumption."10

    Who else should avoid aspartame?

    "Diabetics, people with hypoglycemia, people prone to confusion or memory loss, pregnant women, the elderly, infants, children, patients with epilepsy, liver, kidney disease, and eating disorders, the relatives of those individuals who are sensitive to aspartame, diabetics, and patients with phenylketonuria (PKU)."11

    During digestion, aspartame is broken down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.  Those with PKU must restrict their intake of phenylalanine.

    Where do we go from here?

    Considering what is now known about brain chemistry, as well as the now numerous documented reports of adverse reactions to aspartame, it would be prudent to eliminate aspartame from the diet.

    Reading labels on food items is important but not sufficient.  Labeling regulations make it possible to conceal from the public information needed to make good decisions about diet.  For example, there are some circumstances in which a substance like aspartame or glutamate does not have to be shown on the label.  Often it is included under another term like "enhanced flavors or spices."  The public needs to be aware of these problems and demand more information.


    1. Russell L Blaylock.  Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.  Health Press, Santa Fe, NM, 1995, p. 39.
    2. Ibid, p. 74-75, 78.
    3. Ibid, p. 64, 71-72.
    4. Ibid, p. 213.
    5. Ibid. p. 198-199.
    6. S.K. Van den Eeden, et al.  Aspartame Ingestion and Headaches:  A Randomized Crossover Trial Abstracted from Neurology, 44 (10), Oct. 1994, pp. 1787-93.
    7. Blaylock, p. 215.
    8. Reported by R.G. Walton et al. in "Adverse Reactions to Aspartame: Double-blind challenge in Patients from a Vulnerable Population," Biological Psychiatry, 34 (1-2) , July 1-15, 1993.
    9. International Journal of Neuroscience. 76 (1-2): 61-9, May 1994.
    10. Possible Effects on Seizure Susceptibility." Lancet, Nov 9, 1984, p. 1060.
    11. H.J. Roberts, MD.  Aspartame (NutraSweet): Is it Safe? Philadelphia: Charles Press, 1989.


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