Aspartame and Multiple Sclerosis, Bitter Connection
Some evidence exists of a relationship between aspartame and multiple sclerosis. What do we know about the link between this common artificial sweetener and MS?
Not much has been written about a connection between aspartame and multiple sclerosis, although it is a topic that is frequently raised among those with MS. Given the widespread use of this no-calorie product (aka NutraSweet, Equal, Equal-Measure, Spoonful) and the thousands of everyday products in which it appears, it’s important to explore what has been discovered thus far.
The artificial sweetener aspartame has been categorized as an additive to avoid by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. It has been shown to be associated with cancer in animals and to increase the risk of cancer in men. The sweetener may be linked to preterm delivery and is known to cause headache and dizziness. It also may affect the nervous system and be associated with multiple sclerosis.
Aspartame and the brain
According to Dr. Russell L. Blaylock, a board certified neurosurgeon and the author of Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, aspartame is in the category mentioned in his book title. Excitotoxins are chemicals (usually amino acids such as aspartate and glutamate) that are commonly used to enhance the flavor of foods. In addition to aspartame, other food-related excitotoxins include monosodium glutamate, soy protein extract, and hydrolyzed protein.
The major problem with excitotoxins is that they overstimulate brain cell (neuron) receptors. Overstimulation of the brain cells causes them to send out signals so rapidly that the brain loses synapses and connecting fibers, and the cells eventually die. Blaylock notes that excitotoxicity has a major role in multiple sclerosis because it destroys the cells called oligodendrocytes that produce myelin (the fatty substance that protects the nerve cells).
Aspartame, methyl alcohol, and formaldehyde
Another health expert who frowns on aspartame is Dr. Woody Monte, a respected expert on methanol and aspartame and professor emeritus at Arizona State University in food and chemistry. He has explained that aspartame, which is composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid and an alcohol (methanol), has a synthetic methyl group bound to the former amino acid.
This phenylalanine methyl bond is not strong, and methyl alcohol (also known as wood alcohol) can be released easily by, say, exposing a soft drink containing aspartame to high temperatures.
Methyl alcohol is cheap and can be used to flavor a wide variety of products, so it is perfect in the eyes of people in the food and drug industries. When methyl alcohol has been tested in animals, as is the trend when food additives are researched for safety and efficacy, it has not sent up major red flags.
However, animals and humans metabolize methyl alcohol differently, explains Dr. Monte, and therein lies a danger. Although both animals and people have the same structures in their cells called peroxisomes that can detoxify chemicals, animals do it much better when it comes to methyl alcohol.
What’s the difference? Peroxisomes contain catalase, an enzyme that helps detoxify methanol after it is transformed to formaldehyde, a toxic substance. Fortunately, other chemicals then change the formaldehyde to a harmless substance called formic acid. The problem is this latter process occurs only in animals and not in humans.
In blood vessels in the brain, there is an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that converts methanol to formaldehyde. Because there is no catalase there to make the formaldehyde harmless, however, much damage can occur. Monte notes there are various areas in the body where alcohol dehydrogenase converts methanol into formaldehyde (what Monte calls a methylating monster), and many of them are susceptible to the development of chronic disease such as MS.
Dr. Monte believes a cause of multiple sclerosis involves the presence of aspartame and the series of bodily processes that occur once it is consumed. He encourages people with multiple sclerosis or with symptoms of the disease to avoid foods that contain aspartame and those associated with methanol.
Therefore, his foods to avoid list includes the following: fruits and vegetables (including their juices) that are overly ripe or nearly rotting or those packaged in bottles, cans, or pouches; smoked foods (especially meats and fish), any commercially available jellies, jams, and marmalades; tomato juice and black currant products; fruit schnapps; any food, beverage, medication, or supplement that contains aspartame. You also should avoid cigarettes.
Blaylock RL. Is glutamine supplementation helpful or harmful?
Centers for Science in the Public Interest
Mercola.com: Toxicology experts explains why aspartame is so dangerous to your health