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How Diet Soda Ruined My 20s

I lost eight years of my youth stuck in bed with horrible migraines.

I spent a large part of my 20s confined to my bedroom with the blinds shut because of chronic migraines. When I'd cancel plans last minute, people assumed I was using my condition as an excuse, but they didn't understand how badly I'd have preferred to be at a bar or concert and not stuck in bed. My friends had real night lives, and I wanted to bash my head into a wall.

I was working as a gopher for MTV, as well as attending school full-time and working at a dentist's office part-time. The migraines disrupted all of this, and as much as I tried to power through long days—with a lot of caffeinated help—the pain shut me down.


At first, my doctor described me as "a headache-y person" when I expressed concern. Although the migraines did begin as headaches, they didn't just hurt my head. The pain traveled into my ears, back teeth, neck, and—worst of all—behind my eyes. I'd become incapacitated to the point that getting out of bed for pain medication was too much to bear.

I'd self-medicate with a travel-size bottle of Excedrin, which did the trick with headaches—but when I was experiencing migraines multiple times a week, it didn't work. My doctor prescribed Fioricet, which is made up of the same ingredients as Excedrin as well as a sedative called Butalbital. After six months, my body built a tolerance to it. I tried anything that was recommended to me: rubbing coffee grounds directly onto my forehead, massaging my temples with peppermint oil, strapping raw potato slices on to my head with a bandana. I took an herbal supplement called Migrelief for a year. I did yoga.

None of it worked.

Eventually,I was referred to a neurologist, who speculated there might be a cyst on my brain that was causing migraines. I got anMRI, and he was right—I had a 4 mm cyst on the most important part of my body. By that point, I was terrified, but a neurosurgeon told me afterward that the cyst wasn't located in a part of the brain that caused migraines.

At 28, I was visiting a migraine specialist three times a week, receiving electro-stimulation treatment and occipital nerve-block injections on my head and back. That doctor theorized I had a food allergy and had me keep a log of everything that went into my body over the course of a month. When the four weeks were up and we reviewed my notebook, he took a highlighter and drew a yellow line across two words staring me right in the face: "diet soda." I consumed nearly 3 bottles a day; most times, I drank it thinking that the caffeine would alleviate the pain.


After spending thousands of dollars on specialists, MRIs, medications, and emergency room visits, it turned out that an intolerance to aspartame—the artificial sweetener in diet soda—was what had likely handicapped me for the previous eight years.

It's anecdotally accepted that aspartame is a migraine trigger. Research from the 80s suggested that it could increase headache frequency in more than 50 percent of migraine patients, though subsequent studies attempting to establish a link have been inconclusive.

Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, considered the evidence against fake sugar in the New York Times last year; he told VICE that the studies that do find correlation are case-control studies prone to "recall bias." "Recall bias refers to the fact that people who've had something happen to them search their memories and remember things differently than people who are healthy," he explains. "That can lead to differences in responses that bias the results of a study."

The chief thing I drew from the whole saga is the very basic fact that it's essential to be aware of what you put inside your body. My migraines disappeared as soon as I stopped consuming diet soda—along with various "low-fat" products made with aspartame. Now I read food labels while grocery shopping, and when dining out, I typically drink water or unsweetened iced tea. Like most people, I get minor headaches from hangovers or after not having a good night's sleep. But after a couple of ibuprofen, I feel normal again.

"There's no single migraine solution for everyone—the detective work is key," Jonathan Borkum, a licensed psychologist who has authored studies and a book on the subject, told VICE. "For you, it was aspartame; for someone else, it might be red wine, rainy weather, staying up late, even feelings of guilt. The lesson [to learn] from migraines is the importance of taking care of one's brain, and a healthy diet and lifestyle are central to that."

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​Image via Eleia Samonte/Flickr