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Reader's Mail: Is Aspartame a Migraine Trigger?

Q. I was recently told that aspartame is a major migraine headache trigger. I searched the internet and I found that there has been at least one scientific study that showed a somewhat higher connection between aspartame and migraines. However, most of the internet “uproar” about aspartame appeared to be anecdotal. Is there any connection between aspartame and migraine?

A. I would not call aspartame a “major” trigger of migraine, but in some persons it can definitely act as a trigger. As you mentioned, there has been very little scientific evidence indicting this chemical as a trigger. I recall one placebo-controlled study done years ago that did not demonstrate a significant effect, yet I have had a few patients over the years who have been able to definitely identify aspartame as a trigger.

A major problem with trying to pinpoint a specific trigger is that so many factors are involved in setting off a migraine attack:  the hormone cycle, weather changes, stress and emotional factors, glare, loud noise, odors, skipping meals, too much or too little sleep and dietary factors, just to name a few. It is very difficult to control for all of these other factors when trying to identify a specific trigger.

Robert Kunkel, M.D.
Consultant, Center for Headache and Pain Neurological Institute
Cleveland Clinic
Cleveland, OH

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