Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Aspartame & caffeine: kicked?

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It’s been a full month today that not a drop of caffeine or any artificial sweetener (aspartame being one of the key sweeteners present in the UK) has passed my lips.

My last intake was in the very early hours on 17 October during an overnight flight back from holiday in Washington, D.C. After a week of bad food and fizzy (diet) sodas, I was desperate for a drink. I didn’t want to sleep much more on the flight so I could get back into a regular sleeping pattern once home: a 330ml can of Diet Coke seemed the logical, unthinking answer (“What’s wrong with plain water?” didn’t pop into my head!). I confess to having got back into the Diet Coke/Pepsi Max routine, between 500ml and up to a litre a day, over the summer and autumn weeks since my last “I’m kicking it” post.

I could recognise the usual pattern for, what, the third or fourth time since January 2013? The regular intake had ultimately led once again to intermittent mouth ulcers, poor nights of sleep, (slightly disturbing) heart palpitations and continuously yawning throughout the day.

But could those symptoms really be linked to a seemingly innocuous habit of supping refreshing, fizzy brown water from a lovely, ice cold can with a fatherly Santa Claus pictured on it? Surely not . . .

Well, certainly in my case, there does seem to be a causal link and a random Google search suggests I’m not the only one to experience it.

Towards the end of October, having actively avoided since the 17th any source of caffeine or artificial sweeteners, which is really quite hard, the heart palpitations stopped, the mouth ulcers started reducing, I started to have unbroken nights of sleep and awaking fresh, and I was no longer yawning throughout the day. The same apparently causal links and solutions identified for the third or fourth time in almost two years.

And a full month later? Zero heart palpitations, zero mouth ulcers, I’m sleeping right through the night (apart from the odd occasion of the screeching of an as-yet unidentified nocturnal bird) and my day’s yawning starts towards the end when I’m feeling naturally tired. Standing in a shop one morning this week waiting for my breakfast bagel I eyed the racks of ice-cold Coke and Diet Coke; it was tempting but I surprised myself: the packaging was attractive, as was the thought of tasty, ice-cold, bubbling liquid trickling down my throat. “I don’t want it”, and walked off with just my bagel.

I’ve commented before about my suspicion that my caffeine + aspartame habit wasn’t helping with my overall health, perhaps also contributing to an inability to keep off weight despite a better approach to food. It’s something I’d thought was a little odd, if accurate, considering the lack of sugar in those drinks. I wasn’t entirely surprised then to read recent UK press reports about the research following human trial results suggesting just that link. Did you know sweeteners are 200 times sweeter than sugar itself (no: you can’t pile into sugar instead!)? No wonder the human body gets confused . . .

It got me thinking: if those are the symptoms I can see, what else is the stuff doing that I can’t? With that thought, and (here’s hoping!) having reached the third to fourth cycle considered a point at which a habit can be finally booted (once you find the reasons to do so!), perhaps I had enough motivation to simply quench my thirst by other drinks.

But replace it with what? That’s been harder. Kicking aspartame or any other sweetener is actually very tough once you start looking at the ingredients labels in the supermarket. Astonishingly, many drinks I found there contained both sugar and aspartame! Why?!?!?!

Out went my cupboard’s Robinsons Apple & Blackcurrant No Added Sugar and, sadly, it can’t be replaced with pretty much any other squash drink. Could there be any sugar-free fizzy drink I could enjoy without caffeine or sweeteners? Nope, afraid not: none. In fact, I haven’t yet found any “sugar-free” drink, or indeed food, that doesn’t contain some artificial sweetener of some description.

So it’s back to some basics to avoid caffeine and artificial sweeteners. Here are my new favourites:


Just plain old water, the cooler the better, and carbonated is fine. Sometimes a few drops of lemon juice makes it exciting (!).

Mint tea

Good job I love mint tea (I’ve never been a tea or coffee drinker). Green tea? You’d have thought so but, no, it contains caffeine. The strongest and most awesome mint tea I’ve ever tasted so far was in Baked & Wired, a great café playing cool music in Georgetown, Washington, D.C: I might have to look into importing it!

(And while on the subject of Baked & Wired their cupcakes are LARGE . . . I’ve no idea why anyone would join the long queue snaking round the block at their rival for what looked from the window to be far smaller offerings for bigger $$$$$s: a local resident said it’s because it gets on TV or something . . ?)

Sugared drinks

If I want variety in what I drink then I’ve decided that, if I go to the pub, having a large lemonade with its sugars is fine as long as I keep track of my day’s total sugar intake. It took me a while to find a squash drink available in the supermarket which I could enjoy but was absent artificial sweeteners: Ribena (full sugar, not the “no added sugar”) seems to be the only answer together with the Bottle Green brands.


Again, albeit containing natural sugars, choosing those without caffeine or artificial sweeteners is fine by me: tomato, cranberry, apple, whatever. Key now is managing the overall sugar intake when I want a change from water or mint tea.

Now, sugar intake: that’s the next challenge to address. I feel a bit closer to dealing with this lifetime’s dietary norm but there’s still a lot of work to do.

In a few weeks the entries open for my next multi-day ultra race so that will be a key reason to deal with it . . . more to follow!


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