Is Aspartame a Headache Trigger?

Different colored sugar and sweetener packets
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Do you question whether that diet soda you drank for lunch triggered your headache? Are you sensitive to aspartame – a low calorie sugar substitute? Or maybe you find that you tolerate aspartame fine with no new headaches – and it's even helped to reduce your waistline.

Let's take a closer look at aspartame and its controversial role in headache health.

What is Aspartame?

Aspartame is a U.S. Food and Drug Administered (FDA) approved artificial sweetener used in many everyday foods and drinks.

Aspartame is extremely sweet – about 180 to 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Only a very tiny amount is needed to sweeten a product – so it can satisfy your sweet tooth with only a small amount of calories.

Examples of Foods that Contain Aspartame

  • Carbonate soft drinks
  • Non-Carbonated Diet Soft Drinks
  • Cereals
  • Gum
  • Flavored water products
  • Juice and Vegetable Drinks
  • Fruit Spreads, Jams, Jellies
  • Sugar-Free Ice Cream, Chocolate Syrup, Pies, Cookies, Gelatin, Yogurts

How Does Aspartame "Potentially" Trigger Headaches?

Aspartame has been linked to triggering headaches, especially migraines. One theory is that migraineurs develop an allergic response to formaldehyde – a breakdown product of aspartame.

What is the Controversy Over Aspartame?

Since its approval in the 1980s, there has been considerable public concern that aspartame could cause a variety of health problems. However, overall scientific research has not sufficiently supported these claims.

For headaches, in particular, some studies have supported aspartame as a potential trigger of headaches and others have not. For instance, in one study in Neurology (1994), 18 participants – who self-identified aspartame as a headache trigger – were randomized to receive either a high dose of aspartame or placebo over four 7-day periods.

The participants who received aspartame reported headaches on 33% of days compared to 24% in the placebo group.

There was some concern with this study's results though since it was highly sensitive to the data reported by one of the participants – who suffered a great number of headaches with aspartame administration as compared to placebo.

In response to this concern, the authors of this study in Neurology stated, "As for the conclusion we reached, we believe we were sufficiently cautious in our interpretation where we suggested that some individuals appear to be susceptible to aspartame. "

This seems like a fair response. It very well could be that certain individuals are particularly sensitive to aspartame as a food-related headache trigger. It's just hard to tell from the scientific data so far– which is not very robust.

On the Other Hand...

In another study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 40 participants who self-reported aspartame as a headache trigger were given a high dose of aspartame or placebo.

There was no difference in the number of headaches after aspartame versus placebo.

What Does This All Mean?

Based on the available research, it's difficult to conclude yet whether aspartame is a headache trigger. It's all too conflicting at this point.

This all being said, as a headache sufferer, you are the most important resource. If aspartame triggers your migraines or headaches, then by all means limit or avoid it. You know your body and your headache triggers best. No amount of science can compete with that. Listen to and trust yourself.

Sources

Aspartame Information Center. In The Calorie Control Council. (2015). Retrieved May 26th 2015, from http://www.aspartame.org/.

Blumenthal, H.J. & Vance, D.A. Chewing gum headache. Headache. 1997; 37:665–66.

Jacob, S. E., & Stechschulte, S., (2008). Formaldehyde, aspartame, and migraines: A possible connection. Dermatitis: Contact, Atopic, Occupational, Drug. 2008;19(3):E10-E11.

Levy PS, Hedeker D, & Sanders PG. Aspartame and headache. Neurology. 1995 Aug;45(8):1631-2; author reply 1632-3.

Lipton, R.B., Newman, L.C., Cohen, J.S., & Solomon, S. Aspartame as a dietary trigger of headache. Headache. 1989; 29: 90–2

Sathyapalan T et al. Aspartame sensitivity? A double-blind randomized crossover study. PLoS One. 2015 Mar 18;10(3):e0116212. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116212. eCollection 2015.

San-Edelstein, C., & Mauskop, A. (2009). Foods and supplements in the management of migraine headaches. Clin J Pain.  2009 Jun;25(5):446-52.

Schiffman S. Aspartame and headache. Neurology. 1995 Aug;45(8):1632; author reply 1632-3.

Schiffman, S.S. et al. Aspartame and susceptibility to headache. New Engl J Med. 1987; 317: 1181–85.

Van den Eeden, S.K., et al. Aspartame ingestion and headaches: a randomized crossover trial. Neurology. 1994; 44: 1787–93.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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