Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners available on the market. It is low in calories, 200 times sweeter than sugar and it is used all over the world as a sugar substitute in thousands of products including cereals, table top sweeteners, sugar-free chewing gum, diet soft drinks.
NutraSweet and Equal are the brand names Aspartame is sold under, NutraSweet also being the name under which aspartame was first created in 1965. Ingredients of this product are aspartic acid and phenylalanine, both naturally-occurring amino acids. Our body is capable of producing aspartic acid, while phenylalanine represents essential one, meaning the body is not capable of its production and it has to be taken through food. During the degradation through metabolic processes, part of aspartame is broken down to methanol. Methanol is naturally produced by the body and can be found in vegetables, fruits, fruit juice and fermented beverages. The amount of methanol created by a breakdown of aspartame is far lower than found in many common foods. It is proven that small amounts of methanol are not toxic for the human body.
A number of health-related organizations and regulatory agencies gave their approval to Aspartame usage as a food ingredient. To name them:
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- American Dietetic Association
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- American Heart Association
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Association
Several European countries gave their approval in 1980’s. Ever since Aspartame has been extremely controversial. Through the time, its usage has been blamed for causing various diseases, this moving series of researches. A study from 2006, conducted by US National Cancer Institute, of nearly half a million people did not find a link between Aspartame consumption and increased risk of brain cancer, leukemia or lymphoma.
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted in 2013 comprehensive review of the evidence and came to the conclusion that Aspartame is considered safe for human consumption, also including children and pregnant women. However, EFSA did say that daily intake recommendation does not apply to people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder in which body isn’t capable of breaking down phenylalanine. People with this disorder have to monitor closely their daily intake of phenylalanine.
Acceptable Daily Intake of aspartame is 40mg/kg of body weight. Considering our eating habits, we can easily say that daily intake comes at highest percentage from diet beverages. Numerous scientists have reported this sweetener to be highly addictive, thus leading to withdrawal symptoms after cutting it out of the diet. Aspartame affects the levels of dopamine inside the central nervous system, which could explain its addictive properties on a chemical level.
Factors Influencing Aspartame Withdrawal
As mentioned above, Aspartame does affect neurotransmitters, thus leading to various symptoms of withdrawal once discontinued. However, there are few factors to which these symptoms are influenced.
Physiology Of A Person
A number of times we have heard that every person is different. This also applies to Aspartame withdrawal symptoms, meaning some people will naturally have a difficult time to cope with cravings appearing during withdrawal. Some people’s nervous system recovers quicker than the others. Usage of drugs can affect person’s ability to notice these symptoms or it could minimize them.
It is logical, a higher daily dose of Aspartame intake causes more expressed symptoms when withdrawing. The amount of this sweetener differs a lot from various products. A simple stick of gum contains 6-8mg per stick one carbonated beverage could contain about 180mg of Aspartame. There is 120mg in the powered soft drink. If you take several of them daily, then your Aspartame level is high and it will cause more severe withdrawal symptoms than in the person taking only gums.
People occasionally drinking a can of soda will likely have much milder withdrawal symptoms comparing to those who take them daily for a longer period of time.
All Or Nothing
Some people have no problem quitting the intake of Aspartame at once, while others may find it very difficult, thus causing them to return to it very easily. In this situation, it is much better to gradually lower the amount of daily intake until it is not needed anymore. This is called the tapering system and it uses gradually lower doses until it gets to the lowest dose or the none of it in our daily lives.
Considering the influence Aspartame intake has on dopamine level, this means its influences are directed to a pleasure center in the brain. Cutting of sweetener from a diet causes a drop in dopamine level in brain, leading to discontinuation symptoms.
Some of them are:
- Anxiety: This is a symptom that can be noticed in some individuals who use this medicine. Aspartame can influence mood in a person and also cause an increase of anxiety, especially among sensitive people. An excessive level of anxiety can be experienced after quitting the intake of energy drinks.
- Changes in Appetite: Some individuals can experience a subtle increase in appetite which can be expressed in eating fast food and unhealthy cravings. Others can report that their appetite has decreased. In either way, appetite changes are not something to be surprised by when withdrawing from Aspartame.
- Concentration: There are many reports of people feeling stressed out and they couldn’t concentrate since their mental state is not as before the drug usage. Some experienced an increase in concentration, hyperactivity and a few of them deficit in attention.
- Cravings: Probably one of the most frequent adverse effect due to Aspartame is craving for the junk food. This can be due to eating food which increases dopamine levels in the brain, thus leading to more craving. It can be also present during withdrawal period since the body lacks dopamine.
- Depression: If the patients are left without their daily dosage of Aspartame, they can suffer from low dopamine level symptoms such as depression. It isn’t an effect that will be equally expressed among every individual since numerous factors affect this symptom. The brain will crave its dopamine.
- Dizziness: This withdrawal symptom that can be also present is dizziness. This can be linked with an Aspartame directly, but some individuals have had behavior which can be accompanied with the same symptom such as withdrawal from caffeine or diet soda.
- Fatigue: This drug can also influence person’s energy level and cause the arousal followed by hyperactivity, so when left out of the diet, the lack of it can cause a person to feel fatigued and lethargic with no energy. Some have even noticed an increase in energy level.
- Headaches: Some patients have reported migraines or other types of headaches when on Aspartame withdrawal. In order to prevent these problems person should stay hydrated, rested and if the headaches progress to a severe stage, it is advised to include some pain-killer.
- Heart Palpitations: This is a feeling of loud heartbeats which can be felt even in the throat of the person or rapidly beating in the chest. It can be a sign of a tachycardia or an accompanied symptom to mental change such as anxiety.
- Insomnia: Having a hard time to fall asleep after cutting the drug from your system can be an occurrence as well. It usually comes in the beginning of the withdrawal period and it could be a hard thing to bear if your everyday life is pretty tiring and stressful.
- Joint Pain: Joint pain, muscle and also the pain of the body, in general, may be experienced during the time of withdrawal.
- Lightheadedness: There hasn’t been a proper reason for this kind of symptom, but some people can experience this adverse effect. It can be present among who are withdrawing from Aspartame, but also among those who are on a therapy.
- Mood Swings: This can be frequent since the dopamine level can change quickly causing mood swings. It can be from feeling happy to feeling depressed and having anxiety attacks in no time. This is usually short-term and subsides fast.
- Panic Attacks: Not so commonly experienced during withdrawal. However, some report the experience of a panic attack or anxiety which can be on a high level. It can be followed up with sweating, fear of death and tachypnea which is fast breathing. It can be solved by self-control and calm breathing.
- Restlessness: Some may notice the feeling of restlessness for a couple of weeks after withdrawal. Aspartame consumption has a calming effect on the human brain, so when its level decreases, the body gets the urge to regain the dopamine levels so it makes them wanting more drugs to get that feeling again.
- Sleep Changes: Changes in the sleeping cycle can be a withdrawal symptom where some have felt like they couldn’t sleep. At the same time, you are trying to cut caffeine and you could feel stressed due to caffeine withdrawal and not Aspartame lack.
- Weight Changes: Aspartame withdrawal can make you feel hungry and make you crave junk food. This is linked with weight gaining and making you want to eat more. If Aspartame acted differently during the consumption period, it is more likely that it is going to be the opposite. Those who lost weight during therapy will most likely gain some during the withdrawal period.
How Long Do These Symptoms Last?
This, again, depends on individuals as well as on their daily intake and duration of the Aspartame consumption. According to reports of those gone through withdrawal, this process lasts anywhere between a week and a month. This time is needed for a person to reach a state of total psychological recovery with a normal balance of energy. Considering Aspartame as a food additive, in comparison to other psychiatric drugs which can be more addictive than Aspartame, it will most likely take less than one month for the symptoms to subside. One thing that should not be taken out of consideration is the fizzy drink and caffeine withdrawal. Usually, what appears as Aspartame withdrawal symptoms are most likely caffeine and diet soda withdrawal symptoms. Anyhow, individuals going through the withdrawal process should be recommended to maintain well-balanced nutrition, good hydration, to get additional rest and to exercise regularly. The avoidance of all artificial sweeteners is highly recommended. By the time, neurotransmitters will go back to their usual level and you will feel the normal state of your body without the Aspartame effects.