Aspartame, a Potential Migraine Trigger
Posted by Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, CDE—December 10th, 2011

Aspartame is found in over 6,000 food products as well as in carbonated/non-carbonated beverages that contain artificial sweeteners, including diet soft drinks, sports drinks, iced tea, fruit drinks, and powdered mixes.

Products containing aspartame have been branded and are advertised as “Nutrasweet” or “Equal.” There are numerous products on the market that have aspartame added to them. Whenever you see the words “sugar-free,” beware!

Read the food label to find out what you’re putting in your body:

  • Sugar free yogurt, ice-cream, jellos, puddings
  • Sugar free gum, hard candies, breath mints
  • Jams, jellies
  • Protein bars or drinks
  • Syrup
  • Diet products
  • Yogurts
  • Children’s vitamins

Try keeping a food and activity journal to see if it is aspartame that triggers your headache. Always read food labels to see if products contain aspartame. Learn more about food additives that may cause sensitivities.

While Aspartame has been FDA approved as being safe for people of all ages, including children, some studies report that consumption of aspartame leads to neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals. Some of my clients have reported headaches and dizziness when consuming it. A review of aspartame’s metabolism showed that the human body breaks down aspartame into three compounds: methanol, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine. Although methanol further breaks down into formaldehyde and is toxic to the human body, research has established that the consumption of products containing aspartame will not lead to toxic levels of methanol because of the small amounts we normally consume. If something is proven toxic at higher levels, why consume it at all? Studies have shown that Aspartame causes inhibition of brain serotonin and dopamine. Since drugs that raise dopamine levels in the brain have proven effective in reducing headache, it makes sense that consuming Aspartame could result in headaches because of reduced dopamine levels. Abnormalities in serotonin levels have been observed in both tension-type and migraine headache sufferers.

Some individuals are sensitive to food additives, Aspartame being one of them. A rule of thumb is to buy foods that have few added ingredients —make sure you can pronounce them and avoid those that contain artificial ingredients. To read more on artificial ingredients, visit: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm, and if you believe Aspartame triggers headaches or migraines be sure to avoid it!

References – 1 Direct and Indirect Cellular Effects of Aspartame on the Brain. Humphries, P.; Pretorius, E.; Naudé, H.. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Apr2008, Vol. 62 Issue 4, p451-462, 12p, 6 Diagrams; DOI: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866- 2 Migraine MLT-Down: An Unusual Presentation of Migraine in Patients with Aspartame-Triggered Headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain: By: Newman, Lawrence C.; Lipton, Richard B. Oct2001, Vol. 41 Issue 9, p899-901, 3p; DOI: – 3 http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm- 4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21822758- 5 http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_causes_migraine_headaches_000097_3.htm

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About Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, CDE

Melissa holds a BS in Clinical Dietetics, a MA degree in Nutrition Education, is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator and past Certified Nutrition Support Dietitian for 10 years. She has the Certificate of training for Childhood, Adolescent Weight Management, is a certified Wellness Coach and currently serves as the spokesperson for CDA.

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