Migraine Triggers: Artificial Sweetener
By The Migraine Girl—July 12, 2011

When I was younger, I, like most kids, loved to chew gum. My parents hardly ever let us buy the super-sugary Bubbalicious, but once in awhile we’d either sneak it or get special permission.

Now the mere thought of chewing that makes me want to gag, but at the time it was such a treat.

My mom rarely chewed gum, especially any of the then-new “lite” types that contained less sugar and more NutraSweet (aspartame). She said she thought the Nutrasweet gave her a headache, and I believed her. Luckily I didn’t feel the same way.

That is, until I became a migraineur in seventh grade or so and found that I had the same intolerance. Luckily for me, I wasn’t a big fan of chewing gum by then and couldn’t stand the taste of diet soda, so I was usually in the clear. But sometimes this trigger sneaks up on me even when I am very careful of how I eat.

I remember getting off the subway one night—this is when I lived in New York—and running to the drug store to get some drinks and snacks to fuel me during my all-nighter. (I’m famous for waiting til the last minute to do work.) This was when a major-brand vitamin juice drink was new on the scene and I was kind of obsessed. Not too many places carried the product then, so I grabbed what I thought was a good substitute and went to the checkout.

On the way to my apartment, I cracked open the vitamin-infused drink and took a long swig. Within a half-second I realized my mistake. The back of my tongue nearly ached with the artificial sweet tang of sugar substitute. I looked on the bottle, and there was the culprit: Sucralose. I tried to drink a ton of water and hoped that rinsing my mouth out would help diminish this notorious trigger’s effect. Unfortunately, it was too late. Within the hour, I was down for the count, smushed under my covers with a pounding, nauseating migraine that made it impossible to work on my paper.

You can bet I no longer assume any food or drink is on the safe list—I always, always check the ingredients list for any of those dangerous words: aspartame, NutraSweet, sucralose, Splenda, MSG (monosodium glutamate), “natural flavors” (which MSG is often masked as), and more.

For those of you who have artificial sweeteners on your list of major migraine triggers: have any unpleasant surprise stories to share? Any times you ingested this by mistake and paid the price?

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About The Migraine Girl

Bookshop owner & migraineur Janet "The Migraine Girl" Geddis moved around a bit in her early 20s before deciding to make Athens, Georgia her home

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66 comments on “Migraine Triggers: Artificial Sweetener

  1. Anne says:

    I cut out artificial sweeteners as I read they were a trigger – I haven’t been brave enough to try them again. I do have a migraine MSG story. Tried a new Thai food place for dinner – it was delicious, but within the hour I launched into a 3 day migraine. Must have been the MSG, because I can’t think of any other reason for it.

  2. Profile photo of MaggieG MaggieG says:

    Look out for artificial sweeteners and preservatives in liquor such as flavored vodkas. I experienced tongue swelling from flavored beer which landed me in the ER. A second time it was flavored vodka. The allergist I saw did not deduce this but I did. I now have to be careful ordering drinks at restaurants because all the bars use flavored vodkas in martinis rather than adding fruit flavoring or juices directly.
    The liquor manufactures do not have to list all ingredients on flavored blends. You cannot read the label and be sure you are avoiding aspartame. I am so allergic to it as well as preservatives. Beware.

  3. Profile photo of Michelle Michelle says:

    I can tolerate small amounts like what is in a couple pieces of gum. Any more than that I get a nasty migraine with a feeling of the flu chaser. I write the companies that change their ingredients (sugar for fake sugar)on my favorite products to make them aware! What I have I learned is trust no product even if it was okay before. I read all ingredients before I buy or eat.

  4. Profile photo of Sharon C. Sharon C. says:

    My mother is diabetic. When Spendla came out we thought we would try it. Within a couple of hours I became very ill. Not only did it cause a migraine, my stomach rebelled. Also it tastes horrible. This was an indication of what I am going through now!!

  5. Shonda says:

    Yup, I have learned the hard way to read labels. I have eaten Quaker instant oatmeal for years with no problem. A few months ago I bought a box to leave in my desk at work. Went to the kitchen,nuked myself a mugful and went back to my desk. Ate a bite. Hmm…that tastes funny. Oh well…ate another bite…omg…I know why it tastes funny! Read the label…sucralose!!! Ugh!! Within an hour I had a migraine, thankfully I mild one I tackled with Midrin and was able to continue my day. I just don’t trust anything anymore. I know all the danger words for artificial sweeteners now and I watch for them! Well, until I bought a bottle of flavored coffee creamer and saw the word sucralose just before I poured it in my coffee. Caught that one just in time!!!

  6. Tammy Elder Rome says:

    While on Topamax a few years back I was unable to tolerate the taste of soft drinks. For some flavor, I switched to Vitamin Water for awhile. The labels are hard to read so I never found the culprit but I am just sure it has some kind of artificial sweetener and/or MSG in it as I got terribly sick each time I drank one. I finally gave up and started drinking water mixed with small amounts of fruit juice when I needed some flavor.

  7. Kathy Jo Horton Bishop says:

    for those of you who have netflix check out a documentary in the instant watch called “sweet misery a poisoned world” It will totally explain your fake sugar migraines…it’s pure poison to our bodies…does anyone remember when they took it out of children’s tylenol etc…reason it was causing brain bleeds……natural is the only way to go..if you want to avoid headaches…ps Truvia is not pure stevia extract..it has added ingredients….only pure stevia extract in liquid form is only stevia find it at the health food stores….. best of luck my fellow migrainers.

  8. Linda Barham Nabors says:

    Aspartame is poison to me also. I have lots of triggers, but with food it has been difficult to discern which ones are the culprit. It is very clear with aspartame. No gum for me, I can’t find one with no artificial sweeteners.

  9. the only gum I’ve found I can chew without getting a migraine is:Dentyne Fire, spicy cinnamon and for me it is so hard to find. Any other I try within just few minutes MIGRAINE is there! Aspartame is definitely the biggest culprit for me

  10. Laura Price says:

    Equal increased my migraines – I haven’t had any trouble with Splenda – but I am moderate in its use. I tried stevia, but dislike the bitter aftertaste.

  11. Celindy Johnson Kellum says:

    Oh Yes! I am SO GLAD to see this article – people think I am nuts! It took me several years to connect my migraines to articfical sweetners; I think actually a good friend of mine noticed that i got a migraine everytime i consumed the product (thank you!) Another food trigger for me is Peanut Butter. I can ONLY eat NATURAL peanut butter; therefore, I assume there must be some sort of persevative that is used in the other brands that triggers my migraines. And they are some of my worse. Natural peanut butter, peanut butter candy and even peanuts are just fine for me to eat! Thanks again!

  12. Karin Reinsel Allmendinger says:

    just had it happen yesterday and I am not a sufferer of migraines but it’s the only way I can describe what happened. I ate a light n lively yogurt, the purple package and a few hours later was nauseous and dizzy with head pounding. Thought I was getting the stomach flu my son had earlier in the week but lots of sleep and a dark room were all that felt comfortable. I had heard about the sweeteners as triggers and looked it up!

  13. Carrie Reece says:

    Oddly, most of the Blue Diamond line of nuts is off-limits, as is the Quaker (and off-brand) “high-fiber” oatmeal, and Hawaiian Punch juice drinks. Not one of those labels mentions being low-sugar, less sugar, reduced sugar, lite, or any other warning to indicate they contain an artificial sweetener. I learned the hard way on all of them. Beware!

  14. My wife is a big migrainer, with numerous triggers, including MSG. I have had two in my life. I think both triggered by artificial sweeteners.

  15. Mike Watford says:

    The book:Heal Your Headache the 1-2-3 Program goes over all the triggers.It is advided to stay on a no trigger diet for one year (Chapters 1-3) if not working read the rest of the book.

  16. Emma McEwan says:

    Lots of people think I’m exagerating that aspartame in particular is a trigger… I’ve been advised to cut sugar out of my diet for a while so currently experimenting with alternatives (eg stevia and splenda) and will have to see how I go. Not sure if the migraine today is stevia related, related to being in a supermarket that was making chocolate cakes or just coz I’m tired… will see…

  17. stevia and agave nectar are fab! aspartame is terrible, i never had migraines but it used to make me feel famished and i’d binge eat as a result, plus i find that both aspartame and sugar are highly addictive, took me a while to kick the habit. good on you for cutting this stuff out! :)

  18. tried the new 0calories lifewater by SOBE, got a migraine (was also out in sun so not sure it was the SOBE) then this AM read up a bit on Erythritol – the second ingredient. Still not sure it was the culprit but the aftertaste of the drink is so similar to things with aspertane that I will not be having this drink again anyway. Anyone else think there is a link with Erythritol and migraine? I am very disappointed, by the way. I love friut drinks and water….

  19. Hannah Kim says:

    Almost every artificial sweeteners are deserved to be called poison. And I guess if you had healthy eating habits like me, you would have experienced all these side-effects below. But now I am very happy with my new sweetener and there is nothing to worry about. Recently I’ve tried this natural sweetener called, Natvia, they don’t use neither aspartame nor saccharine. But they use the purest part of Stevia plant, Reb A, which leaves pleasant aftertaste. It has low calories but gives the same sweetness as sugar! I just hope more people can try Natvia and fulfil their need of sugar by natural sugar. Because personally, it works for me.

  20. Profile photo of tealover3 tealover3 says:

    I am using Natvia and i am really happy about it. It is all natural and almost 0 calories. It tastes just like sugar as well. Check their page nativa

  21. Profile photo of Ravensun Ravensun says:

    Oh lordy yes, aspartame is one of my big migraine triggers! Can’t touch the stuff.

  22. Aspartame, MSG, peanuts, sugary foods(glazed donuts or ice cream), sun glare, rainy weather, too much computer time, too much sleep, not enough sleep, etc, etc, etc. Tired of the migraines and really tired of always trying to figure out the triggers. People think you’re a little (lot?) crazy because you have so many aversions and things you just avoid like the plague that “normal” people consume as they desire with no thoughts of “Will this give me a migraine?”. 59 and no sign of migraines easing up.

  23. Martha Green says:

    Sounds so familiar…whatever happened to them getting better as we got older – HA! Just tried a new soda that was SUPPOSED to be sweetened with stevia – after the first taste I knew something was wrong, and sure enough, the second ingredient (after carbonated water) was erythritol – yet another sugar alcohol and this stuff (supposed to be root beer) had wintergreen oil in it??? Yes, Stevia was there, next to last in the ingredients and now I know why…must be using the Truvia formula. I once went on the Zone diet and did very well with migranes, but it was so restrictive, I couldn’t/wouldn’t live with it. If you come up with the answer, let me know;)

  24. Kathy Jo Horton Bishop says:

    right there with you even stopped going to church etc…cause of everyone’s perfume and stuff…..don’t go out to eat it’s too hard everything must me made from it’s natural state or I end up suffering unfortunately when you’re exhausted and feeling like crud what do you reach for take out or the like and then the cycle continues… msg is now listed as hydrolyzed soy, wheat, corn, or vegetable protein the only way to avoid this crap (which by the way was once outlawed by the FDA) is to make everything yourself……

  25. I work at a grocery store stocking shelves. I once had to put up a case of Splenda and ended up inhaling the residual powder that was in the box as I put up the bags. It sent me into a migraine so quickly, I now ask someone else to put up that one product for me. I found out that a lot of vitamins and meds contain artificial sweeteners as well, the hard way.

  26. Sarah Gearing says:

    Aspartame definately attects me, not that the neuro believes it.. I used to drink energy drinks that were loaded with it and suffered 5 siezures a day. Since cutting it out I rarely have a fit and my HM attacks and symptoms are much less severe.

  27. Kay Duncan says:

    I can’t have that either Sarah, but it’s due to my fibromyalgia, didn’t realized it affects our hm’s too…

  28. Tammy Ireland says:

    I get almost an instant migraine from aspartame. Only took me five minutes to get a headache after eating a sugar-free popsicle once!

  29. Mandy Schroeder Caines says:

    I have the same problem with all artificial sweeteners. Breath mints (tic tacs).. is a big NO NO! I have to watch everything I eat and drink..

  30. Barbara Barnard Colwell says:

    Thanks for posting this Mandy. I am going to share it as I have friends who get migraines. Hopefully it might help someone.

  31. I have had to stop all artificial sweetners because of migraines also. Of course, the worse triggers are stress, wine, and sun glare. I have tried Truvia and it doesn’t seem to be a trigger for me but I don’t use it that much.

  32. Kathy Jo Horton Bishop says:

    truvia isn’t pure Stevia it has added ingredients if you’re gonna use stevia get the pure liquid form called stevia extract at a health food store then you are sure it’s pure

  33. I definitely check every label for artifical sweeteners but for the past three weeks have had a migraine everyday at the same time and finally realized it was the FiberOne bars but cannot find anything “bad” on the label…any ideas? As soon as I stopped eating – the daily migraines stopped.

  34. Darn that is too bad. I like FiberOne bars, esp Caramel & Oats.

  35. I know! I was trying to find a healthy snack that i could just keep in my purse :(

  36. Korina Young says:

    Refined sugars in the forms of sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), and high-fructose corn syrup. Also high carbs process to sugar. Sugar overload. You also may want to think of what other sugar you had throughout the day.

  37. thanks Korina ~ it was the FiberOne bars for sure – I just wish I knew what it was that caused the migraines so I can watch out for it – thank you for the advice – I will try to watch out for sugar.

  38. Good Luck Dawn, hope you figure this out!

  39. Thanks Leslie ~ I changed my snack yesterday to mix of dried fruit and nuts and bad migraine last night! ugh! so I think you’ve got it!

  40. Am I allowed to say “I told you so!” Remember my telling you peanuts are one of my triggers?

  41. well i’ve suspected nuts but I <3 them and they’re so good for you so I keep trying them after giving them up. I think wheat is also a suspect.

  42. Why don’t you try ONE type of nut at a time (not peanuts) and see how it goes. You might find you can eat some nuts but not others. Peanuts are a common trigger. Wheat triggers are less common, but still suspect.

  43. I only eat wheat spaghetti and wheat bread – I dont know if I can eat white again :(

  44. White has wheat in it too! They use bleached wheat flour. You need to read labels. Even some soy sauces have wheat in them, for instance. I would focus on the nuts first. Take a few days vacation from nuts and see if that does the trick. If so, don’t worry about the wheat!

  45. PS – wheat has gluten in it, but you don’t show usual signs of gluten sensitivity like being unable to gain weight (haha). So try the nuts first.

  46. oh I still get migraines when I dont eat nuts

  47. Give it a couple days, Dawn. They can still be in your system. And read labels. There can be peanut oil used to process many other foods.

  48. I read the ingredient list for the FiberOne bars and OMG, there are so many of my triggers on the list: natural flavor, maltose, maltodextrin, non-fat milk, malt extract, and again natural flavors. Maltodextrin is a big culprit.

  49. I’m still learning ~ i did’nt realize maltodextrin was a culprit – along with the others – I’m always looking for artificial sweetners – thank you Susan! :)

  50. stevia extract from the health food store in a little dropper vial works great. The new stevia based products on the market all contain other ingredients like maltodextrin, so I stick with the real stuff.

  51. Yes, artificial sweeteners give me awful migraines. Another culprit that I really have to watch for is MSG. They trigger even worse headaches than the Aspartame, it that is possible. They are both like poison.

  52. Kathy Jo Horton Bishop says:

    watch the documentary called “sweet misery a poisoned world” it’s in more things than you think…hydrolyzed soy, wheat , corn and vegetable protein as well as autolyzed and regular yeast extract are also msg and mushrooms naturally contain it…you really gotta read labels and if it’s less than 2% of the ingredients they can label it as natural ingredients also beware of products that contain spice extractives or just say spices…they are hiding msg…..

  53. Absolutely…finally people who get it and don’t think I am just making stuff up. One sip or taste of something with artificial sweetners in it and I will be suffering within a couple of hours. Stick with real/fresh ingredients.

  54. Debbie Jones says:

    All artificial sweeteners send me into a migraine. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, especially when I have to tell them I have to stay away from low cal. foods like yogurt or diet soda’s.

  55. Erin N Lyon says:

    people think iam crazy when i tell them i cant have anything low cal or sugar free,there was one time when my hubby had to call 911 because we didnt know that something was sugar free,and i couldnt stand,sit up,speck for almost an hr it scared it! the dr at the ER ran a bunch test on me overnite and he told me to get a medical brac,or necklace to say i cant have these things! all this over a family memeber made something that was sugar free and didnt tell anyone about it!

  56. Ugh, yes! Artificial sweeteners are poison. My pediatrician had to treat me for severe headaches when Nutrasweet launched. I remember him saying a teaspoon of sugar has only 16 calories, just don’t eat too much.

  57. Cara Boothe says:

    I am very careful about what I eat. However, just this past weekend I had pie at a family reunion and ended up with a fierce migraine. All gum seems to have the fake sugar so I haven’t chewed gum for years.

  58. Erin N Lyon says:

    about 12 yrs ago we were on a trip and I was drinking a favored water mix, and BAM like a lead brick it hit me the worse migraine of my life and ive had them since I was 8 yrs old, well we thought ok it might be a one time thing, oh no it wasnt! many times over the yrs if I had sugar free anything a massive migraine would hit with in mins..now I check every label, avoid everything sugar free, even the smell of it will set me off somedays!

  59. Bonnie DeMoss says:

    Equal (aspartame) bothers me and sets off my headaches. Splenda does not.

  60. Bonna Mullaly says:

    I’ve always done fine with Splenda too – and since it comes from sugar (correct me if I’m wrong), wouldn’t it be safer? I’ve also truly experimented to see if foregoing other artificial sweetners helped my migraines – nope, not for the ones I use. I don’t know why – b/c I do have a lot of food triggers – MSG – might as well throw myself down the stairs head first, red wine is a no no, lots of nuts, and there are others. I can’t stand chewing gum – I always thought it was the chewing and chewing that brought on the pain, but I could be wrong. It’s just not fair – bad enough we suffer with debilitating pain – but we also have this huge ‘can’t have, can’t do, can’t be exposed to’ list. I’m 54 years old and I was always told @50 my migraines would be gone – no – they actually took a nasty turn for the worst. I think I’ve paid my dues and Mr. Migraine needs to understand he has tried to control my life for way longer than he is supposed to! (And yes I have a migraine right now, it’s stormy and I feel like a space cadet – and I’m trying so hard to work which means staring at the computer all day – hope my work isn’t as goofy as this sounds right now!

  61. Steve A Phelps says:

    I thought it was just Doug???

  62. Dave had muscle/joint pain from all other odd sweetners, now only drinks Diet Rite (splenda sweetened) – all pain gone :)

  63. Bonnie DeMoss says:

    Yes, Lori, Doug had the same thing! It really helped when he gave up the Aspartame.

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