Aspartame is an artificial sweetener (non-saccharide) that is often used as a substitute for sugar in drinks such as diet sodas as well as foods like chewing gum. Aspartame was first created under the name NutraSweet in 1965 and is made up of three specific elements: phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. There is much controversy surrounding its use in food products since being approved by the FDA in 1981. It has been reevaluated multiple times and 2013 research suggests that consumption of the sweetener at current levels is safe for humans.
Due to its breakdown that includes phenylalanine, aspartame should not be consumed by individuals that have been diagnosed with PKU (phenylketonuria). A majority of people consume aspartame in large amounts when they drink diet soda. Some researchers suggest that aspartame can actually be an addictive additive, which tends to result in withdrawal symptoms when a person discontinues consumption. Chemically speaking, it is believed that aspartame has addictive properties because it affects the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
When withdrawing from aspartame, people often report an array of different withdrawal effects. Many individuals though who withdraw from drinking diet soda end up dealing with caffeine withdrawal symptoms, which can have some similar effects to the discontinuation from aspartame. In fact, many people going through “withdrawal” from caffinated beverages are more likely dealing with the caffeine withdrawal as it has a greater effect on our level of arousal and cognition. That being said, there is some evidence that cutting aspartame consumption can also lead to withdrawal symptoms.
Factors that influence Aspartame withdrawal
Aspartame itself can have an effect on the way the brain is functioning, therefore when it is discontinued, people may experience withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms are usually influenced by the time span over which aspartame was consumed, amount consumed on a daily basis, individual psychology, and whether you taper off of it or quit cold turkey.
1. Time Span
How long have you been consuming aspartame? People who have been polishing off 6 cans of diet soda per day for years are likely consuming a pretty high amount of aspartame. The longer the time over which you have been consistently consuming this additive, the more severe the withdrawal process will likely be compared to someone who randomly has a can of soda.
2. Daily Consumption (Amount)
In the average carbonated beverage, there is 180 mg of aspartame. If you drink several of these per day, your aspartame consumption is likely pretty high. In a powdered soft drink there is approximately 120 mg of aspartame, while in a stick of gum, there is only 6 to 8 mg per stick. It is thought that if you consume a lot of aspartame on a daily basis, you may experience more significant withdrawals than someone who consumes a very low amount.
3. Individual Physiology
Much of the withdrawal experience will be based on individual circumstances. Some people will naturally have a more difficult time coping with the cravings that they experience when withdrawing. People who have consumed large quantities of aspartame for an extended period of time may have a tougher time with the withdrawal.
It should also be noted that some people tend to have nervous systems that recover at quicker rates than others. If you are on any other drugs, it may affect your ability to notice a withdrawal and/or minimize symptoms.
4. Cold Turkey vs. Tapering
Most people do not bother tapering off of aspartame – they just quit “cold turkey.” Compared to other drugs, this is not something that necessarily needs to be tapered off of. However, most of the time when people gradually taper off of a drug or something that is having an influence on their physiology, tapering results in less withdrawal effects. You could conduct a gradual taper if you think it will help or if you cannot handle quitting cold turkey.
Aspartame Withdrawal Symptoms: List of Possibilities
Below are a list of possible symptoms that you may experience during withdrawal from aspartame. Keep in mind that compared to serious drugs, these symptoms are likely not going to be nearly as intense or severe. Aspartame is known to have an effect on the brain’s pleasure center – specifically influencing dopamine. It is thought that when this dopamine influence is initially removed, a person may experience some sort of discontinuation symptoms.
- Anxiety: One symptom that people may notice in a subtle way is some anxiety. Aspartame can have an influence on moods and affect anxiety levels in sensitive individuals. In various self-accounts, people have noted excessive anxiety when she stopped drinking her powdered aspartame drinks.
- Appetite changes: In some individuals, aspartame can subtly increase appetite and cravings for junk food. In other people, it may reduce appetite. When you stop your consumption, do not be surprised if your appetite changes.
- Concentration: Many individuals report that they feel mentally foggy for a short term during withdrawal. However, eventually many have reported experiencing increases in concentration and less deficits in attention and hyperactivity.
- Cravings: Perhaps the most common symptom to experience is that of cravings. Anything that has an influence on dopamine in the brain can lead a person to crave more of the substance. Be mindful of any cravings that you have during your withdrawal.
- Depression: When people aren’t getting their fix of aspartame and withdraw, they can sometimes end up with a low-grade, mild depression. Keep in mind that this isn’t going to be the case for everyone, but stopping it may result in a temporary mood dip.
- Dizziness: If you experience dizziness when you stop drinking diet soda, it may be more due to the caffeine withdrawal than that of aspartame. However, some individuals have reported experiencing minor dizziness when they quit aspartame.
- Fatigue: Aspartame may have an influence on your energy levels and excitation in the brain. When you stop consuming it, you may become temporarily lethargic or notice that your energy levels are low.
- Headaches: Another commonly reported symptom during withdrawal is that of headaches. Some have gone on to say that they’ve experienced painful migraines as they’ve come off of aspartame. Stay hydrated, rest, and consider headache relief medicine if your headaches are severe.
- Heart palpitations: With increased anxiety during withdrawal can sometimes lead to palpitations or sensations of abnormally loud or racing heart beat. These should subside as soon as your anxiety diminishes.
- Insomnia: Do you notice that you cannot fall asleep at night now since cutting aspartame? This is something that may affect you in the initial few weeks of quitting. Your sleep cycle should recover and your arousal should drop.
- Joint pain: Some people have noted joint pain when they quit using aspartame. You may also note some degree of muscle weakness and/or body aches.
- Lightheadedness: There is no specific reason for feeling “lightheaded” when quitting aspartame, but it is a symptom that some people experience. Ironically some people actually get this symptom when they drink aspartame as well.
- Mood swings: As was mentioned, you may experience both anxiety and depression during withdrawal. These alone can lead a person to have mood swings during the acute phases of withdrawal (i.e. first couple weeks).
- Panic attacks: This isn’t really a common symptom, but some individuals have noticed that when they withdraw from consumption of aspartame, they experience significant anxiety and panic. If you notice yourself becoming panicky, take the time to realize that it’s likely due to your withdrawal. Practice some deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help calm your nervous system.
- Restlessness: Certain people may notice that they feel especially restless for the first week or two after they cut aspartame. This may have to do with aspartame consumption actually keeping an individual calm. When the aspartame is cut, it may make a person temporarily restless until their brain gets used to not having the additive.
- Sleep changes: If your sleep cycle changes, it could be due to the aspartame withdrawal. If you are also cutting caffeine, it is more likely due to the caffeine than the aspartame. Any changes in sleep patterns should subside in a week or two.
- Weight changes: It has been noted that aspartame can influence food cravings and hunger. Some people may lose weight when they come off of aspartame. Others may experience more normal cravings for food if aspartame acted as an appetite suppressant.
Aspartame Withdrawal Duration: How long does it last?
There is no predictable duration for withdrawal symptoms from aspartame. Some people have reported feeling completely recovered within one week. Others have reported that it took up to a full month for them to feel psychologically recovered with normal energy levels. In any event, the withdrawal will likely not last more than a month as this is not some serious psychiatric drug – it is merely a food additive.
Additionally, I would not be surprised if people find that they don’t notice any withdrawal from cutting aspartame. In most cases, what diet soda drinkers are referencing as “aspartame withdrawal” is actually caffeine withdrawal. In any event, it is recommended to make sure your nutrition is balanced, that you are getting adequate exercise, and are allowing your body to get some extra rest during withdrawal.
Eventually your body’s blood sugar levels and energy stores should normalize and avoid excess sugar as people have also experienced sugar withdrawal symptoms. Additionally your neurotransmission in the brain should reset and transition to functioning without the influence of aspartame. During aspartame withdrawal it is recommended to avoid all artificial sweeteners. If you end up having strong cravings, choose some sort of natural sweetener or avoid all sweeteners if you can.
Have you successfully withdrawn from aspartame consumption? If so, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. What did you experience when you initially cut aspartame from your diet? How long was your withdrawal process? Do you feel healthier overall or did you not really notice much of any change?