Splenda and Migraine revisited

There was a lot of interest in the previous post on Splenda as a migraine trigger.  Splenda is now celebrating 10 years on the market – but is it something to celebrate?

Before we revisit the topic, here’s a sampling of the comments (read full comments here):

  • I’ve been using Splenda for everything for the last one to two years and haven’t noticed any difference with migraine attacks…
  • Yes!!!  Splenda triggers migraines in me.  I used to chew sugar free gum and after about 5 minutes, I’d get this nauseous sick, kind of headache…
  • At first I thought it was caffeine, as the migraines stopped abruptly once I stopped taking caffeine, but further self-testing made it clear it was the Splenda I took in the coffee that triggered the migraines, not the caffeine itself…
  • I have used Splenda for the past 4 years and haven’t noticed any decrease/increase in either my migraine or cluster headeaches…
  • Yep, Yep,  It’s all a trigger to me! I think my favorite sweetner is plain sugar in moderation…

Dr. Grotz defends Splenda

Splenda - headache or migraine trigger?

After the report in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain in September 2007, Dr. V. Lee Grotz wrote a letter to the editor as a follow-up.  Dr Grotz is the Director of Product Safety for McNeil Nutritionals, the division of Johnson & Johnson that makes Splenda.

He writes:  While it is important to report and analyze such cases for potential safety signals, drawing conclusions about causality from such limited data can be inappropriate.

Of course, Dr. Grotz knows that the original article wasn’t drawing conclusions – it was simply drawing attention to some evidence that there may be a relationship between migraine and sucralose (the key chemical in Splenda), and asking for further study.

I’ve heard defenders of Splenda say that it’s the "most studied additive ever".  However, as we see from Dr Grotz’ response, there are no studies on sucralose as a migraine or headache trigger to draw from.  Studies on humans, particularly long term studies, are not found in abundance (if I’m wrong, please show them to me!).  It’s not surprising – sucralose was just discovered about 32 years ago, and as I said has only been on the market 10 years.

Side note:  Earlier this year, a study on rats indicated that Splenda may contribute to weight gain and may cause levels good bacteria in the body to drop.  Is the same true for humans?  The battle of the trials continues!  (more on Splenda study)

In his letter, Dr. Grotz basically gives reasons why trials so far seem to indicate the chemical is generally safe and nonallergenic (different, of course, than being a migraine trigger).  He mentions the current uncertainty over migraine triggers, and points out that reducing calories along with getting exercise can "valuable in managing health".  (Why did he have to add in exercise?  Scratching your left ear and getting exercise is also valuable for health!)

Discovering triggers…

Is there disagreement about migraine triggers?  Absolutely.  Since we’re still so much in the dark regarding migraine, we’re also very much in the dark regarding what triggers attacks and why.  This is because migraine is a complex neurological disease, and our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy.

Much of what we know about migraine triggers is a result of discussion in the migraine community – doctors, and patients – finding what seems to make a difference.  As a matter of fact, much the same is the case for migraine treatments.  If it works for a lot of people, it’s worth studying.

If sucralose is causing headache and/or migraine attacks, it’s worth investigating, no matter what studies tell us it’s safe for rats or bunnies or even the larger human population.  Unfortunately, money drives these studies, and at the moment the money is on the side of Splenda.  A long term study of Splenda will take years.  After it actually gets started.  After it gets funded.

Which brings us back to the original article in Headache, which was simply telling doctors to watch out for Splenda as a possible migraine trigger.

Based on the comments I’ve seen here so far, we as the migraine community also need to consider the possibility.

The ingredients of Splenda

Sucralose is not sugar.  Splenda used to market the fact that it was made from sugar.  In fact, sucralose is made by combining sucrose (naturally found in sugar) with chlorine.  What results is something totally new – which is why complaints were made against Splenda for using the Splenda-sugar comparison.

When human beings start eating something that isn’t a food in nature, we really don’t know what will happen.  (The most famous example of this is the partially hydrogenated craze – leading to the eventual widespread condemnation of trans-fats).  The human body is incredibly complex, and it’s impossible to quickly narrow down the cause and effect of these chemicals.

So when it comes to doctors, or researchers, or just me, the answer is the same – we just don’t know if Splenda is a true migraine trigger in a large number of people.  It seems likely to me that it causes problems for some people.  We also don’t know what else it may do to the human body over time.

One other interesting note.  Splenda is not just sucralose.  It also contains maltodextrin.  Maltodextrin may contain MSG, another well-known migraine trigger for some.  Maybe we’re focusing the discussion on the wrong ingredient!

The other ingredient is dextrose, otherwise known as glucose.  I would be more surprised if this was the problem, though migraineurs may have unusual reactions to glucose.

Final thoughts on Splenda, headache and migraine

Personally, I prefer to stay away from "foods" that aren’t natural.  You need to make your own decision.  But at the very least, do be aware that there could be a connection, and test the theory for yourself.  As we see from previous comments, it doesn’t seem to be a migraine trigger for everyone (which is consistent with what we know about other triggers).

And hold on to your hat – if customers lose faith in Splenda, there’s always another sweetener to take its place.  Rebiana perhaps?  Could we maybe try fruits and vegetables?

Let’s keep the discussion going – have you found a relation between Splenda and migraine?  Splenda and headache?  Sucralose and either of these?  What’s your opinion?

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32 comments… add one
  • Mary Kay Oct 9, 2008

    Great review of Splenda. I can tell you that in my practice, aspartame is a known trigger for migraine. I haven’t heard about Splenda causing the problem, but then perhaps I need to ask more about it!

    As always, food triggers are something we can control for migraine and it is not as common as stress, hormomes or weather changes (in that order).

    Hmmm…more “food for thought” about migraine (ha!)

  • Diana Lee Oct 13, 2008

    I don’t know for sure that Splenda and other artificial sweeteners are triggers for me, but I try to avoid them as much as possible because I suspect they are. It’s just not worth it to me to consume them.

  • James Oct 15, 2008

    Yes, more food for thought indeed! It’s been very interesting hearing comments on this one. I agree, Diana – not worth it to take the risk.

  • Suzie Oct 16, 2008

    My step-father is a diabetic and I was consistently getting a migraine after visiting my mother and step-father until I realized that the drinks my mother was offering me were “diet” tea or lemonade and many of the desserts she makes are made with Splenda.

    I have seen a very defined cause-and-effect pattern of migraine when consuming anything with artificial sweeteners. I avoid them like the plague now.

  • James Oct 22, 2008

    Yes, I personally tend to avoid them too, Suzie. Thanks for the comment!

  • Tom Dec 4, 2008

    I get headaches from Splenda-sweetened products every single time I consume them. Consequently, I avoid Splenda like the plage. I wholeheartedly agree that there should be more research into potential adverse effects. Despite assertions to the contrary from those advocating Splenda, I don’t see how it is definitive that Splenda is non-allergenic. Certainly, Splenda-related headaches could be partially explained if they were side-effects from allergic reactions.

  • James Dec 8, 2008

    Yes, that’s exactly right, Tom. Too often people get away with saying,”It’s just not proved”. That’s not the same as saying,”We’ve proved beyond reasonable doubt”.

  • Yadi Feb 23, 2009

    I’ve been getting migraines for over 20 years. I started using Splenda about 3 years ago. I only recently realized that it coincided with 3 years of the worst migraines I’d ever experienced. I was in the ER every 3 to 4 months. A friend suggested I stop using Splenda and its like magic!! Am I headache free? No. However, I stopped using Splenda 2 months ago and I feel like my life is no longer consumed by pain.

  • Christine Aug 17, 2009

    I’ve been using Spenda for the past couple of years, and I have also had many fewer migraines (possibly because I also started Pamelor and switched to Seasonique). Maybe I would have had none at all without the Splenda, but the only way to know is to switch to aspartame, because I am not giving up my 2 diet colas a day (a woman has to have some vices). I trust aspartame less than I do Splenda. When they come out with a reasonably-priced diet cola with Stevia, I will definitely try it.

  • Jennifer Oct 12, 2009

    Aspartame is the worst possible alternative to sugar I know! I got horrible migraines, light headedness, dizzy, etc. I’m wondering now if Splenda is doing the same…*sigh* I like soda…but I have medical history in my family of diabetes. So…I can’t drink the regular soda. So now what?

  • Carolyn Apr 27, 2010

    I’m sorry but for anyone suffering from Aspartame or Splenda toxicity and is a diabetic, sodas are just out of the question. Just drink fizzy water with a spash of fresh lime. I switched a few years ago after Aspartame made me severly ill for over a year, and I haven’t looked back since.

  • David Apr 27, 2010

    I don’t get migraines, but I have noticed that I often get headaches when I drink my morning coffee sweetened with Splenda. On the other hand, I also eat blueberries and milk sweetened with Splenda, and don’t recall getting a headache from that.

    The headaches aren’t bad, but I’ll definitely be watching to see if there is a consistent pattern. I’m relatively headache free, so I noticed when they started. They seemed to be connected to Splenda, and a Google search led me here.

  • Betsy May 5, 2010

    I’m in the process of determining whether switching from aspartame to Splenda has been the cause of the last 4-5 years of increased migraine frequency for me. During that time, I’ve had periods of status migrainosus lasting from 3 weeks to 1 1/2 years (!!!). My “normal” frequency has become 4-5 migraines a week! No neurologist has been able to find a preventative drug regimen that will work for me, since my trigger is changes in weather. Finally, my neuro’s PA suggested I give up ALL artificial sweeteners – she wondered if maybe that was what was pushing my migraines so close to the edge that just a slight change in barometric pressure would result in a migraine. Since I really don’t want to move to another area of the country, it sure seemed worth a try…

    I typically drank a whole pot of decaf with 11 Splenda in it, plus 2 quarts of a non-carbonated soft drink containing Splenda.

    Mind you, it’s too early to tell for sure, but I’m now free of any artificial sweeteners for 3 weeks and have been migraine-free for almost 2 weeks…(Man – I hope I didn’t just jinx myself!)

  • Robin Aug 12, 2010

    Not so sure,but I drank 2 cups of coffee yesterday with splenda and I never use artificial sweetener. About 2 hours later I ended up with a migraine and have had it ever since. Usually my triggers are lack of sleep and stress so it was odd to get this one out the blue since I was feeling pretty good. I know it was the splenda so I’m sticking to sugar.

  • Susan Aug 16, 2010

    Splenda is bad stuff; so are all of the other sugar substitutes. Mannitol, sorbitol, aspartame, saccharin; they all cause migraine. Most artificial ingredients do. Calcium chloride is just as bad as MSG. Drink lots of water to clear it out of your system and stick with all natural foods. Even most chewing gums have one or more artificial sweeteners. Look for Glee Gum at a health food store!

  • Adriana Jan 27, 2011

    My trainer suggested I mix my protein powder with G2 gatorade which has sucralose. I have been doing this for about 3 weeks now and this week my migraines started up again. It has been a very long time since I have one…I am having them everyday. I eat very healthy and natural due to that I’m gluten free and that is the only change in my diet. I believe the sucralose must have triggered them again….not happy!

  • CARRIE Jun 2, 2011

    I have been suffering from chronic headaches for about a month now…..Tried several migraine medications prescibed by my dr. to no avale. I finally figured out what changed a month ago…..I had started drinking quite a bit of sparkling water that was full of sucralose. Stopped drinking it completely and went back to drinking plain ole’ water and an occasional 7-up as treat. The migraines have miraculously disappeared. Maybe this artificial sweetner is fine for some people….but I do believe it is a migraine trigger for some like me. I am just glad that I figured it out and got some relief. I will never again eat or drink anything with sucralose in it!

  • MB Feb 18, 2012

    I was drinking 3 large cans Arizona green tea with Splenda /day. Suddenly 5 out of 7 past days I have developed severe migraines with aura. I have been thoroughly checked out and everything points to Splenda intake. I am cutting it out and hoping it will help.

  • Joie Apr 4, 2012

    I was diagnosed with severe clustral migrianes in nov 2011. I have found that one of the triggers are artificial sweetners. This limits what I can drink due to the fact I have been diagnosed diabetic in Feb 2012. I am also on anti seizure medications to help treat these horrid migraines but I still get them, and I have clear mri’s and cat scans. So yes I do believe that these sweeteners that are slightly better for you are actually worse for people.

  • Debby K. May 21, 2012

    I tried the new V8 juice blend with splenda when it first came out, and had killer migraines within 15-20 min. I tested it a number of times to confirm that it was really the splenda causing the migraines, and it was. I have non-life threatening allergies to many chemicals, chlorine bleach being one, so that connection may be the cause of the trigger, but I read all labels now. Recently I used some mouthwash at church without checking the ingredients beforehand, and within 10 minutes had a migraine due to the splenda in the mouthwash. Its widespread use really frightenens me, especially as its now being hidden in ingredient listings under various labels of sugar blends.

  • kp Sep 25, 2012

    I have a sister-in-law who is actually allergic to aspartame. In addition to digestive upset, she gets facial and mouth swelling after eating/drinking/using products that include aspartame and similar sweeteners- including Splenda. Personally, I am recovering form a three-day-straight migraine headache after drinking a bottle of juice that I didn’t realize was sweetened with Splenda.

    I’m gonna stick with my natural cane sugar, thanks.

  • Jerry Oct 1, 2012

    I am doing my own study right now (on myself). I have noticed that when I have a lot of Splenda during a day, I often end up with a headache (migraine?) that evening or wake up with one the next morning. I had about 10 glasses of (Splenda) sweet tea yesterday and had a slight headache last night and this morning. For the next week, I will avoid Splenda 100% and see if I have any headachs.

  • L.G.N. Oct 19, 2012

    Most beverages in the market have been giving me headaches and migraines the last few months. I realized they changed from glucose to splenda. I started to try different soda pops, teas and fruit juices, and so far everything with Sucralose and maltodextrine or Splenda(the brand name in the label) gives me migraine. Corn syrup of high fructose, and other kinds of corn syrup give me mild headaches, almost always but not always, specially in high concentrations (i.e. 90 grams of sugars per 250 ml). Regular coke seems the only bottled beverage i can have without problems until the third glass, but that might be ’cause its relatively low content of sugars. I think i will just abstain of synthetic sweeteners, as many others will, but I hope they further research splenda, since is becoming very common in the food industry.

  • Steven May 8, 2014

    Everytime I use Splenda I get a migraine headache. I noticed it when i would go to my moms house and drink her tea. at the time I couldn’t figure out why I was getting headaches. then one day at work I drink a Gatorade that had Splenda and what would you know migraine headache.

  • Yvette May 28, 2014

    Over the past few days I have been suffering from horrible headaches. I do suffer from allergy/sinus headaches on occassion, but these headaches felt different (dizziness, tenderness in my temples). I have been trying to figure out why I’m feeling this way all of a sudden. Then it hit me…last week I accidentally purchased sugar free ice cream made with Splenda. I rarely use artificial sweeteners, and that is the only new item in our household. I also made the connection that the days after I did not eat the ice cream, I felt much better. Needless to say, I threw the rest out and I’m hoping to detox and feel better very soon.

  • Natasha Jul 3, 2014

    I thought I would list some of my other migraine triggers to maybe help others.
    ALL artificial sweeteners (I am also very sensitive to sugar alcohols–but it is digestive issues)
    Too much soy
    Certain artificial food colorings–I’m not sure which ones exactly because they tend to come in groups. I avoid red 40, blue 1, blue 2, yellow 5, and yellow 6 to be safe.
    Strong smells–especially floral, perfume, or synthetic fragrances–this one really gets me. It can be something as simple as fresh cut grass or a fire. I can’t use scented deodorant or laundry detergent. I can handle fruity or foodie scented things much better. Natural lavender doesn’t usually bother me. Since I cut out most triggers, I mainly get migraines induced by some smell. I used to get 3-5 crippling migraines a week. Now I get 1 or 2 every month or so. Sometimes because of sneaky Splenda in everything–I even saw it in pain medicine the other day.

  • evan penn Aug 20, 2014

    I am suffering at this very moment from migraine-type headache. I woke up this morning with it. It is now 9:45 at night, and it seems to be lessening. I tried to think of anything I did differently yesterday, as I am careful about triggers from food. I realized I’d drank a few glasses of an iced tea with Sucralose, when I was at my parent’s home. It was “Zero Calorie” which made me look on the label. Normally I wouldn’t eat or drink diet foods. My parents don’t consume “diet” foods either, as they also think they are not good for you, but my Mom had purchased this product by mistake. I am, obviously, not sure the Sucralose was the trigger, but the severity of this migraine was extremely rare for me. The consumption of Sucralose is likewise extremely rare for me as I can’t recall the last time I ate or drank something “diet”. Just my personal anecdote. I will, from this point forward, avoid it at any costs.

  • Amy Nov 30, 2014

    I can definitely say that Splenda is a trigger for my migraines. It happened 3x now – in a row. Had the oyher foods with it before (all my life) with no problems. I suppose it may depend on the type of migraine you get – vascular vs oculat vs cluster etc – what triggers are common with each (based on the mechanism). My husband was just diagnosed as diabetic and we’ve tried Splenda as a sugar substitute for BOTH of us, so I don’t tempt him. That’s when I distictly got these 3 successive migraines. Splenda was the only difference. I doubt the manufacturer will do any real studies to conclude this because they want marketshare.

    • Natasha Dec 2, 2014

      So far I have had no issues with Stevia. Don’t be foiled by Truvia. Look for Sweet Leaf. They even have flavor drops you can use.

  • Andrea Apr 22, 2015

    The trigger for me is the dextrose used in the Splenda packets (as a filler/volumizer). I can consume sucralose as long as it didn’t originate in the packets.
    Dextrose is used on flavored chips, in pudding, crescent rolls, so many things I can’t name them all. My headaches almost completely disappeared when I started to read the ingredient lists for EVERYTHING I eat and stopped eating dextrose.

  • Sarah Beth Oct 2, 2016

    I get HORRIBLE headaches whenever I have sucralose! I thought I was the only one!

    I wonder of it has to do with the type of chlorine, I have a bad reaction to bleach & pools.

    I hate that they’re sneaking sucralose in products, along with high fructose corn syrup. Pick one or the other!!!

    With some Arizona Beverages, some sweetened drinks, and even cough syrup (?!?) I assume they’re sucralose free- it doesn’t say “diet” anywhere on it, then eat or drink it, then get a pounding headache, then check the ingredients, and, sure enough, sucralose.

    When will they learn that for some people, “diet” does NOT mean “healthy”?!?!

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