Aspartame, Phenylalanine, Migraine Headaches and One Hippie’s Experience


I was having a conversation last night about foods labeled “natural” and whether or not Aspartame (Nutrasweet) should be considered a natural ingredient.

Aspartame is a sugar substitute made from 50% phenylalanine, 40% Aspartic Acid and 10% Methanol (Wood alcohol).  It is technically classified as a drug, not a food.

Let me start by sharing a personal experience, so you know why I have this information knocking around inside my brain in the first place.

Several months ago I was having a conversation with a friend about migraine headaches.

If you are one of those people who will go to work and sigh and say, “Ugh! I feel so terrible. I have had a migraine for three days now,” let me assure you that you have never actually had a real migraine.  They will knock you on your butt like nothing else.  I’ve had 2 babies, seen my knee cap pushed to the back of my leg, endured surgery and rehab on said knee…. NOTHING hurt like a migraine.  I can’t open my eyes unless the room is nearly pitch black.  Even the glow from a night-light feels like 1,000 needles in my brain.  Sounds echo inside my skull.  I can’t lie down because the pressure of my head against the pillow hurts so much it makes me vomit.  I have crawled to the bathroom because I was too dizzy to walk.

Some people lose their ability to speak, see blinding “auras” around objects, have seizures, and more.

Migraines are really truly horrible on a level that is hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

His were severe enough and frequent enough that he had been on prescription medication to help prevent them.  This medication was harsh and made him feel terrible, so it was a toss-up between which was more awful:  the horrible headaches or the side effects from the drugs.  Then he saw a different specialist who suggested that items containing phenylalanine may be a trigger for him.  He cut out diet soda and a few other foods and almost immediately saw a dramatic decrease in the frequency of the headaches.

My New Year’s resolution had been to give up soda, especially Diet Coke, which I’d been drinking to excess.

During this conversation I thought, “That’s true!  After an initial bout of horrible headaches and general misery in the 2 weeks after going “cold turkey” I haven’t had another migraine since!”

I have since cut Aspartame completely from my diet.  It’s not hard to do IF you are aware that it is in a wide variety of products.  It’s in SOME candy, gum, mints, yogurt, soda and more.  But there are plenty of other varieties of candy, gum, yogurt, etc that do not contain it.

I used to have a migraine every 6-8 weeks or so.  As of writing this, I haven’t had one in almost 9 months.  Here’s hoping and praying I’ll never have another!

My friend and I are not alone.  Despite the fact that there are some groups out there who claim that there is no definitive proof that Aspartame can be harmful, there are other studies that reach some startling conclusions.

The New England Journal of Medicine, a world-renowned medical journal, has conducted studies that have found a connection between heavy consumption of diet drinks sweetened with aspartame and migraine headaches. One study in particular seems heavily slanted toward finding a connection as those taking part reported having headaches on 33% of the days in which the study was conducted as opposed to the control group which reported headaches on only 24% of the days.

One scientist who has conducted research came to the startling conclusion that 90% of all migraines are caused by allergic reactions to food or food additives. His findings also suggest that aspartame is the most common food additive related to migraines. Another study came to an equally amazing conclusion that 10% of all migraines are related to aspartame consumption. A study conducted at the Univ. of Florida came to perhaps the most jaw-dropping conclusion of them all, finding that aspartame increased the frequency of migraine headaches in over fifty percent of the patients who took part in the study.

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So here’s the deal on Aspartame and Phenylalanine:

If you live in the US, you’ve probably noticed one thing or another that has, on the label, a warning that reads, “CAUTION PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE.”  If you are like most people you had NO IDEA what this meant so you assumed it was directed toward someone else and ignored it.

Those are products that contain Aspartame and, you are probably right.  Unless you are the less than 1% of the population that has been diagnosed with PKU (phenylketonuria), the warning is not for you.  The warning is there because, for that <1%, the reaction is swift and potentially deadly.  This disease is so serious that all newborns in this country are screened for it.

For the rest of us, phenylalanine is a safe, normal and necessary amino acid that occurs in almost any animal product as well as  many nuts, and legumes, and some fruit.  It is almost always in bread, pasta, cereal, cookies, and other products made from flour of any sort.

Some people actually take prescription phenylalanine supplements to treat a variety of disorders.

But, there are those, and some studies show that the numbers may be higher than originally thought, that don’t metabolize phenylalanine very quickly.  For those people, it can accumulate in the system.

For pregnant women this is a very serious issue.  Webmd says this:

Having too much phenylalanine in the mother’s system during pregnancy can increase the chances of birth defects. The risk for facial defects is highest at weeks 10-14, nervous system and growth defects between 3-16 weeks, and heart defects at 3-8 weeks. For women who process phenylalanine normally and have normal levels, it’s probably fine to get the amount of phenylalanine found in food, but not in higher doses. Don’t take supplements. For women who have high levels of phenylalanine, even normal food amounts are UNSAFE. Additionally, experts recommend a low phenylalanine diet for at least 20 weeks before getting pregnant. This should reduce the risk of birth defects.

Also affected are those on certain drugs including Levodopa, MAOIs, and antipsychotic drugs.

Diabetics need to be careful of this, especially since they are the most likely users of Aspartame as a sugar substitute.  They can, and should, ask their doctors to monitor their levels.

Very young children tend to accumulate higher levels faster than older kids and adults.

So is Aspartame safe for the rest of us?


Remember that Phenylalanine is only 50%.

40% is Aspartic Acid (aspartate).  Again, that is a part of a naturally occurring amino acid.  Your body makes it, regardless of what you eat and it is necessary, in those amounts, to keep you healthy.


According to (a) 2009 “Impulse” article, aspartate can increase the stimulation of nerve cells causing disturbance and rapid firing action of these affected cells. This is supported by the results of a study published by the journal “Psychopharmacology” in April 2009, which states that the excessive activation of aspartate receptors by aspartic acid in the nerves, can lead to a number of acute and chronic nervous system disorders such as seizures and Alzheimer’s disease. The study also states that other nervous conditions can occur, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that causes gradual progression of nerve cell degeneration causing problems in voluntary muscle movement and Huntington’s disease, a genetically determined deterioration of nerve cells in the brain. (source link)
And Aspartame is 10% Methanol.
Methanol is also known as “wood alcohol” and can be deadly in large quantities.  When you heat it, it turns into formaldehyde – which is a known neurotoxin.  So… if you boil your sugar-free Jell-0 mix or even leave your Diet Coke in the car on a hot summer day, you are now consuming a substance that is technically classified as a brain-killing poison.
Yeah… there is no good spin on that.
Despite that, Wikipedia says this about Aspartame:
 Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by more than ninety countries worldwide,[13][14] with FDA officials describing aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut”.[4] The weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe as a non-nutritive sweetener.[8]
To be fair, Wiki is not the only one saying that. There are a LOT of websites that say that Aspartame has proven time and again to be safe and there are millions of people who consume it every day and have reported no bad effects.
Here is what this Hippie Mama has to say:
It seems that, for whatever reason, Aspartame was triggering migraines for my friend and me.  Since I cut it out of my diet I feel better and so does he.
Like so many food additives it is, technically, natural.  But, taken from its natural element and the other proteins it is normally linked to, it no longer reacts in a natural way with the body.
In researching all this I came across, over and over again, the statement, “scientists are unclear as to why….”
Why do some people react badly?  Why do some people metabolize it better? Why do some people say it helps with ADD? Why do some studies show it makes Parkinson’s worse?
Scientists don’t know.
The truth is that science has only begun to study the tip of the iceberg in regard to what we ingest and the ways that it affects us.   That’s why one day Oleo is good for you and the next we are all dying from our trans-fat consumption.  One day the cholesterol in eggs is causing heart attacks and the next we hear about the incredible edible egg.  Modern science is in its infancy.  That’s not to say they know nothing and have learned nothing…. just….  they don’t know everything.  
For me, if there is no medical reason to be using a chemical in place of a natural product (sugar cane, honey, etc), then you should always choose nature.  Your body was designed to be harmonic with nature.  Nothing in your system is in harmony with factory-made anything.  If something in your body is indicating dis-ease (like unexplained chronic headaches or muscle pain or fatigue), maybe it’s because you need to go back to nature.
So there it is:  The story on Aspartame, Phenylalanine, and this hippie’s experience.

About Elizabeth in MI

I'm a married mama with 2 beautiful step children, 2 from my own belly, and the best husband in the universe! I work part time at my church as a secretary and youth director and I truly enjoy 3 hour naps and reading fiction beneath my education level. Write me a note, any time at I'd love to hear from you.

12 responses »

  1. An acquaintance who worked for the F.D.A. said they totally do favors for big pharma companies. It’s very political. Also, before aspartame was approved, he said, “The F.D.A. is about to approve a product called aspartame. Don’t ever use it!” Apparently, it was very harmful to their lab rats, but the bottom line was more important to them than safety. Scary stuff!

  2. You forgot to mention that aspartame tastes like crap. 🙂
    My parents suffer from really rheumatoid arthritis, and I read that aspartame can possibly cause or exacerbate that condition as well. My dad consumes a lot of it, so I told him to quit and see if sees even a tiny improvement, but I don’t think he’s quit.
    It tastes gross and has so many possible negative effects and no good ones. I see no point in consuming it.

    • I know a lot of people who would agree with you, but I have to admit… I sort of love the taste. But I love NOT being terribly ill more.
      I have heard of the link between RA and aspartame too. Let me know if he ever tries it and how it goes. I’m curious about that!

    • I’ve only just started on my journey to avoid refined sugar. It’s much harder than one would think! The stuff is in EVERYTHING. The other day I was trying to buy canned fruit in fruit juice and it ALL had sugar added. To FRUIT!?! It is already sweet! Why in the world does it need sugar?!

    • Yes! Not just behavioral problems but respiratory issues, childhood cancers, digestive disorders, allergies and more.
      I read a comment recently (I’m sorry, I don’t remember where) that really stuck with me. It said, “In our parent’s generation kids ate cupcakes loaded with sugar and fat, but along with all that they were getting REAL eggs and wheat and milk, etc. Now we give kids a cupcake and alongside the sugar we give them a handful of chemicals.”

  3. Pingback: Five Fabulous Moments You May Have Missed in 2013 | Lazy Hippie Mama

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