I recently had a conversation with a local physical therapist and he shared a story about a patient of his with multiple spinal tumors that he would also describe simply as “unhealthy.” After a few visits, he asked the patient about what he ate and drank during the day. What the patient responded was shocking. He drinks 38 diet sodas/day and…..….does not matter what else he said after that. My colleague went to look up aspartame toxicity on the web and found that yes it is a real thing.
The ICD 9 code is 995.3 and in October 2015 it becomes ICD 10 T78.40XA. These codes are for a diagnosis described as “Allergy, unspecified” or “adverse reaction to substance.” (www.ICD10Data.com) So I took the next step and went to PubMed.
What I found was fascinating and astounding.
Let me define a few terms 1 so we can get the full grasp on some of the effects of aspartame:
apoptosis: The process by which a cell leaves the cell cycle and dies; programmed cell death.
glutathione peroxidase: A group of protein enzymes that have reduction-oxidation (redox) functions in the body. (This is an antioxidant, see below definition)
oxidation: The loss of one or more electrons. (This is associated with aging.)
antioxidant: A compound that readily gives up electrons to other substances. (This is essentially anti-aging)
mitochondria: Cellular organelles involved in generating energy.
leukocyte: Also called a white blood cell. It is a cell of the immune system involved in protecting the body from infectious disease.
free radical: A reactive molecule with one or more unpaired electrons. Free radicals are destructive to biological membranes, DNA and proteins.
thrombin: The enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of fibrinogen to fibrin. (This is important in forming a blood clot)
Let’s start small and work our way into the body systems.
First, artificial sweetener (aspartame), has dose dependent physiological effects on cellular apoptosis. The induction of apoptosis is mainly via mitochondria. 2 Although, apoptosis is a natural occurrence, I do not recommend increasing the rate of apoptosis, especially since it disrupts the mitochondria. I like energy and so do my cells. Obviously, this effect would be systemic; it would not be isolated to any specific location or cell.
Next, lets look at the circulatory system, and the effects of aspartame on a cellular level. A study by Kim et al in 2015 evaluated the effect of high dose treatment of aspartame on the human high-density lipoprotein (HDL). They found that the presence of aspartame impaired the beneficial functions of HDL, resulting in the loss of antioxidant activity. In pregnant zebrafish, the presence of aspartame exacerbated inflammatory death. 3
Interestingly, I did come across two studies showing a potential benefit of aspartame consumption related to the circulatory system. As a cautionary note, this is only for a very small subset of the patient population, not the general population. One (2004) was a cellular study on the clotting activity relative to aspartame. Inn this study, the researchers documented the inhibition of thrombin. 4 Thrombin helps produce blood clots, normally a vital function of the liver. The other animal study (2007) with rabbits as subjects, reported that aspartame in helped reduce platelet and fibrin ultrastructure, which results in an anti-clotting effect. The dosage was 34 mg/kg of aspartame only for a 2-month period. 5 I tried to search for more positive benefits of aspartame in certain patient populations in PubMed, but came up empty handed. It would seem that maybe there is a place for aspartame for a small patient population, but read on for more adverse effects.
As we move on, we find effects of aspartame on the liver. The liver is considered part of the gastrointestinal and endocrine system. My husband’s medical school professor once said, “ I love you with all my liver.” In his opinion, the liver is the most critical organ to life. I agree. The liver, along with the pancreas and intestines, work together to digest, absorbs and process food or anything coming into the body. Liver produces bile, which digests fats so that they can be absorbed in the small intestines. It’s main job though, is to filter blood from the digestive tract before it is sent to the rest of the body. It is the great detoxifier of all chemicals and drugs. It also produces proteins that are important for blood clotting. This would help explain the anti-clotting effects of aspartame as described above. For the general population, anti-clotting is not a positive response.
One rat study demonstrated that aspartame significantly reduced liver antioxidant status through the glutathione system. The liver was also infiltrated with leukocytes. 6 Another rat study demonstrated aspartame resulted in liver toxicity, lowered liver antioxidant values and down regulated the tumor suppressor gene in the liver, especially with long-term exposure. 7 That puts the liver at risk for liver cancer.
The reproductive system is also affected by aspartame exposure. Rats at three different stages of pregnancy were given aspartame. In all three stages, the mothers and their offspring had decreased body weight, high histological lesions, increased chromosomal abnormality and DNA fragmentation compared to control groups. 8 In case you thought you were safe because you are outside of the reproductive age group, think again.
The amount of research on the neurological system and aspartame is probably the most exhaustive if not convincing to quit the diet soda habit. The FDA has approved the Daily Acceptable Intake (ADI) at 40 mg/kg by weight. A study on a specific strain of rats that mimic the same human metabolism of aspartame, evaluated the safety of this FDA recommended value. They found significant decreases in glutathione peroxidase resulting in the generation of free radicals in the BRAIN. They confirmed daily oral administration at 40 mg/kg of aspartame for 90 days induces free radical damage in the brain. 9
A human study looked at healthy adults who consumed a low aspartame diet (10 mg.kg body weight/day) versus high aspartame diet (25 mg.kg body weight/day) for only 8 days. Both of these doses are well below the FDA approved amount of aspartame. Although the level of aspartame consumption was not associated with a decrease in working memory, individuals on a high-aspartame diet did have more irritable mood states, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests. 10
Another animal study found that even a low dose of aspartame (5.625 mg/kg) impaired the memory performance on a water maze test via the glutathione pathway and increased oxidative stress. 11 A mouse study tested monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame individually and combined. Both scenarios resulted in disruption of cognitive response, memory retention and learning capabilities. If you do happen to combine the two (MSG and aspartame), which I highly recommend avoiding at all costs, then your neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin both important for movement and wellbeing) are significantly reduced. 12 Rycerz in a review article agrees that excess aspartame blocks the transport of amino acids to the brain contributing to reduced levels of dopamine and serotonin on astrocytes and neurons. 13
As in the liver, the glutathione system is reduced with long-term aspartame in rats in the brain. 6 The levels were 500 mg/kg and 1000 mg/kg in this study, well above the FDA approved limit. The implications for reducing the antioxidant activity in the brain should be reason enough to not only stop drinking diet drinks, but also outlaw selling anything with aspartame in it to the general public.
In case that wasn’t enough, what I find most profound is the affect non-caloric artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, have on the composition of the intestinal microbiome. 14 I discussed the importance and health benefits to depression and inflammation in past blogs (http://www.renosoar.com/holistic-health-tips/sugar-and-artificial-sweeteners-are-they-an-innocent-indulgence-or-contribute-to-negative-health) (http://www.renosoar.com/holistic-health-tips/-reno-physical-therapy-arthritis-and-inflammation). The consumption of non-caloric artificial sweeteners results in dysbiosis (the imbalance the gut microbe has on the host) 15 and metabolic abnormalities putting one at risk for glucose intolerance and metabolic disease.
So, whether or not aspartame toxicity is a medical diagnosis or not, it should be. Aspartame, and all non-caloric artificial sweeteners, should be banned from human consumption. Period. Our bodies do not know how to deal with it, except to cause cell death, oxidative stress, aging, cancer, memory impairments, mood disorders, and a whole host of other things we do not fully understand yet.
Yet, it is available everywhere. Everyday. The combination of sweet, bubbly and caffeine is addictive; food companies do that on purpose.
If you or your patient is able stop cold turkey, rip the bandaid off so to speak, then great. DO IT NOW! If not, the “Triple R” strategy may help.
The good news is that the toxic changes can improve after withdrawal of aspartame. 8 To what extent improvement occurs depends on the damage done.
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove diet soda and all food items containing non-caloric artificial sweeteners, including especially aspartame. It makes you old, may cause you memory impairments, may increase your cancer risk especially in the liver, potentially makes you moody and if paired with MSG you may end up with a movement disorder also.
Replace with carbonated water. Plane filtered water. Try a Soda Stream and make your own carbonated water and simply add fresh fruit juice or whole fruit. If bubbly isn’t the component you are missing from diet soda, and you feel the need for caffeine, then brew your own green or black tea and drink that. Make it iced tea on a hot day. Add natural sweeteners like a little honey or fresh fruit juice. Slowly wean off over time. Supplement with professional probiotic to restore the micro biome.
Restore health. With time living a whole foods lifestyle and integrating healthy habits (e.g. stress management, adequate sleep, regular exercise), the restoration of your body will begin to take place. Where improvement levels off depends on the damage done and mostly how much one is willing to work on helping the body heal.
If you happen to have a blood clotting disorder, then speak to your physician about temporary use of aspartame (this should be a controlled substance like certain medications requiring a prescription for use). But understand the significant risks to the rest of your body, especially your liver and brain, should you choose that path. Carefully perform a risk benefit analysis prior to consumption of aspartame. For sure, eating a nutrient dense diet that includes organ meats (http://www.renosoar.com/holistic-health-tips/awful-awfuloffal-offal) from organic, grass-fed/grass finished should be a part of your nutritional routine if aspartame needs to be a part of your life.
Eat Well. Move Well. Thrive On.
1. McGuire M, Beerman K, eds. Nutritional sciences; from fundamentals to food. Third Edition ed. Wadsworth; 2013.
2. Horio Y, Sun Y, Liu C, Saito T, Kurasaki M. Aspartame-induced apoptosis in PC12 cells. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2014;37(1):158-165.
3. Kim JY, Park KH, Kim J, Choi I, Cho KH. Modified high-density lipoproteins by artificial sweetener, aspartame, and saccharin, showed loss of anti-atherosclerotic activity and toxicity in zebrafish. Cardiovasc Toxicol. 2015;15(1):79-89.
4. Scheffler JE, Berliner LJ. Aspartame and aspartame derivatives effect human thrombin catalytic activity. Biophys Chem. 2004;112(2-3):285-291.
5. Pretorius E, Humphries P. Ultrastructural changes to rabbit fibrin and platelets due to aspartame. Ultrastruct Pathol. 2007;31(2):77-83.
6. Abhilash M, Paul MV, Varghese MV, Nair RH. Effect of long term intake of aspartame on antioxidant defense status in liver. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011;49(6):1203-1207.
7. Alkafafy ME, Ibrahim ZS, Ahmed MM, El-Shazly SA. Impact of aspartame and saccharin on the rat liver: Biochemical, molecular, and histological approach. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2015.
8. Abd Elfatah AA, Ghaly IS, Hanafy SM. Cytotoxic effect of aspartame (diet sweet) on the histological and genetic structures of female albino rats and their offspring. Pak J Biol Sci. 2012;15(19):904-918.
9. Ashok I, Sheeladevi R. Biochemical responses and mitochondrial mediated activation of apoptosis on long-term effect of aspartame in rat brain. Redox Biol. 2014;2:820-831.
10. Lindseth GN, Coolahan SE, Petros TV, Lindseth PD. Neurobehavioral effects of aspartame consumption. Res Nurs Health. 2014;37(3):185-193.
11. Abdel-Salam OM, Salem NA, El-Shamarka ME, Hussein JS, Ahmed NA, El-Nagar ME. Studies on the effects of aspartame on memory and oxidative stress in brain of mice. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2012;16(15):2092-2101.
12. Abu-Taweel GM, A ZM, Ajarem JS, Ahmad M. Cognitive and biochemical effects of monosodium glutamate and aspartame, administered individually and in combination in male albino mice. Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2014;42:60-67.
13. Rycerz K, Jaworska-Adamu JE. Effects of aspartame metabolites on astrocytes and neurons. Folia Neuropathol. 2013;51(1):10-17.
14. Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014;514(7521):181-186.
15. Lipski, Elizabeth PhD CCn CHN. Digestive wellness. 4th Edition ed. United States of America: Mc GRaw Hill; 2012.
Dr Carolyn Dolan DPT, Cert MDT, MSHN
Where physical therapy, nutrition and lifestyle meet, because how you live your life determines whether or not you soar. Inspiring action with information so you can reduce pain, optimize healing and improve function naturally during recovery from injury, surgery or painful condition. This is a website for the open-minded; obstinate need not apply.