Aspartame & Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Food of the Week -- One to Avoid: Aspartame

You've probably heard a lot of claims about how aspartame, the artificial sweetener sold as NutraSweet and Equal, is bad for your health.  A lot of it is rumor and hype with no scientific backing, and some of it is directly refuted by research.  However, for those of us with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, this could be a food substance to avoid.

We do have some credible research showing potentially detrimental effects of aspartame that have special significance for us. According to studies, aspartame:

  • May activate NMDA receptors (pain receptors) in the spinal cord and contribute to central sensitization. (Ironically, aspartame is being studied in conjunction with certain drugs as a pain killer because of this effect;)
  • May lower dopamine levels, which are already reduced in many people with these conditions;
  • May be implicated in some mental disorders, compromised learning and emotional function. We don't have evidence suggesting this is worse for us than for healthy people, but we have enough problems in those areas already. (Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are not mental conditions, but some common co-morbidities are;)
  • May contribute to fibromyalgia symptoms in a subset of patients with allergies. In one small study, removing aspartame and monosodium glutamate from the diet improved symptoms greatly.

    Many people with these conditions and also many doctors say they've seen big improvements from eliminating aspartame. I decided several years ago to avoid it, but I didn't eat much of it to begin with so I didn't notice any changes.

    Aspartame can be hard to avoid, especially if you eat "light" "reduced-calorie" or "sugar-free" products.

    It's in things like diet sodas, sugar-free breath mints, low-cal ice cream, and a wealth of other processed foods. Fortunately, it's easy to spot on a label.

    Photo © Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

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