What’s so bad about diet soda?
by Susan Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
Years ago I used to be a diet soda addict. Truth be told, I was trying to do the “healthy” thing – avoid sugar, decrease calorie intake, lose weight . . . and I was bored with water, so that was another thing. So, for a long time, I thought nothing of this “healthy” habit, until I became a wellness counselor and started digging deeper into chronic health issues, disease, and our modern diet.
To say that I was shocked to find out that some of the things that I always thought to be “healthy” were actually far from it, is an understatement! Yes, all along my assumptions had been wrong about diet soda. Turns out that “diet” does not mean “healthy!” In fact, just the opposite is often true. So what’s so bad about diet soda?
What’s so bad about diet soda?
In this article, I’m addressing only one of many reasons to avoid diet soda (and other “diet” products): Aspartame (aka Nutrasweet.) Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in more than 6,000 diet products, beverages, and pharmaceuticals. CLICK TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ASPARTAME.
Breaking down Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
So what is so bad about Aspartame (NutraSweet)? At first glance, it seems to be made up of some innocent-sounding ingredients, some of which occur naturally in various foods. However, after reading further into the properties of these ingredients – 40% aspartic acid, 50% phenylalanine, and 10% methanol – it became apparent that these are not the same as what occurs naturally in foods. Today I’m sharing what I’ve discovered through loads of research on the potential health dangers of the two most predominant ingredients of aspartame: aspartic acid and phenylalanine.
Aspartic acid is an amino acid that, when consumed in its free form (meaning unbound to proteins) as it is in aspartame, increases the levels of aspartate and glutamate in your blood. Aspartate and glutamate are neurotransmitters, which means they help to communicate information from neuron to neuron throughout the brain. The problem is that an excess of either of these neurotransmitters in the brain causes the destruction of neurons – in essence, they “excite” or stimulate the neural cells to death. Because of this, both aspartate and glutamate are referred to as “excitotoxins.”
It’s true that aspartate and glutamate can be found naturally in some foods, which tends to be the main argument from those who believe aspartame to be safe. The difference between these natural forms and what is created when we ingest aspartame is STRENGTH. In their natural forms, aspartate and glutamate are bound in amino acid groupings and are readily absorbed during digestion. These natural forms don’t break down completely until reaching the liver, at which point they are released into the bloodstream at very low levels that the body can handle. When it comes to the aspartic acid in aspartame however, the proteins have been unnaturally broken down into free, released amino acids that send your blood level of glutamic acid through the roof!
The belief that excitotoxins play a detrimental role to our health is supported by The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). They stated in a recent review that dietary supplements of L-glutamic acid by pregnant women, infants and children should be avoided due to evidence that it causes increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels as well as other neuroendocrine changes. (L-glutamic acid and aspartic acid both have the similar effects on the body)
Some of the acute reactions to both aspartic and glutamic acid that have been reported to the FDA include headaches, nausea, stomach pain, fatigue, sleep issues, vision problems, anxiety and depression, and asthma. Unfortunately, the list of issues potentially caused by or negatively affected by long-term exposure to these excitatory amino acids doesn’t end there. In fact, a very common complaint among long-term aspartame consumers is memory loss. Unfortunately, symptoms like this aren’t noticeable until about 75% of the neural cells in a particular area of the brain have been killed off. The side effects are cumulative, as long-term exposure to these ingredients is linked to conditions like Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s not all. Hearing loss, Parkinson’s, hormonal problems, epilepsy, and hypoglycemia are all issues potentially exacerbated by aspartame. Speaking of the latter, memory loss, you may find it ironic to discover that G.D. Searle, the manufacturer of aspartame, initiated a search for a drug to prevent memory loss caused by excitatory amino acid damage way back in the 1980s! It’s no secret that these substances are detrimental to our health.
Research has actually shown that, when cancer cells are exposed to aspartame (or MSG, for that matter), they become more mobile, which causes them to spread more readily. Other studies have corroborated those findings, showing that an increase in glutamate level causes cancer to spread like wildfire, whereas when glutamate is blocked, cancer growth slows dramatically.
And that’s not all of it. We have glutamate receptors throughout our body – not only in our brain but also in all organs and tissues including the GI tract, the lungs, the reproductive system, adrenal glands, bones and the electrical conduction system of the heart, including the heart itself. So, when we take in high levels of glutamate – higher than what the body is capable of handling in their natural form – we’re stimulating all of the glutamate receptors. That explains why, after eating food with MSG or aspartame, some people suffer from explosive diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome. The glutamate receptors in the gastrointestinal tract have become overstimulated. Scarily, the same thing can happen regarding the heart. Glutamate, a major source of cardiac irritability, can produce both cardiac arrhythmia and cardiac artery spasms, the two most common causes of sudden cardiac death. Obviously, if you have an arrhythmia, which is the case for millions of people, you should NOT consume MSG or aspartame!
Now that I’ve shared the incredibly bad news about excitotoxins, you may be wondering if there is any way to prevent or counteract their terrible effects. The answer to that is “yes.” Interestingly, low Magnesium levels have been found in almost all cases of sudden cardiac death. Basically, a magnesium deficiency causes our glutamate receptors to become hypersensitive, making us more prone to that sort of thing. Supplementing with magnesium can at least lessen that risk.
In addition to magnesium, there are several amino acids that will compete for the same carrier system as glutamic acid, thus slowing down absorption. These include leucine, isoleucine, and lysine, all of which can be found in many foods, including eggs, soy and fish. Supplementing with the essential fatty acid Phosphatidylserine (PS), silimarin (from milk thistle), curcumin (found in the bright yellow spice turmeric) and ginkgo biloba will directly block glutamate receptors and reduce excitotoxicity, as will Vitamin E, the B Vitamins, and anti-oxidants. N-Acetylcysteine has also shown to be protective against aspartame-induced kidney damage.
The second ingredient that makes up 50% of Aspartame is Phenylalanine.
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning that it is necessary for the proper function of the body. The body itself can’t produce it though, so it must be consumed in the diet. The body uses phenylalanine to build proteins and to make the amino acid tyrosine. It occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat such as milk, eggs, meat and bananas. It is important to note that, in its natural form, phenylalanine is found in combination with other amino acids. In its “man-made” form, as in Aspartame, it is isolated.
You may have seen warnings on the containers of diet sodas or anything with Aspartame saying that “Phenylketonurics” should avoid this product. This is because these folks cannot metabolize phenylalanine and therefore they will accumulate dangerously high levels of this substance in their brain, causing the levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin to drop. The unfortunate fact is that human studies have proven that this scenario can hold true even for those who do not suffer from phenylketonuria but do consume large amounts of aspartame over a long period of time.
As usual, you can find many pros and cons when you search on phenylalanine. The big area of concern seems to be the isolated nature of this ingredient when it is included in a man-made substance like aspartame. After much research on this, it seems to me that the body does, in fact, process the isolated version quite differently than the combined version, as was also true regarding the first ingredient we discussed: aspartic acid. If excessive amounts make it to the brain, the neural cells will once again be overstimulated, causing memory loss and other brain-related issues, some quite a bit more serious than others. And since serotonin levels drop dramatically when exposed to an excess of phenylalanine, depression and other mood disorders could result.
Those who deny any safety issues regarding phenylalanine maintain that, because it occurs naturally in our food and it is essential to our bodily processes, it is harmless if not actually good for you as an aspartame ingredient. Once again, I go back to my theory that, if the research is sponsored by those who have a financial motivation, I am skeptical. On the other hand, when well-respected, independent sources make research-backed statements, I put more credence in the results. In this case, the supporters of the use of phenylalanine in “diet” products seem to be heavily weighted toward those who are financially invested in the products.
Through my reading, I came across many case studies and/or concerned consumers who exhibited side effects that they believe resulted from consuming diet sodas or foods. These individuals were not phenylketonurics, but they did experience headaches and memory loss. You can actually find all of the complaints reported to the FDA regarding aspartame as a whole on the website of Dr. Janet Starr Hull. In her book, “Sweet Poison,” Dr. Hull details her experience with illness relating to aspartame and her subsequent detox and healing. On her website, she points out the interesting fact that “The 1976 Groliers encyclopedia states cancer cannot live without phenylalanine.”
So, although there are more studies every day finding that phenylalanine is harmful not only to those with phenylketonuria but also to anyone who consumes large amounts of aspartame over a long period of time, the debate will likely continue. Awareness is the key. If it is true that excessive levels of phenylalanine in the brain do, in fact, lead to things like depression, headaches, and memory loss, then if you begin to experience any of these symptoms, look first to your intake of aspartame as a possible culprit.
The bottom line . . .
Based on the consistency of the research results that aspartame is “excitotoxic” to the body, as well as the fact that diet soda has no nutritional value and even promotes weight gain (negating the very reason many folks drink it in the first place!), I believe our health will benefit from avoidance of diet soda and other products containing aspartame. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
- Alternative Medicine, the Definitive Guide. Trivieri, Larry and Anderson, John W. Celestial Arts, Berkeley 2002.
- Wurtman and Walker, “Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function,” Proceedings of the First International Meeting on Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function., Washington, D.C., May 8, 1987
- Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Third Edition, Balch, Phyllis A. and Balch, James F. Avery, New York. 2000
- Soffritti, Morando, et al. “The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re‐evaluation.” American journal of industrial medicine57.4 (2014): 383-397.
- Finamor, Isabela, et al. “P27-N-acetylcysteine protects the rat kidney against aspartame-induced oxidative stress.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 75 (2014): S30.
- Palmnäs, Marie SA, et al. “Low-dose aspartame consumption differentially affects gut microbiota-host metabolic interactions in the diet-induced obese rat.” PLoS One 9.10 (2014): e109841.
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