- Mental Health
How I Quit Diet Coke: Kicking Aspartame to the Curb
Drowning in Diet Soda
I've been drinking diet soda since I was about 12 years old. My mother is a chronic dieter - basically, she's been on a diet for 30 years. When I was younger she made us drink healthy things like milk and juice, but as I got older, she began to transfer her anxiety about her weight problems onto her children, especially to me, her only daughter. She warned me against the three glasses of grape juice I liked to drink when I came hme from school. They had too much sugar, she said, and too many calories. She was right about the sugar, but I developed afterwards a fear of taking in excessive calories.
The solution was, of course, diet coke. Or diet pepsi. Whatever was in the fridge. Due to the miracle of a little chemical called aspartame, I could drink as much of these bubbly substances as I wanted without ingesting a single solitary calorie. I also found the wonder of calorie-less beverages like Crystal Light and Fresca. But really, I was a Diet Coke addict. I drank at least three a day, usually more.
In college, my friends used to joke with me about the trail of diet coke cans that I left in my wake. They knew that whenever my parents would come to visit they wouldn't bring me fresh baked cookies, but they would bring me cases of diet coke.
I had heard the rumors that aspartame caused cancer. When I was 12 years old, though, I felt like I was immune to things to cancer. Plus, my biology teacher (also a diet coke addict) told me that I would have to drink 18 diet cokes a day for 20 years to match the amount of aspartame that they had fed the lab rats who had gotten cancer in the trials. So I relaxed a little.
Everything went along without a hitch - I graduated college, got married, and was very happy. My husband warned me occasionally that he thought my diet coke addiction was out of control, but I always brushed him off, concerned that he was more concerned with the monetary cost of my addiction than with the cost of my health.
When I was 25 years old (two years ago), I came down with a sudden illness. I woke up one morning with a bad sore throat. I went in to the office and realized very quickly that my knees were also bothering me. By the time lunch rolled around, the pain in my knees was so intense I could barely walk. I rolled up my pants to see if there was bruising or swelling on my knees and saw instead that I developed hives around the spot where my knees were hurting.
I went home from work in excruciating pain. The hives had spread all over my legs. That night a friend came over and told me that I would laugh about all this next week when I was feeling better. I wish that had happened. The sore throat and accompanying fever that had started that day was gone within a week, but the joint pains and the hives remained. I am still suffering from both now, two years later.
I can still do a lot - the knee pain has really toned down, but I still get aches in my joints including my fingers, shoulders, wrists, and ankles. X-rays of these spots show that I have joint erosion in my hands. I also have hives every single day in some spot on my body.
After a long journey through the maze of the medical system, I was diagnosed with chronic urticaria (urticaria is the fancy name for hives) with juvenile arthritis. The doctors believe that my disease is autoimmune - which basically means that my body is allergic to itself.
I started shifting things around to try to get better - all the usual things. Changed my detergent, monitered my diet, got every allergy test known to man, started in on multi-vitamins, took every anti-histamine in the book. I even took anti-depressants, thinking that it might all be caused by stress. (The anti-depressants made me much happier, but didn't take away the hives).
To make a long story short (too late!), I tried to remove all bad chemicals from my diet. And one of those things was diet coke. There is a LOT of hype on the internet about the dangers of aspartame. I'm skeptical of a lot of it, but most of it claims that aspartame can cause every disease from fibromyalgia to polio.
Despite my doubts, I figured I would give quitting diet coke a try. It couldn't hurt, right? So I quit in early March. I was surprised to find that after the first few days I was irritable, headachy, and extremely despondent. I felt as if I had gone into a withdrawal of sorts. I also had extreme cravings for diet coke. Perhaps the most surprisingly side effect was that I went into a semi-mourning for diet products with aspartame, much the way that you hear that smokers go into mourning when they quit. They don't know how to live their lives without it.
Diet coke isn't the kind of substance which one would categorize as "addictive". Yet for me, it was. I went to my parents house for Easter and found myself binging on my Mom's diet coke and aspartame related products. I could not get enough. I felt as if I had fallen off the wagon.
My weekend binge scared me a little bit so I came back home more determined than ever to quit aspartame. I substituted my lunch diet soda with a glass of grapefruit juice - vitamin C is good for the body - and I substituted my dinner diet soda with water. It was very, very difficult, but I have been aspartame free since March 24th. (Golf claps)
As my autoimmune disease, it has not gone away. I have absolutely no idea if it was caused by the aspartame or not. Actually, my instinct is to say that it probably wasn't, because it seems like quitting would have done something if the two were related. But I do know that how hard it was for me to quit aspartame. I know that I had extreme and lasting physical symptoms for at least a month after I quit both times (before and after the binge). And I feel like that can't be good.
I may post a later hub with tips for quitting, but for now this is my story. Links below to books and movies that sound the alarm on aspartame.