Artificial sweetener and anxiety may be linked, says a study

Do you have weight loss on mind or are you cutting down intake of sugar due to diabetes? An artificial sweetener is often something people fall back upon as it is widely promoted as an ingredient that can be used in drinks and food items without worrying about the harmful effects of sugar on your health. But a new study has revealed that there is nothing sweet or good about it. Aspartame, which is an artificial sweetener found in almost 5,000 diet drinks and foods, has been linked to anxiety-like behaviour in mice by researchers. Before you completely stop taking artificial sweeteners, let’s find out what else the study has found.

A lot of people have a sweet tooth, and if their health doesn’t allow them to have sugar, they go for artificial sweeteners. Seen as an alternative to sugar, they are used in drinks, food items and more. Now, researchers of Florida State University College of Medicine have found a link between aspartame, which is an artificial sweetener, and anxiety-like behaviour in mice.

artificial sweeteners
A study has explored relationship between artificial sweeteners and anxiety. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

Anxiety not limited to mice who consumed artificial sweetener

The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the anxiety-like behaviour was not only produced in the mice who consumed aspartame. But the effects were also seen in two generations from males exposed to the artificial sweetener.

Co-author Pradeep Bhide, the Jim and Betty Ann Rodgers Eminent Scholar Chair of Developmental Neuroscience in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, said that what the new study showed was that they need to look back at the “environmental factors.” Those factors are important because what “we see today is not only what’s happening today, but what happened two generations ago and maybe even longer.”

The new study involving artificial sweetener and mice came about, in part, because of previous research. It was from the Bhide Lab on the transgenerational effects of nicotine on mice. It showed temporary, or epigenetic, changes in mice sperm cells, and unlike genetic changes (mutations), epigenetic changes are reversible. They don’t change the DNA sequence, but they can change how the body reads a DNA sequence.

Bhide said that the research team was working on the effects of nicotine on the same type of model like if the father smokes then “what happened to the children?”

Aspartame has been given a thumbs up by the FDA

In 1981, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave green signal to aspartame as a sweetener, and now, almost 5,000 metric tons of the artificial sweetener are produced each year. Aspartame becomes aspartic acid, methanol and phenylalanine when consumed. These three can have potent effects on the central nervous system.

The study, which was led by doctoral candidate Sara Jones, involved providing mice with drinking water that contained aspartame at approximately 15 percent of the FDA-approved maximum daily human intake. It is equivalent to six to eight 8-ounce cans of diet soda a day for human beings. The dosage continued for 12 weeks in a study that spanned four years.

artificial sweeteners have side effects
Artificial sweeteners have side effects. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Through several maze tests across multiple generations descending from the aspartame-exposed males, pronounced anxiety-like behaviour was observed in the mice.

Jones said that it was such a robust anxiety-like trait that she didn’t think any of researchers “were anticipating we would see.” She shared that it was completely unexpected as usually “you see subtle changes.”

Diazepam, which is a drug used to treat anxiety disorder in humans, was given to mice in all generations. Then they stopped showing anxiety-like behaviour.

Possible links between artificial sweeteners and other diseases

Artificial sweeteners are found in thousands of food and beverage brands across the globe, but they remain a controversial topic. According to the BMJ, a study published in September, suggested a potential direct link between higher artificial sweetener consumption, especially aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium, and increased cardiovascular disease risk.

Earlier, a study that was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that people who consumed artificial sweeteners on a regular basis, had a higher risk for health issues like obesity and weight gain. So, they might not really be your friends when it comes to weight loss.

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