Research shows possible link between aspartame and tinnitus

Contributed by | Thursday, October 1st, 2015

If you have tinnitus, you may want to think about putting down that diet soda.

Some researchers suspect aspartame, the most common sweetener in diet soda, might have a connection to tinnitus. Though a definitive  link between the two has yet to be proven, the reason aspartame is considered suspect is the components of aspartame might be toxic to the brain and the inner ear. Both the brain and the inner ear are particularly sensitive organs when it comes to neurotoxins; the components of aspartame. Those components are phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol and become toxic after periods of long storage or exposure to heat.

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Beyond the toxicity, aspartame is known as an “excitatory neurotransmitter." It increases electrical activity in the brain, specifically in the auditory cortex. As those with tinnitus already have an elevated level of electrical activity in the brain, more electrical activity is the last thing they need. Reducing electrical activity in the brain, by whatever means, has been proven to improve tinnitus.

But what is aspartame in the first place? Aspartame, plain and simple, is a low calorie sugar substitute. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved the use of aspartame in dry food products in 1981, and approved its use in beverages in 1983. Since the approval of aspartame, our diet conscious society has caused its use to grow exponentially. Now found in most products labeled as “sugar free” or “diet," aspartame is found in more than 6000 different food and beverage items. But it is not always labeled as aspartame; it can be marketed under many different names, such as AminoSweet, NutraSweet, Equal, Natrataste or Spoonful.

Despite claiming that aspartame is safe, the FDA released results of an epidemiological survey which appeared in the Journal of Applied Nutrition in which 551 persons who reported toxicity effects from aspartame ingestion were surveyed. Among the adverse effects found, 13 percent reported having tinnitus, along with 9 percent that reported a “severe intolerance for noise” and 5 percent that reported significant hearing loss.

As tinnitus is now believed to be rooted in not only the ear and the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, but the brain itself, any changes to the brain caused by aspartame certainly cannot be ignored. Researchers at the University of North Dakota studied the effects of aspartame on a group of 28 healthy students and found that there were significant effects on the brain. They discovered ingesting even half of the FDA's "safe" daily intake of aspartame caused significant neurobehavioral changes, including depression, cognitive impairment and irritability.

The fact that 75 percent of adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA relate to aspartame is also telling; tinnitus is among these reported problems, along with headaches, migraines and again, depression.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual noise is present. It commonly manifests itself as a ringing, buzzing or hissing in the ears, and there is no known cure. It is important to note that tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but a symptom of an underlying health condition. Though it sometimes accompanies hearing loss, tinnitus can also exist on its own when no hearing loss is present. The NIDCD estimates that approximately 25 million adults in the U.S., or about 10 percent of the adult population, has experienced tinnitus lasting at least 5 minutes in the past year.

For some, tinnitus can just be a mild, occasional annoyance. For others, however, it can be debilitating. Tinnitus can cause sleep problems, anxiety and depression, among other issues. Those with tinnitus often find themselves increasingly frustrated and socially isolated; work, family life and social life suffer as those with tinnitus desperately seek a solution to the seemingly endless ringing in their ears.

So what should you do? If you have tinnitus, avoiding aspartame or its various counterparts may be a good place to start. Although aspartame has become ubiquitous these days, found in so many foods and beverages that it is sometimes harder to find foods that don’t have it, carefully reading the labels of any pre-packaged foods will help discern which foods contain the additive. Again, anything labeled “sugar-free” or “diet” is a potential suspect. And if you are looking for a substitute for aspartame to add to your cup of tea, you can try natural sweeteners such as honey, agave or Stevia.

If you have tinnitus, make an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional. He will be able to recommend different therapies and put you on a course of treatment that can ease your tinnitus symptoms.

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