Daily bone-crushing headaches caused blurry vision and sleepless nights. These headaches would start at the base of my skull and quickly progress to my brow bone; my head felt like it was split into two halves. Medical Professionals were perplexed by the location and frequency of the headaches and ordered a gamut of tests to get to the root of their cause. Blood tests, x-rays and cat scans proved inconclusive leading the doctors to blame stress, prescribing nothing but muscle relaxers and pain killers to ease the discomfort until I was able to address and combat my stressful environment. Soon other symptoms started taking over my body; mood swings, lethargy, joint stiffness, swelling, and tingling to name just a few. Blood tests ruled out lupus, Lyme disease, Epstein Barr (chronic fatigue syndrome), and rheumatoid arthritis and MS was ruled out after a re-review of my previous cat scan. Officially, the diagnosis on the joint pain was carpal tunnel syndrome, but fibromyalgia was still considered a possibility. Deep in my heart I knew stress and my desk job could not be the causes of my health problems and I grew increasingly despondent with the thought of a life filled with pain.
Happy-go-lucky Chelle was replaced by just trying to get through life Chelle. Each day was a painful struggle and behind my forced smile was a miserable person. To make a concerted effort at normalcy I made plans throughout the summer to visit family and friends, finding comfort in their love and hospitality. During one trip I realized by weekend’s end something shocking; my head felt fine. It was somewhat ironic that the best I felt in nearly a year was after a weekend of drinking nothing but wine and beer and eating a cornucopia of delicious, fatty foods. Could it be that living healthy was the culprit in my health problems and the cure was eating crap and drinking like a fish?
My return to work after a long weekend away followed the usual routine; wake up, make coffee, shower, eat granola bar, drive to work, walk to desk, get thirsty, pop open a diet coke… Almost immediately after sipping the zero calorie bubbly goodness pressure shot from the base of my neck clear through my head as tears shot from my eyes from the sheer intensity of the pain. Diet Coke was a staple in my diet and it was not uncommon for me to drink it throughout the day. Initially I refused to believe that my beverage of choice was the culprit in my maladies but decided to treat the possible offender like any new food allergy; remove it for a week, reintroduce into diet, analyze results.
Fast forward one headache free week and the re-introduction of Diet Coke confirmed it was indeed the source of my pain. Then began the task of figuring out what ingredient in soda caused my headaches. I began trying different soda brands in diet and non-diet varieties and taking copious notes to whether the beverages triggered a headache. Aspartame, aka NutraSweet or Equal, was leading the ingredient analysis. To fully test the theory I began the same analysis with food and candy containing the suspicious ingredient, even ate a packet of Equal and sure enough, got a headache every time confirming that I needed to expunge aspartame from my diet. Months after giving up aspartame another positive result surfaced; my joint pain, swelling and stiffness disappeared. Turns out my headaches and joint issues were medically related to the same root cause. Years have now passed since the discovery and it is hard not to link other past health issues on the substance; my seasonal allergies are milder then in the past and I no longer need to use an inhaler.
I honestly do not know how people allergic to common food and ingredients like wheat, milk and eggs survive. Attempting to remove aspartame from my diet revealed just how many products this sugar substitute hides in, from food and drink to medicine and toothpaste, and how hard it is to find alternatives. Even under a watchful eye I would somehow consume some NutraSweet and suffer from the consequences. My poor friends must put up with my fear and neurosis with every meal out as I quiz waitresses on food content and often bring my own soda to ensure a pain free weekend. The side of me that wrestles with her weight curses the inability to get a diet beverage out at a restaurant or bar, but the extra calories are well worth a life free of pain.
Most of my sugar-free needs these days are met with Sucralose, aka Splenda, but I am increasingly nervous that someday my Splenda Diet Coke issue will cause lead to health problems. These types of allergies are often referred to as “exposure allergies” meaning the more you are exposed to the substance the worse the symptoms become. Many researchers and medical professionals classify aspartame as an intolerance and not a true allergy while others actually classify aspartame medical issues as poisonings. I was an avid Diet Coke drinker for nearly two decades before it starting making me sick. How long before other manmade chemicals start messing around with my body? Even scarier, was there permanent damage from my years of aspartame consumption?
Working around this allergy/intolerance/poisoning is often difficult but I am so thankful I discovered the cause of my issue. I often wonder how many people are misdiagnosed with a whole host of ailments, treating themselves with expensive and sometimes dangerous drugs, when they are actually suffering from some sort of food and drink related allergy. Could all the new dyes, chemicals, compounds and additives added to our diets be the cause of even more medical issues yet researched? The makers of all these new products claim no, but after my experience I am skeptical of their counter-claims and research. The manufacturers of aspartame deny any and all claims made against the safety of their product, citing and documenting lack of proof; all but claiming people with issues have other problems that should be addressed. It does not take a controlled scientific experiment to reasonably assess that aspartame made me, and many others, very ill. I encourage everyone suffering from unexplained medical issues to examine their diet and make some changes. We are all guinea pigs in long-term chemical additive experiments and I personally would volunteer in any aspartame study to prove there is a link between this substance and a host of debilitating symptoms.