I must retract most of this post. Although I do feel that I am somewhat less jittery after giving up aspartame, the main symptoms (throbbing in my ear a la pulsatile tinnitus) are back. Still trying to find the cause…echocardiogram and MRI/MRA both came back clean, so the search continues.
Aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in most diet drinks and sugarfree gum, has long been the subject of controversy, with plenty of websites dedicated to exposing the dangers of this man-made chemical food additive.
Although the FDA and other government food regulatory agencies stand by their ruling of aspartame as safe in the quantities found in food, in my personal experience I believe the risks outweigh the benefits. This may not be true for everyone, and I ingest far less of it than those who drink diet soda everyday without any serious side effects, but I recently concluded that I do in fact respond to aspartame in a bad way.
In the past, I had blamed aspartame-based sugarfree gum for making me feel “weird.” This mainly manifested as nervous ticks and a general sensation of mental distraction. I never knew for sure it was the aspartame that did this, but since sugarfree gum is the only sugarfree food I eat with any regularity, and the symptoms seemed related, it was the likely suspect.
More recently, I got in the habit of chewing sugarfree gum after lunch every day at work as a way to clean off my teeth and something to much on. I remembered my prior impression of aspartame and how it made me feel, but based on the consensus view of aspartame as “safe,” I dismissed my former thoughts as all in my head and figured I’d try it again.
After going through maybe 3 packs of sugarfree gum (one stick a day), I began to notice a strange throbbing in my left ear/temple region, along the lines of tinnitus. At first I thought maybe it was a buildup of ear wax and tried flushing it out with Murine. After this failed to make a difference, I decided to check with the doctor. He gave me a clean bill of health and found nothing wrong, and really couldn’t say what the cause was. I decided to give it a little more time to see if it went away. About this time I also noticed that I was generally more nervous than usual (physically nervous that is, psychologically I was normal) and felt like I was constantly jittery and had a lot of minor muscle spasms (I could usually suppress them if I consciously tried, but they’d return as soon as I stopped trying). It didn’t go away and became more and more annoying/concerning.
Then over Thanksgiving I went about a week without having any sugarfree gum. The change wasn’t immediate, but when I got back I noticed that the symptoms came back pretty bad after I had more gum, which made me realize they had gotten better prior to that. I decided to stop the gum altogether and see if the throbbing went away and stayed away. Sure enough, it is almost completely gone now, and the main change in my regular routine is cutting out the aspartame-sweetened gum. I don’t find myself nearly as physically nervous, either.
Curious to see if this was a common side effect of aspartame, I did some searching and found a lot of people discussing tinnitus as a result of aspartame consumption. So while there may not be much in the way of statistically significant studies that tie aspartame to tinnitus, there at least appear to be a lot of anecdotal evidence that draws a link. I’m now quite certain this is what caused the strange effects I’ve been experiencing, and as a result I will be avoiding aspartame even more than I used to.
As I mentioned earlier, I realize not everyone has these reactions, and I don’t know whether the side effects I experienced could have been harmful to my long-term health. But the fact that my body reacted in that way is enough to convince me to lay off the stuff as much as possible.
I’ll be keeping an eye out for sucralose or xylitol-based gums as I haven’t noticed any side effects of those sweeteners. I generally prefer to stick with sugar-based sweets since I don’t generally eat that much sweet stuff and sugar is a far more time-tested, safe and natural sweetener, but gum is one exception since I’ve had cavity issues in the past.