Research shows a possible link between aspartame and tinnitus


If you have tinnitus, you may want to think about kicking your diet soda habit for good.

Many Americans have incorporated sugar-free ice cream, beverages, chewing gum and other artificially-sweetened products into their diets based on marketing claims that they are somehow healthier than their sugar-sweetened counterparts. While many artificial sweeteners have come under fire for not being a safe alternative to natural cane sugar, aspartame is among the most controversial food additives. 

Aspartame’s suspected link to tinnitus

Some researchers suspect aspartame 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 that some components of it may be toxic to the brain and the inner ear – two organs that are particularly sensitive to neurotoxins. Specifically, phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol become toxic after periods of long storage or exposure to heat. 

Packets of artificial sweetener in a caddy on table
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame are 

found in many sugar-free foods.

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.

History and use of aspartame

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 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 many products labeled as “sugar free” or “diet,” aspartame is found in thousands of processed food products and drinks. But it is not always called aspartame – it can be marketed under many different brand names such as AminoSweet, NutraSweet, Equal, Natrataste or Spoonful.

Adverse effects 

Despite claiming that aspartame is safe, the FDA released results of an epidemiological survey that 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. In 2014, 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 depression.

What is tinnitus?

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. Tinnitus can be a condition in and of itself, but usually it is 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 National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (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.

If you have tinnitus, avoiding aspartame in all its forms may be a good place to start. Although aspartame has become ubiquitous these days, found in so many foods and beverages, carefully reading the labels of any pre-packaged foods will help discern which foods contain the additive. Be wary of anything labeled “sugar-free” or “diet.” For a truly natural approach, first try to get used to foods and drinks that are not sweet. Drink unsweetened coffee and tea, eat plain yogurt and substitute water with lemon or lime for sweet beverages. If you must satisfy your sweet tooth, try natural sweeteners such as honey, agave, stevia or good old-fashioned cane sugar in modest amounts.

If you have tinnitus, make an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional who can recommend tinnitus therapies that can ease your symptoms and help you find relief.


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