Side-Effects of Aspartame on the Brain

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The National Institutes of Health AARP study of hundreds of thousands of Americans followed for years found that frequent consumption of sweetened beverages, especially diet drinks, may increase depression risk among older adults. Whether soda, fruit-flavored drinks, or iced tea, those artificially sweetened drinks appeared to carry higher risk. There was a benefit in coffee drinkers compared to non-drinkers, but if they added sugar, much of the benefits appeared to disappear, and if they added Equal or Sweet-and-Low, the risk appeared to go up.

Various effects of artificial sweeteners, including neurological effects, have been suspected. For example, aspartame--the chemical in Equal and Nutrasweet--may modulate brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, although data have been controversial and inconsistent. Scientific opinions range from "safe under all conditions" to "unsafe at any dose." The controversy started in the 80's soon after aspartame was approved. Researchers at the Mass College of Pharmacy and MIT noted:

"given the very large number of Americans routinely exposed, if only 1% of the 100,000,000 Americans thought to consume aspartame ever exceed the sweetener's acceptable daily intake, and if only 1% of this group happen coincidentally to have an underlying disease that makes their brains vulnerable to the effects, then the number of people who might manifest adverse brain reactions attributable to aspartame could still be about 10,000, a number on the same order as the number of brain and nerve-related consumer complaints already registered with the FDA before they stopped accepting further reports on adverse reactions to the sweetener."

Those with a history of depression might be especially vulnerable. Researchers at Case Western designed a study I highlighted in my video Aspartame and the Brain to ascertain whether individuals with mood disorders are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of aspartame. Although they had planned on recruiting 40 patients with depression and 40 controls, the project was halted early by the Institutional Review Board for safety reasons because of the severity of reactions to aspartame within the group of patients with a history of depression.

It was decided that it was unethical to continue to expose people to the stuff.

Normally when we study a drug or a food, the company donates the product to the researchers because they're proud of the benefits or safety of their product. But the Nutrasweet company refused to even sell it to these researchers. The researchers managed to get their hands on some, and within a week there were significantly more adverse effects reported in the aspartame group than in the placebo group. They concluded that individuals with mood disorders may be particularly sensitive to aspartame, and therefore its use in this population should be discouraged.

In a review of the direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, it was noted that there are reports of aspartame causing neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals, such as headaches, insomnia and seizures. The researchers go even further and propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the development of certain mental disorders and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning. They conclude that "due to all the adverse effects caused by aspartame, it is suggested that serious further testing and research be undertaken to eliminate any and all controversies," to which someone responded in the journal that "there really is no controversy," arguing that aspartame was conclusively toxic.

But what do they mean by excessive ingestion? The latest study on the neuro-behavioral effects of aspartame consumption put people on a high aspartame diet compared to a low aspartame diet. But even the high dose at 25 mg/kg was only half the adequate daily intake set by the FDA. The FDA says one can safely consume 50mg a day, but after just eight days on half of that, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on certain brain function tests. And these weren't people with a pre-existing history of mental illness; these were just regular people. The researchers concluded that "given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level [40mg in Europe, 50mg here] careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health."

Easier said than done, since it's found in more than 6,000 foods, apparently making artificial sweeteners "impossible to completely eradicate from daily exposure." While that may be true for the great majority of Americans, it's only because they elect to eat processed foods. If we stick to whole foods, we don't even have to read the ingredients lists, because the healthiest foods in the supermarket are label-free, they don't even have ingredients lists--produce!

I've previously touched on artificial sweeteners before:

The healthiest caloric sweeteners are blackstrap molasses and date sugar (whole dried powdered dates). The least toxic low-calorie sweetener is probably erythritol (Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant).

Coffee may decrease suicide and cancer risk (Preventing Liver Cancer with Coffee? and Coffee and Cancer) but may impair blood flow to the heart (Coffee and Artery Function).

Other ways to improve mood include:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Foods With Natural Melatonin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foods With Natural Melatonin

We know that inadequate sleeping is associated with changes in diet—people tend to eat worse—but what about the opposite question: Can food affect sleep? In a study on kiwifruit, this seemed possible (see Kiwifruit For Insomnia), but the mechanism the researchers suggested for the effect—the serotonin levels in kiwifruit—doesn’t make any sense, since serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. We can eat all the serotonin we want and it shouldn’t affect our brain chemistry. A different brain chemical, though, melatonin, can get from our gut to our brain.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted at night by the pineal gland in the center of our brain to help regulate our circadian rhythm. Supplements of the stuff are used to prevent and reduce jet lag, and about 20 years ago MIT got the patent to use melatonin to help people sleep. But melatonin "is not only produced in the pineal gland—it is also naturally present in edible plants."

That might explain the results of a study, “Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia” (See Tart Cherries for Insomnia). The research group had been doing an earlier study on tart cherry juice as a sports recovery drink. There’s a phytonutrient in cherries with anti-inflammatory effects on par with drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, so the researchers were trying to see whether tart cherry juice could reduce muscle soreness after exercise. During the study, some of the participants anecdotally noted that they were sleeping better on the cherries. That was unexpected, but the researchers realized that cherries were a source of melatonin so they put them to the test.

The reason they chose older subjects is that melatonin production tends to drop as we age, which may be one reason why there’s a higher insomnia rates among the elderly. So, they took a group of older men and women suffering from chronic insomnia and put half on cherries and half on placebo. They couldn’t use whole cherries for the study—how could you fool people with a placebo cherry? So they used cherry juice versus cherry Kool-Aid.

They found that participants did in fact sleep a little better on the cherry juice. The effect was modest, but significant. Some, for example, fell to sleep a few minutes faster and had 17 fewer minutes of waking after sleep onset (waking up in the middle of the night). It was no insomnia cure, but it helped—without side effects.

How do we know it was the melatonin, though? They repeated the study, this time measuring the melatonin levels, and indeed saw a boost in circulating melatonin levels after the cherry juice, but not after the Kool-Aid. Similar results were found in people eating the actual cherries—seven different varieties boosted melatonin levels and actual sleep times. The effects of all the other phytonutrients in cherries can’t be precluded—maybe they helped too—but if it is the melatonin, there are more potent sources than cherries.

Orange bell peppers have a lot, as do walnuts—and a tablespoon of flaxseeds has about as much as a tomato. See the chart in my video Tart Cherries for Insomnia. The melatonin content of tomatoes was suggested as one of the reasons traditional Mediterranean diets were so healthy. They have less melatonin than the tart cherries, but people may eat a lot more tomatoes than cherries. Sweet cherries have 50 times less melatonin than tart ones; dried cherries appear to have none.

A few spices are pretty potent: just a teaspoon of fenugreek or mustard seeds has as much as a few tomatoes.  The bronze and silver go to almonds and raspberries, though. And the gold goes to gojis. Goji berries were just off the charts.

Aren’t goji berries really expensive, though? Not if you buy them as lycium berries. Check out my video Are Goji Berries Good for You?

I’ve previously explored Human Neurotransmitters in Plants in the context of boosting serotonin levels in the brain to improve mood. See:

Melatonin may also play a role in cancer prevention. See Melatonin & Breast Cancer. 

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: Elizabeth / Flickr

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Two Kiwifruit an Hour Before Bedtime

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The number one question in sleep research is “Why do we sleep?” followed by the question,“How much sleep do we need?” After literally hundreds of studies, we still don’t know the best answer to either question. A few years ago, I featured a large, 100,000-person study which suggested that both short and long sleep duration were associated with increased mortality, with people getting around seven hours of sleep living longest (See Optimal Sleep Duration). Since then, a meta-analysis that included over a million people was published, and found the same thing.

We still don’t know, however, whether "sleep duration is a cause or simply a marker of ill health." Maybe sleeping too little or too long does make us unhealthy—or maybe we see the associated shortened lifespan because being unhealthy causes us to sleep shorter or longer.

Similar work has now been published on cognitive function. After controlling for a long list of factors, men and women in their 50s and 60s getting seven or eight hours appeared to have the best short-term memory compared to those that got much more or much less. The same thing was just demonstrated with immune function where “both reduced and prolonged habitual sleep durations were associated with an increased risk of pneumonia.”

It’s easy to not get too much sleep—just set an alarm. But what if we’re having problems getting enough? What if we’re one of the one in three adults that suffer symptoms of insomnia? There are sleeping pills like Valium that we can take in the short term, but they have a number of adverse side effects. Non-pharmacological approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy are often difficult, time-consuming, and not always effective. Wouldn’t it be great to have “natural treatments that can improve both sleep onset and help patients improve the quality of sleep while improving next-day symptoms over the long term?”

What about a study on kiwifruit, featured in my video, Kiwifruit for Insomnia? Participants were given two kiwifruit an hour before bed every night for four weeks. Why kiwifruits? Well, people with sleep disorders tend to have high levels of oxidative stress, so maybe antioxidant rich foods might help? But all fruits and vegetables have antioxidants. Kiwifruits contain twice the serotonin of tomatoes—but it shouldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Kiwifruit has folate, and a deficiency might cause insomnia—but there’s a lot more folate in some other plant foods.

The reason they studied kiwifruits is because they got grant money from a kiwifruit company. And I’m glad they did because they found some really remarkable results: significantly improved sleep onset, duration, and efficiency using both subjective and objective measurements. Participants went from sleeping an average of six hours a night to seven—by just eating a few kiwifruits.

More on the power of kiwis in my videos Kiwifruit and DNA Repair and Kiwifruit for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and more on sleep in Sleep & Immunity.

Videos on other natural remedies for various conditions include:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: Peter Miller / Flickr

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Two Kiwifruit an Hour Before Bedtime

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Kiwifruit an Hour Before Bedtime

The number one question in sleep research is “Why do we sleep?” followed by the question,“How much sleep do we need?” After literally hundreds of studies, we still don’t know the best answer to either question. A few years ago, I featured a large, 100,000-person study which suggested that both short and long sleep duration were associated with increased mortality, with people getting around seven hours of sleep living longest (See Optimal Sleep Duration). Since then, a meta-analysis that included over a million people was published, and found the same thing.

We still don’t know, however, whether "sleep duration is a cause or simply a marker of ill health." Maybe sleeping too little or too long does make us unhealthy—or maybe we see the associated shortened lifespan because being unhealthy causes us to sleep shorter or longer.

Similar work has now been published on cognitive function. After controlling for a long list of factors, men and women in their 50s and 60s getting seven or eight hours appeared to have the best short-term memory compared to those that got much more or much less. The same thing was just demonstrated with immune function where “both reduced and prolonged habitual sleep durations were associated with an increased risk of pneumonia.”

It’s easy to not get too much sleep—just set an alarm. But what if we’re having problems getting enough? What if we’re one of the one in three adults that suffer symptoms of insomnia? There are sleeping pills like Valium that we can take in the short term, but they have a number of adverse side effects. Non-pharmacological approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy are often difficult, time-consuming, and not always effective. Wouldn’t it be great to have “natural treatments that can improve both sleep onset and help patients improve the quality of sleep while improving next-day symptoms over the long term?”

What about a study on kiwifruit, featured in my video, Kiwifruit for Insomnia? Participants were given two kiwifruit an hour before bed every night for four weeks. Why kiwifruits? Well, people with sleep disorders tend to have high levels of oxidative stress, so maybe antioxidant rich foods might help? But all fruits and vegetables have antioxidants. Kiwifruits contain twice the serotonin of tomatoes—but it shouldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Kiwifruit has folate, and a deficiency might cause insomnia—but there’s a lot more folate in some other plant foods.

The reason they studied kiwifruits is because they got grant money from a kiwifruit company. And I’m glad they did because they found some really remarkable results: significantly improved sleep onset, duration, and efficiency using both subjective and objective measurements. Participants went from sleeping an average of six hours a night to seven—by just eating a few kiwifruits.

More on the power of kiwis in my videos Kiwifruit and DNA Repair and Kiwifruit for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and more on sleep in Sleep & Immunity.

Videos on other natural remedies for various conditions include:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: Peter Miller / Flickr

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Can We Fight the Blues With Greens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why does frequent consumption of vegetables appear to cut one’s odds of depression by more than half? And "frequent" was defined as eating vegetables not 3 or more times a day, but just 3 or more times a week.

A 2012 study was found that eliminating animal products improved mood within two weeks. The researchers blamed arachidonic acid, found primarily in chicken and eggs, which might adversely impact mental health via a cascade of brain inflammation. More on this inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid in:

But better moods on plant-based diets could also be from the good stuff in plants—a class of phytonutrients that cross the blood brain barrier into our heads. A recent review in the journal, Nutritional Neuroscience, suggests that eating lots of fruits and vegetables “may present a noninvasive natural and inexpensive therapeutic means to support a healthy brain.” But how?

To understand the latest research, we need to understand the underlying biology of depression—the so-called monoamine theory of depression. It's the idea that depression may arise out of a chemical imbalance in the brain. In my video Fighting the Blues with Greens? I run through an oversimplified version.

One of the ways the billions of nerves in our brain communicate with one another is through chemical signals called neurotransmitters. Two nerve cells don’t actually touch—there’s a physical gap between them. To bridge that gap, when one nerve wants to tap the other on the shoulder it releases chemicals into that gap, including three monoamines: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters then float over to the other nerve to get its attention. The first nerve then sucks them back in to be reused the next time it wants to talk. It’s also constantly manufacturing more monoamines, and an enzyme, monoamine oxidase, is constantly chewing them up to maintain just the right amount.

The way cocaine works is by acting as a monoamine re-uptake inhibitor. It blocks the first nerve from sucking back up these three chemicals and so there’s a constant tapping on the shoulder—constant signaling—to the next cell. Amphetamines work in the same way but also increase the release of monoamines. Ecstasy works like speed, but just causes comparatively more serotonin release.

After awhile, the next nerve may say “enough already!” and down-regulate its receptors to turn down the volume. It puts in earplugs. So we need more and more of the drug to get the same effect, and then when we’re not on the drug we may feel crappy because normal volume transmission just isn’t getting through.

Antidepressants are thought to work along similar mechanisms. People who are depressed appear to have elevated levels of monoamine oxidase in their brain. That’s the enzyme that breaks down those neurotransmitters. In the video mentioned previously, I show the levels of monoamine oxidase in the brains of depressed individuals versus healthy individuals. If the levels of our neurotransmitter-eating enzyme is elevated, then our levels of neurotransmitters drops, and we become depressed (or so the theory goes).

So a number of different classes of drugs have been developed. The tricyclic antidepressants, named because they have three rings like a tricycle, appear to block norepinephrine and dopamine re-uptake, and so even though our enzymes may be eating these up at an accelerated rate, what gets released sticks around longer. Then there were the SSRIs (the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like Prozac. Now we know what that means—they just block the re-uptake of serotonin. Then there are drugs that just block the re-uptake of norepinephrine, or block dopamine re-uptake, or a combination. But if the problem is too high levels of monoamine oxidase, why not just block the enzyme? Make a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. They did, but monoamine oxidase inhibitors are considered drugs of last resort because of serious side effects—not the least of which is the dreaded “cheese effect,” where eating certain foods while on the drug can have potentially fatal consequences. If only there was a way to dampen the activity of this enzyme without the whole bleed-into-our-brain-and-die thing.

Now we can finally talk about the latest theory as to why fruits and vegetables may improve our mood. There are inhibitors of the depression-associated enzyme in various plants. There are phytonutrients in spices, such as clove, oregano, cinnamon, and nutmeg, that inhibit monoamine oxidase, but people don’t eat enough spices to get enough into the brain. A certain dark green leafy has a lot, but its name is tobacco, which may actually be one of the reasons cigarettes make smokers feel so good. OK, but what if we don’t want brain bleeds or lung cancer? Well, there is a phytonutrient found in apples, berries, grapes, kale, onions, and green tea that may indeed affect our brain biology enough to improve our mood, which may help explain why those eating plant-based diets tend to have superior mental health.

For other natural treatments for mental illness, check out:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: liz west / Flickr

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Treating Parkinson’s Disease With Diet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caffeine consumption appears to help prevent Parkinson’s, but what if you already have the condition? A recent study found that giving folks the equivalent of about two cups of coffee a day worth of caffeine significantly improved symptoms of the disease. Of course, there’s only so much you can charge for coffee, so drug companies took caffeine and added a few side groups so they could patent it into new drugs (Preladenant and Istradefylline). These drugs appear to work no better than plain caffeine, which is dramatically cheaper and probably safer. You can see more of the risks and benefits of coffee and caffeine in Coffee and Cancer and What About the Caffeine?

Similarly, certain plants, such as berries, and plant-based diets in general may help prevent Parkinson’s. See my last post Avoiding Dairy to Prevent Parkinson’s. This may be partially because of pollutants that magnify up the food chain into the meat and dairy supply, but it could also be from the protective phytonutrients in healthy plant foods. For example, as you can see in my 3-min video Treating Parkinson’s Disease With Diet, I profile a case report in which a dietician struck with Parkinson’s was able to successfully clear most of her symptoms with a plant-based diet rich in strawberries, whole wheat, and brown rice. These are rich sources of two particular phytonutrients, N-hexacosanol and fisetin, but there hadn’t been a formal interventional trial published, until now.

At its root, Parkinson’s is a dopamine deficiency disease due to a die-off of dopamine-generating cells in the brain. These cells make dopamine from L-dopa derived from an amino acid in our diet. Just like we saw with the serotonin story I described in my three-part series The Wrong Way to Boost SerotoninA Better Way to Boost Serotonin, and The Best Way to Boost Serotonin, the consumption of animal products blocks the transport of L-dopa into the brain, crowding it out.  With this knowledge, researchers first tried what’s called a “protein redistribution diet.” This is where people could only eat meat for supper so the patients would hopefully be sleeping by the time the negative effects of the animal protein hit.

The researchers didn’t consider cutting out all animal products altogether until it was discovered that fiber consumption naturally boosts L-dopa levels. Thus, a plant-based diet would be expected to raise levodopa bioavailability and bring some advantages in the management of the disease through two mechanisms: reduced animal protein intake and an increased fiber intake. That’s why plant protein is superior, because that’s where fiber is found. So researchers put folks on a strictly vegan diet, saving beans for the end of the day, and indeed found a significant improvement in symptoms.

More on what fiber can do for us in videos such as:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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