ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS – are they worth the risks?

“Drinking one artificially sweetened drink a day could triple your risk of having a stroke or developing dementia”

This is a powerful statement, published in various newspapers around the world since it was reported in April 2017. The statement was from recent US research by the Boston University and published in Stroke medical journal. Researchers followed almost 2,900 people over the age of 45 as part of the study on strokes and almost 1,500 people over 60 for the dementia study. After adjustments such as age, sex, education, diet quality, physical activity, calorie intake and smoking were taken into account, a higher recent intake and a higher cumulative intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks were associated with an increased risk of stroke, all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

With regards to the link between artificial sweeteners and cancer, there have only been a few long term studies conducted over 30 years ago and these were conducted by the manufacturers of the artificial sweeteners. In these studies, they fed rats aspartame, euthanized the rats when they reached two thirds of their lifespan and performed autopsies. Considering that 80% of cancer is diagnosed in humans over 55 years of age (over two thirds of their lifespan) these studies have distorted the results.

In the largest, most comprehensive carcinogenic study ever performed on aspartame, researchers from the European Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences studied large groups of rodents that were fed varying levels of aspartame (including levels far below the acceptable level for human consumption) and were allowed to live out their natural lifespan, then were autopsied. This study design more closely mirrors the natural progression of cancer in humans. The results of that study concluded that “… aspartame is a carcinogenic agent, capable of inducing malignancies at dose levels lower than the current acceptable daily intake for humans.”

There have long been anecdotal reports of increased seizures in humans after ingestion of aspartame. Seizures are diagnosed using an EGG (Electroencephalogram), which measures the electrical signals in the brain. A research article published in the journal Neurology, which is the official Journal of the American Academy of Neurology, concluded that “… aspartame appears to exacerbate the amount of EEG spike waves in children with absence seizures.” (Absence seizures used to be referred to as Petit Mal seizures)

The American Headache Society published a research paper that concluded “… aspartame may be an important dietary trigger of headache in some people.” Another study released by the University of Miami concluded that aspartame “… has been linked to pediatric and adolescent migraines.”

So what do artificial sweeteners contain?

Aspartame, a common artificial sweetener, is composed of methanol (10%), aspartic acid (40%) and phenylalanine (50%).

Methanol is a toxic substance that breaks down into formaldehyde (a neurotoxin) once ingested. Formaldehyde is a chemical used in building materials such as particle board, glues and certain insulation materials. It is also used as a fungicide, disinfectant and a preservative in medical laboratories. Formaldehyde is classed as carcinogenic.

The EPA (The United States Environmental Protection Agency) states that methanol “is considered a cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed.

Aspartic acid is one of the major excitatory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. Excessive levels of aspartic acid literally kill brain neurons. In 2011, Dr. Russell Blaylock who was professor of Neurosurgery at the Medical University of Mississippi, published a book detailing the damage caused by the ingestion of excessive aspartic acid from aspartame. Blaylock cites nearly 500 scientific references in his book linking aspartic acid and glutamic acid (another excitatory neurotransmitter) to serious neurological disorders and many other acute symptoms.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid, a building block of protein and it is essential to human life. Too much Phenylalanine on the other hand can lead to anxiety, headaches, birth defects, mental retardation, high blood pressure and stroke. Excessive levels of Phenylalanine in the brain lead to lower levels of Serotonin. Low levels of Serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, OCD tendencies, digestive disorders and constipation.

It isn’t just the potential for causing cancer, strokes, dementia, Alzheimers and the various forms of neurological damage mentioned above, but artificial sweeteners have also been shown to cause glucose intolerance by altering gut microbiome.  Imbalances of the gut microbiome can negatively affect every single aspect of our health – from our mental health, to immunity, nutrient absorption, hormones and more.

A 5 year study that followed over 6,800 Americans aged between 45 – 84 found that those who drank artificially sweetened beverages at least once a day were at a 67% greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This was regardless of whether or not they gained weight. They were also at a 36% greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. As this was an observational study, it does not definitively prove that the artificial sweeteners were the cause of the increased risks, but combined with the studies showing an overall increase in calorie consumption when artificial sweeteners are consumed, it is certainly research that cannot be ignored.

Prospective cohort studies, such as the Nurse’s Health Study, have demonstrated associations between higher intake of artificially sweetened beverages and an increased risk of incident hypertension. More research needs to be done to fully determine whether the artificial sweeteners caused the hypertension or whether diet beverages are favoured by those most at risk.

For those reading this article who consume artificially sweetened drinks because you think it helps with weight loss – you may have to think again. When artificial sweeteners are consumed, the brain registers the sweetness and expects an intake of energy. When there is no energy, it triggers an increase in appetite to make up for the energy that was not contained in the sweetener. Animal tests have shown an increase in total calorie consumption of 30% when the animals are fed artificial sweeteners.

This may explain why people often gain more weight when they consume artificial sweeteners and it is backed up by a large study that followed thousands of residents of San Antonio for 10 years. The study found those who drank more than 21 servings of artificially sweetened drinks a week were at twice the risk of becoming overweight or obese, and the more diet soda people drank, the greater the risk.

We are all individuals – not everyone who smokes ends up with lung cancer, not everyone who excessively drinks alcohol ends up with liver disease. Not everyone who drinks artificially sweetened soft drinks ends up with the health issues mentioned throughout this article.

The problem of course is that we are playing Russian roulette with our lives – we cannot possibly know if we are one of the vulnerable ones.

Is that a risk you are willing to take??

By Andrea Southern,                                                                                                   Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist                                                                  at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane.                                                                For an appointment phone 0412 791 705


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