Is Your Sweetener Messing With Your Brain? The Link Between Aspartame and Depression

Monday, June 02, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Think artificial sweeteners are safe? Think again. Because in a serotonin and aspartame smack-down, aspartame will win every time.

It isn’t that serotonin is a weakling. Aspartame has a three-on-one advantage that destroys neurotransmitters and alters the way brain cells respond to one another. It’s like serotonin--one of the brain's happy chemicals--has to fight blindfolded with one arm behind his back, and we get depression, irritation, aggression or trouble sleeping as a reliable byproduct of this exchange. 

In short, aspartame is a cheating, ear biting asshole.

Don’t believe me? Let’s check out the research.

The Controversy Over Aspartame

Aspartame is present in a boatload of sugar-free products, including yogurts, chewing gums, diet sodas, drink powders and tabletop sweeteners like NutraSweet and Equal. While food industry research tends to report that the use of these additives is safe, independent studies show a much different story. In fact, while nearly all of the studies done on aspartame through the food industry say aspartame has little risk, 92% of independent studies show that aspartame has a high risk of adverse effects1, such as tumor growth, seizures and a number of other issues of the central nervous system and skin. Turns out that you can, quite easily, buy the research results you want if you have the capital.  

Guess who else is an asshole?  

This type of bias in research is scary stuff. Almost as scary as what aspartame does to your brain.

What is Aspartame? 

Aspartame breaks down into three main chemicals in the body during metabolism: phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%) and methanol (10%). But what do those chemicals do? 


Methanol (10%) breaks down into formaldehyde in the body. While this is a neurotoxin that tends to stick around and build up over time, this particular substance is not the main concern in aspartame.

Um...embalming chemicals are the least concerning thing in aspartame?  That's fucking scary. 

Aspartic Acid

Aspartic acid (40%) is an amino acid that raises levels of aspartate and glutamate in the body. Aspartate and glutamate are neurotransmitters in the brain, which carry information between cells. Too much of either aspartate or glutamate creates too much excitement within the cells, leading them to break down. These cells eventually die when they are unable to protect themselves from damage in this excitatory process. 

It’s like dying during or after wild sex. Too much excitement is not always a good thing. (But what a way to go.)  

On a related note, I assume this is Hugh Hefner's ultimate goal. That, and to be rich enough to wear pajamas all day, every day.

Come to think of it, that might be close to my own goals as well.  Pants are for suckers. 


In mice, serotonin and 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (serotonin’s metabolite), were lower in several regions of the brain following repeated exposure to aspartame2. Researchers linked this to increases in phenylalanine, a chemical which makes up 50% of aspartame once metabolized. Phenylalanine decreases the ability of the brain to absorb tryptophan, a chemical needed to produce serotonin.  

Other studies link this excess phenylalanine to the reduction of serotonin and dopamine, both critical elements for normal functioning (such as motivation) as well as mental health3. This study also linked aspartame to hyperexcitability in neurons that triggered increased cell death and other degeneration in neurons and glial cells. Neuronal or glial degeneration is one main trigger for the worsening symptoms in depressive disorders over time

All of this research tells us that aspartame should trigger depression by altering neurotransmitters and exciting things to death like a Playboy playmate. But does it actually cause depression in clinical studies? 

Aspartame and Depression

Depressive symptoms are triggered by aspartame usage according to research published in Biological Psychiatry4. While this particular study had to be stopped prematurely due the severe reactions in participants, they were able to show a causal effect between aspartame and depression. Those with a history of depression were more likely to show these adverse effects, and more severe symptoms, suggesting that the underlying mechanisms present in those with major depression may make them more at risk for degenerative issues due to cells' inability to repair. This study concluded that those with mood disorders should not use artificial sweeteners AT ALL due to the high risk of sensitivity and adverse effects. 

While it may seem like this study just took it a bit too far in terms of doping people up on aspartame like a bunch of all-night partiers at Hef's place, guess again. Other research verifies that it isn’t a matter of excess, even in the neurotypical population. Those who consume well below the acceptable daily intake tend to exhibit more irritable mood, increases in depressive symptoms and trouble with spatial orientation even without a history of psychological problems5

While I am not always a big fan of telling people what to do, don't eat that shit. Seriously. 

So what are some alternatives to aspartame? 

Raw honey and blackstrap molasses may be good alternatives and they may also contain some trace minerals that have a beneficial effect on the body. But if you’re looking for a similar, white, powdery product, stevia is probably a better choice than any other powder. 

Stevia. It's better for you than aspartame...and cocaine. 

Stevia is sweet because of the chemical steviocide which is found mostly in the leaves and in smaller concentrations in the stem. This mint-like plant has no calories and little research to indicate that it has risks. While there is some preliminary research that links stevia to heart health benefits, there are none as of yet to suggest that it improves psychological functioning. And though stevia tea is used by indigenous tribes to control fertility, there are no studies to verify these links. So even through the steviocide may have the potential to act as a hormone and thus a form of birth control, you need to ingest a lot of it on the regular for those effects to kick in.

But, like anything used to increase the sugary taste of foods, it may trigger the brain to consume more of the sweetened item in question, leading to increased risks of obesity indirectly. Less is more. 

Unless you're Hugh Hefner. Than more is more. 

You can buy stevia from most grocers, though I would recommend looking for one like this that is processed with cold water as opposed to the chemically processed variety, since those chemicals may alter neurotransmitter function as well.

If you don’t want to spend the cash on good stevia, it is very easy to grow either in a pot or outdoors if you live in a warmer climate. (You can get the plants here.) 

I grow mine outdoors in the summer and in pots in the winter. Harvest the leaves and tender shoots like you would basil and use them as you go, or dry them for later use. If you dry them, grind them into a fine green powder in the blender and store in mason jars to use when you need a little added sweetness.  

It’s homesteading meets thrifty living meets psychopharmacology (or at least the avoidance of a serotonin smack-down and neuron degeneration). What more could you possibly want?

I mean aside from the obvious dying at 105 years old after wild sex. It’s good to have goals. 

Related Posts:


Topic-Relevant Resources

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
An in depth look at how the food industry alters physical and emotional health through advertising and addictive substances.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.