Friday, March 24, 2006

Poisoned by aspartame

Friday, March 24, 2006

Approximately four years ago I developed a bizarre condition whereby, out of the blue, my left hand would start tingling. The sensation would rapidly ascend up my arm to my shoulder and then my face. 'Pins and needles' turned to numbness and because the movement of my limbs no longer bore any relation to my intentions, felt somehow alien. I may as well have been swimming through treacle with arms the length of Freddy Kruger's in the first Nightmare on Elm Street; the 20 foot long ones animated with strings as you would a marionette.

This was in fact the least distressing symptom. Visual disturbance in the form of a double or triple kaleidoscope effect followed leaving me unable to focus or discern one object from another. To me people were shadowy, featureless ghosts, and traffic a streaming jumble of over-exposed light. I became totally disoriented, couldn't think clearly, comprehend speech or the written word or draw more than a handful of words from my vocabulary when I attempted to speak. Relief came only from lying down in a darkened room for an hour until the condition abated.

When asked for her advice, my GP gawped at me as though I'd just beamed down from a flying saucer, shrugged her shoulders and hustled me off to the hospital to have an MRI, and later, a CAT scan. The results were handed to a neurologist to examine and he informed me that I didn't have a brain tumour, epilepsy or any other severe neurological disorders which would elucidate my symptoms. Reassuringly good news, you'd think.

Each specialist I saw was more perplexed than the last and could only refer me to someone else. Eventually one of them fleetingly, and with little conviction, suggested that what I was experiencing could be migraine. This surprised me because I'd never suffered from serious headaches so dismissed the idea initially. Migraine, to most of us, involves the sensation of having the skull trephined without anaesthetic. No cranial burrowing equals no migraine, right?

As the 'experts' were on the case, until then I'd resisted the temptation of tapping my symptoms into Google to see if I could diagnose myself - that and the fact that reading about being ill is the surefire route to making you feel ten times worse!

The results startled me; the mystery, inexplicable condition that had stumped so many medical practitioners turned out to be a textbook case of 'migraine with aura', the aura being the visual disturbance that can present itself with or without the incidence of any temporal stabbing pains.

I'd hit the jackpot and yet was seething at the same time given the incompetence of all but one of my doctors. As I delved further into the issue I came across a list of the most common migraine trigger foods/additives. Some of them I could discount immediately because they have never been a component of my diet, while others had to be eliminated one by one through a process of trial and error.

On examining the nutritional information tables of the food and drink I consumed, one substance I found cropped up more than most was aspartame; an artificial sweetener more commonly known as Nutrasweet, Equal or Canderel. It's used in practically everything designated as 'low calorie' or 'no added sugar' as it tastes similar to sugar yet doesn't have the same high energy value.

The most notable offenders in my case were Diet Coke, Cadbury's Options hot chocolate and Robinson's fruit cordials, so I relinquished them all cold turkey. Within a week I was feeling far less foggy-headed and my, daily by this stage, dizzy spells gradually tapered off. Two months into my aspartame fast I've managed to shake off my perma-drunk state and feel I'm finally on the road to recovery.

Looking back with 20-20 hindsight I can see that my dizzy spells escalated around the time I began cutting down my coffee consumption in favour of 'healthier' alternatives (Coke excluded of course as it also contains high doses of caffeine, oh and tooth-rotting acids too, let's not forget about those). I simply didn't make the connection between consuming produce that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other regulatory bodies around the world, and feeling like a paralytic zombie. Was that naive? Maybe I was so fixated on more dramatic explanations I had become blind to the mundane ones.

Sure, I'd read in the newspapers that aspartame had been linked with cancer, but what hasn't been these days? Today e-numbers are the bogeymen, tomorrow it could be oxygen. Before the dust has settled, scientists spin 360 degrees on their heels; everything bad for you is good for you.

I'm not qualified to judge the veracity of the evidence linking the use of aspartame to 92 independent health problems ranging in severity from mild itching to brain cancer, yet I know how it affected me personally and won't touch this toxic filth ever again.

Despite the fact that nut allergies only affect approximately 0.4% of the population, manufacturers are now legally bound to issue their produce with a health warning whenever there is the slimmest chance that it may contain a trace of nut. What will it take to make the same true for produce containing aspartame? Something along the lines of, "if it doesn't kill you, it'll make you wish it would!" should suffice.

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