Migraine Triggers: Artificial Sweetener

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.

A sneaky trigger

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.

Check the label

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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