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Migraines & aspartame

Before my own Migraine disease kicked in, I recall my mother’s intolerance of aspartame (NutraSweet)–she realized after some trial and error that she got an awful headache whenever she had this sugar substitute. I kept on chewing sugar-free gum happily, not necessarily enjoying the hyper-sweet, chemical taste of the additive but not feeling sick because of it.

Cue the Migraine disease onset in 8th or 9th grade. Soon I became unable to have even a small dose of aspartame. Once, my senior year of college, I was doing classroom observation for my education minor and accepted a HALF a stick of sugarless gum. (The guy offering it was the teacher, a man a couple years older than me whom I found rather cute. Note to self and others: do not experiment with even a tiny bit of Migraine-triggering substance just to flirt with a boy! He’ll end up being weird and creepy and not calling when he says he will.) Within an hour of popping the gum in my mouth (which I masticated for approximately fifteen minutes, I’ll have you know), I got an aspartame-induced Migraine attack, first one triggered by the substance in well over a year.

My sensitivity to the stuff probably changes day to day, as is the case with most Migraine triggers. If I have a bunch of triggers happening all at once (stress, altitude changes, shifts in barometric pressure) and THEN I have some sugar-free gum, I’ll probably get a severe headache. If I am feeling good, not feeling stressed, and the weather is flat in my low-altitude home state of Georgia, a stick of the gum might not effect me so severely. Dig it?

I’m really displeased with this article Google Reader just found for me. The FDA refutes all connection between aspartame and Migraine headaches. The article uses the incorrect Migraine terminology throughout, saying that some patients claim that aspartame causes Migraine–we here all know the key word should be “triggers” and not “causes.”

Having a well-respected (ahem) governing body like the FDA purport that the connection between the substance and the disease is all in sufferers’ head just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Let me admit first that I am one part statistician (one very small part, but still) and do believe that, if at all possible, treatments should be thoroughly evaluated for safety and efficacy using a well-run, randomized study–double-blind and large, if applicable. I do think that you can’t put 100% of your trust in people’s anecdotal reports, especially if you’re going to publish your findings in an official manner.



There’s a LOT to be said for what patients experience that cannot be (or at least has not yet been) measured in a statistically sound trial. It drives me crazy to go to my neurologist and get up the guts to tell him about some weird reaction I think I might be having to one of the medications I’m on; it’s even harder to tell his stone-faced nurse practitioner that I have weird side effects during my Migraine attacks. They seem to not believe me unless the same reaction/side effect has been discovered by one of the Big Pharma-sponsored studies. And this makes me angry. Very angry.

The aspartame-triggering-Migraine-attacks phenomenon is NOT a myth. We migraineurs are not banding together to bring down the NutraSweet company. The fact that I feel feverish despite my temperature being steady during certain phases of a Migraine attack is indisputable–but, oh wait! My doctor has never heard of that. I must be making this up.

We need to be cautious telling one another that something is a be-all, end-all cure–or a be-all, end-all, vicious trigger, for that matter. But we migraineurs’ strength often lies in our grassroots effort to communicate with one another after having stepped away from the doctors’ offices and pharmaceutical-company-sponsored “informative” sites. We have to open up the conversation about our disease, our pain, and what we perceive as truth. There’s something afoot with the aspartame issue, and I will not lie down and pretend that I have been making up this association all along.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Ramona Plaster
    7 years ago

    How obvious can it be. I am at work. I chew a piece of gum for all of 2 minutes when my headache starts. I never chew gum but just picked it up at the store. I do a search to see if sugar free gum has a link to a migraine or that was a trigger for anyone else and here pops up this page. No more Stride for me. Now to see if I can make it through 2 more hours.

  • Giselle Knaub
    8 years ago

    I quit cold turkey drinking diet soda , I have suspected everything but aspartame because I was addicted for over 20 years I thought I was going to have a seizure or something if I stopped drinking…Severe daily ( yes daily) migraines that led to alopecia from a migraine medication made me decide that I have to stop.I was getting depressed from the debilitating headaches. 2 weeks no diet soda and I am headache free.I wake up like a totally different person and I’ve also skipped processed foods. I can’t believe I have been sooooo stupid and let myself suffer all those time unwilling to give up my diet coke addiction.

    8 years ago

    Hi Giselle – It’s great that you were able to find your trigger(s) and see positive results so quickly! Thanks for sharing your experience with us; best of luck

  • Nori Fradenburg
    8 years ago

    It’s an instant one for me! The littlest bit and boom! As an interesting side note, my husband stopped consuming aspartame because it’s just horrible, not cause he gets migraines. But now if he accidently gets into it his whole soft pallett swells up and he starts choking… it’s crazy, he used to eat it all the time.

  • Donna Espinosa
    8 years ago

    I feel feverish during some of the worst migraines too.

  • Das Beuke
    8 years ago

    Aspartame is my only known trigger, once I figured that out, I stopped using it. Haven’t had a migraine since, and general headaches are almost non-existent.

  • Giselle Knaub
    8 years ago

    it took me a while to realize the same thing!

  • Heather Martin
    8 years ago

    Aspartame: “I got that bitch a migraine. Bitches hate migraines!” lol. Not being pregnant gives me migraines. Whenever I am preggie, I am wonderfully free of them.

  • Ingrid Minerva
    8 years ago

    I know this one all too well >_<

  • Anonymous
    10 years ago

    I love you blog! I am 21 and have had migraine disease since I was 3! I have also had chronic daily headaches, cluster headaches, tension and icepick headaches. Horrible pain. In highschool, thought they never said it to my face, i was known as The Migraine Girl. I think it's hilarious that this is the name of your blog.
    Way to go!

  • Kelly
    11 years ago

    I enjoyed your post very much. I’ve suffered from migraines since I was 10 (I’m 27 now). For the longest time I would just get one (maybe two) a year. Two years ago I started getting one almost every three weeks for a 10 month span. They were horrible, very strong and I bounced around from dr to dr trying to figure them out. I had no clue that aspartame could even be a trigger at this point. Finally on one visit my dr (who’s great) made me think really carefully about any changes there had been to my diet. It was then that I realized that the only thing that changed was I started drinking diet soda. I had NEVER touched the stuff before! He agreed that was the trigger. I stopped aspartame and have almost been migraine free for a year! I’m not saying aspartame is the end all be all trigger because I have a long history with migraines and occassionaly weather or other things will set me off. But to go from a ‘normal’ pattern of one a year, to all of a sudden happening all the time with the only change in my life being diet soda – that’s too much proof for me! Regardless what they say, I’m avoiding aspartame!

  • Gloria Stengel
    11 years ago

    I read that article too. I am here to say even the thought of having nutra-sweet gives me a migraine. I simply cannot have it! None. Nada. Zip! I am the same with MSG and some other food additives (sp?).

  • themigrainegirl
    11 years ago

    Sandy, I’m so glad things have turned around for you–if only it hadn’t been so rough getting there. Aspartame is a scary, scary thing!

  • Sandy,TX EMS college students
    11 years ago

    I am new to the “Migraine Girl” blog page but I am NOT however a newbie when it comes to migraines.
    I have intractible migraines-meaning everyday migrainies.
    There are in fact several different categories that a migraine is classified as: intractible, chronic, tension, menstrual, stress,etc. Dec. 2007 I was diagnosed after Excedrin flat out stopped working ad I had been going through a bottle a month.
    This might offend the FDA but I am letting all other persons with any type of migraine that aspartame is a toxic poison. DO NOT EAT , put in your mouth, chew, or OR SWALLOW ANYTHING WITH A LABEL THAT reads or
    HAS “aspartame” or “another sugar substitute” I REPEAT !! DO NOT DO IT !! AFTER I stopped drinking diet coke it still took 2 to 3 week LATER for my body to purge all of the toxic crap (aspartame)out of me. The migraines at times were so bad I thought I has a brain tumor. I couldn’t see to drive and I ended up in the hospital. I also found out another thing, too. Aspartame is extremely toxic and was the reason why my face ws so swollen and puffed up at 340 pounds. I was unkowingly killing mysely thinking “diet” anything was the way to go. It was actually the road to my literal hell really. I finally ended up spending 3 months in a cast for an ankle fracture and then I found out how to fix my problem. It was literally all in my head….the asparatame had built up in my system for so long that I was toxic to the point of
    high blood pressure and stroke. I was immediately put on a regimen of preventitave migraine medication, and strict migraine-related diet and in the first month I dropped 20 pounds. The next month I dropped
    more, and then even more. The weight fell off so fast I was seeing stars every time I stood up, or sat down.
    By the time 4 or 5 months had gone by I had dropped 50 pounds and was still losing weight because I found out that is the chemicals in the food that was making me toxic, fat, and sick. I am personally convinced (based upon evidence in my own daily life experiences over the last year) chemicals in the “diet” products that the FDA COULD DO something about, but then they stil DO NOTHING today, because that woud mean each and ever one of them would have to take responsibility for what they should have alreay been doing. Watching and Protecting US. Now, I
    listen alot more to my own internal signals. Protecting Me. Myself. When I feel like certain foods bother me, I make a note of it, and then I don’t have them again. Ever! There is a list of food that are triggers of migraines and most of us probably do in fact leave them alone. But for those who don’t, PLEASE realize that you are only costing yourself more pain in the long run by thinking you can actually somehow “cheat” your migraines into NOT happening. Trust me, Excedrin is not a cure-all for people with migraines. we need real pros on our side. I did that “my way” thing and I still ended up doing the hospital ER route and I still wound up in the neurologists office too. The more you stick to your meds and follow a strict dietary plan the better treatment you can receive. I hope all you can realize that there is NO CURE for migraines, but Oh the things that It has allowed me to do because of it :
    1)I now can ride my bike after
    10 years and I enjoy life
    2) I went shopping for smaller clothes (twice in 6 months!)
    3) I am working on my associates degree and i look foreward to class
    4) I am doing math that I never thought I never could do
    5) I design my own jewelry
    ~looks good !
    6) weight training for fun hobbie
    7) never have asthma again
    ~ no not me !
    8) migraines have trained me to endure hardship, pain, and loss
    9) haven’t gained any weight back
    ~ woo hoo!!
    10) future looks bright

  • MaxJerz
    11 years ago

    Between Migraines and my probable IBS, I can’t touch any of the artificial sweeteners or even high fructose corn syrup. It has to be real, natural sugar or nothing, and it can’t be very much.

    You are NOT making this up. Poo on the FDA.

  • rain gem
    11 years ago

    Good find, that article didn’t pop-up in my searches somehow. Still, I got inspired and wrote a little piece of my own:

  • Mary Carol
    11 years ago

    Whenever a grocery sample-giver (I don’t know what those folks are officially called) offers me a taste of what might be a tasty dish, even if it’s not a dessert, I always, always ask about the ingredients. I am too wary that what they’re giving away may include aspartame or another sugar substitute. I avoid all of it!! The FDA needs to be more vigilant and less cavalier about its publications.
    I probably come across as obnoxious with friends, too, when I query them about what they bring to parties. I don’t mean to irritate them (really). But with the ads running all the time about how fabulous and wonderful and less caloric Spenda is, I am willing to annoy even my close pals. Even if I don’t suffer from true migraines, the headaches I do get are worth avoiding!
    Love from your mother

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