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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Aspartame: From the Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent to Your Table Top



By Pat Thomas

Posted: 26 September 2005

SEPTEMBER 2005; pages 35-51

Cover Story, pages 35-46

ASPARTAME - The Shocking Story of the World's Bestselling Sweetener

Aspartame is the most controversial food additive in history. The most recent evidence, linking it to leukaemia and lymphoma, has added substantial fuel to the ongoing protests of doctors, scientists and consumer groups who allege that this artificial sweetener should never have been released onto the market and that allowing it to remain in the food chain is killing us by degrees.


Once upon a time, aspartame was listed by the Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent. Today it's an integral part of the modern diet. Sold commercially under names like NutraSweet and Canderel, aspartame can be found in more than 5,000 foods, including fizzy drinks, chewing gum, table-top sweeteners, diet and diabetic foods, breakfast cereals, jams, sweets, vitamins, prescription and over-the-counter drugs. This means that there is a good chance that you and your family are among the two thirds of the adult population and 40 per cent of children who regularly ingest this artificial sweetener.

Because it contains no calories, aspartame is considered a boon to health-conscious individuals everywhere; and most of us, if we think about it at all, think it is safe. But independent scientists say aspartame can produce a range of disturbing adverse effects in humans, including headaches, memory loss, mood swings, seizures, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's-like symptoms, tumours and even death.

Concerns over aspartame's toxicity meant that for eight years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied it approval, effectively keeping it off the world market. This caution was based on compelling evidence, brought to light by numerous eminent scientists, litigators and consumer groups, that aspartame contributed to serious central nervous system damage and had been shown to cause cancer in animals. Eventually, however, political muscle, won out over scientific rigour, and aspartame was approved for use in 1981 (see timeline for details).

The FDA's about-turn opened the floodgates for aspartame's swift approval by more than 70 regulatory authorities around the world. But, as the remarkable history of the sweetener shows, the clean bill of health given to it by government regulators - whose raison d'être should be to protect the public from harm - is simply not worth the paper it is printed on.

While working on an ulcer drug, a chemist at pharmaceutical manufacturer GD Searle accidentally discovers aspartame, a substance that is 180 times sweeter than sugar, yet has no calories.

Searle begins safety tests, necessary for FDA approval.

GD Searle approaches eminent biochemist Dr Harry Waisman, director of the University of Wisconsin's Joseph P Kennedy Jr Memorial Laboratory of Mental Retardation Research and a respected expert in the toxicity of phenylalanine (which comprises 50 per cent of the aspartame formula), to conduct a study of the effects of aspartame on primates. Of seven monkeys fed aspartame mixed with milk, one dies and five others have grand mal epileptic seizures.

Dr John Olney, professor of neuropathology and psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis School of Medicine, whose research into the neurotoxic food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG, a chemical cousin of aspartame) was responsible for having it removed from baby foods, informs Searle that his studies show that aspartic acid, one of the main constituents of aspartame, causes holes in the brains of infant mice. One of Searle's researchers, Ann Reynolds, confirms Olney's findings in a similar study.

Searle applies for FDA approval and submits over 100 studies it claims support aspartame's safety. Neither the dead monkeys nor the mice with holes in their brains are included in the submission.

In a memorandum, Dr Martha M Freeman of the FDA Division of Metabolic and Endocrine Drug Products criticises the inadequacy of the information submitted by Searle with particular regard to one of the compound's toxic breakdown products, diketopiperazine (DKP). She recommends that marketing of aspartame be contingent upon the sweetener's proven clinical safety.

26 JULY 1974
FDA commissioner Dr Alexander Schmidt grants aspartame its first approval as a 'food additive' for restricted use in dry foods. This approval comes despite the fact that his own scientists found serious deficiencies in the data submitted by Searle.

Before aspartame can reach the marketplace, Dr John Olney, James Turner (attorney, consumer advocate and former 'Nader's Raider' who was instrumental in removing the artificial sweetener cyclamate from the US market), and the group Label Inc (Legal Action for Buyers' Education and Labeling) file a formal objection to aspartame's approval with the FDA, citing evidence that it could cause brain damage, particularly in children.

JULY 1975
Concerns about the accuracy of test data submitted to the FDA by Searle for a wide range of products prompt Schmidt to appoint a special task force to examine irregularities in 25 key studies for aspartame and Searle drugs Flagyl, Aldactone and Norpace.

Searle agrees to an inquiry into aspartame safety concerns. Searle withdraws aspartame from the market pending its results. The sweetener remains off the market for nearly 10 years while investigations into its safety and into Searle's alleged fraudulent testing procedures are ongoing. However, the inquiry board does not convene for another four years.

24 MARCH 1976
The FDA task force completes its 500 page report on Searle's testing procedures. The final report notes faulty and fraudulent product testing, knowingly misrepresented product testing, knowingly misrepresented and 'manipulated' test data, and instances of irrelevant animal research in all the products reviewed. Schmidt says: '[Searle's studies were] incredibly sloppy science. What we discovered was reprehensible.'

JULY 1976
The FDA forms a new task force, headed by veteran inspector Jerome Bressler, to further investigate irregularities in Searle's aspartame studies uncovered by the original task force. The findings of the new body will eventually be incorporated into a document known as the Bressler Report.

10 JANUARY 1977
FDA chief counsel Richard Merrill formally requests the US Attorney's office to begin grand jury proceedings to investigate whether indictments should be filed against Searle for knowingly misrepresenting findings and 'concealing material facts and making false statements' in aspartame safety tests. This is the first time in the FDA's history that it requests a criminal investigation of a manufacturer.

26 JANUARY 1977
While the grand jury investigation is underway, Sidley & Austin, the law firm representing Searle, begins recruitment negotiations with Samuel Skinner, the US attorney in charge of the investigation. Skinner removes himself form the investigation and the case is passed to William Conlon.

8 MARCH 1977
Searle hires prominent Washington insider Donald Rumsfeld as its new CEO to try to turn the beleaguered company around. A former member of Congress and defence secretary in the Ford administration, Rumsfeld brings several of his Washington colleagues in as top management.

1 JULY 1977
Samuel Skinner leaves the US Attorney's office and takes a job with Searle's law firm. Conlon takes over Skinner's old job.

1 AUGUST 1977
The Bressler Report is released. It focuses on three key aspartame studies conducted by Searle. The report finds that in one study 98 of the 196 animals died but weren't autopsied until later dates, making it impossible to ascertain the actual cause of death. Tumours were removed from live animals and the animals placed back in the study. Many other errors and inconsistencies are noted. For example, a rat was reported alive, then dead, then alive, then dead again. Bressler comments: 'The question you have got to ask yourself is: why wasn't greater care taken? Why didn't Searle, with their scientists, closely evaluate this, knowing full well that the whole society, from the youngest to the elderly, from the sick to the unsick. will have access to this product.' The FDA creates yet another task force to review the Bressler Report. The review is carried out by a team at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and headed by senior scientist Jacqueline Verrett.

The FDA publishes a report exonerating Searle of any wrongdoing in its testing procedures. Jacqueline Verrett will later testify to the US Senate that her team was pressured into validating data from experiments that were clearly a 'disaster'.

Despite complaints from the Justice Department, Conlon stalls the grand jury prosecution for so long that the statute of limitations on the aspartame charges runs out and the investigation is dropped. Just over a year later Conlon joins Searle's law firm, Sidley & Austin.
The journal Medical World News reports that the methanol content of aspartame is 1,000 times greater than most foods under FDA control. In high concentrations methanol, or wood alcohol, is a lethal poison.

1 JUNE 1979
The FDA finally establishes a public board of inquiry (PBOI), comprising three scientists whose job it is to review the objections of Olney and Turner to the approval of aspartame and rule on safety issues surrounding the sweetener.

In spite of the uncertainties over aspartame's safety in the US, aspartame becomes available, primarily in pharmaceutical products, in France. It is sold under the brand name Canderel and manufactured by the food corporation Merisant.

The FDA's PBOI votes unanimously against aspartame's approval, pending further investigations of brain tumours in animals. The board says it 'has not been presented with proof of reasonable certainty that aspartame is safe for use as a food additive'.

Canderel is now marketed throughout much of Europe (but not in the UK) as a low-calorie sweetener.

Rumsfeld states in a Searle sales meeting that he is going to make a big push to get aspartame approved within the year. Rumsfeld vows to 'call in his markers' and use political rather than scientific means to get the FDA on side.

20 JANUARY 1981
Ronald Reagan is sworn in as president of the US. Reagan's transition team, which includes Rumsfeld, nominates Dr Arthur Hull Hayes Jr to be the new FDA commissioner.

21 JANUARY 1981
One day after Reagan's inauguration, Searle re-applies to the FDA for approval to use aspartame as a food sweetener.

MARCH 1981
An FDA commissioner's panel is established to review issues raised by the PBOI.

19 MAY 1981
Arthur Hull Hayes Jr, appoints a five-person commission to review the PBOI's decision. Three of the five FDA scientists on it advise against approval of aspartame, stating on the record that Searle's tests are unreliable and not adequate to determine the safety of aspartame. Hayes installs a sixth member on the commission, and the vote becomes deadlocked.

15 JULY 1981
Hayes ignores the recommendations of his own internal FDA team, overrules the PBOI findings and gives initial approval for aspartame to be used in dry products on the basis that it has been shown to be safe for its proposed uses.

22 OCTOBER 1981
The FDA approves aspartame as a tabletop sweetener and for use in tablets, breakfast cereals, chewing gum, dry bases for beverages, instant coffee and tea, gelatines, puddings, fillings, dairy-product toppings and as a flavour enhancer for chewing gum.

The aspartame-based sweetener Equal, manufactured by Merisant, is launched in the US.

15 OCTOBER 1982
The FDA announces that Searle has filed a petition for aspartame to be approved as a sweetener in carbonated beverages, children's vitamins and other liquids.

Searle attorney Robert Shapiro gives aspartame its commercial name, NutraSweet. The name is trademarked the following year. Shapiro later becomes president of Searle. He eventually becomes president and then chairman and CEO of Monsanto, which will buy Searle in 1985.

8 JULY 1983
Aspartame is approved for use in carbonated beverages and syrup bases in the US and, three months later, Britain. Before the end of the year Canderel tablets are launched in the UK. Granular Canderel follows in 1985.

8 AUGUST 1983
James Turner, on behalf of himself and the Community Nutrition Institute, and Dr Woodrow Monte, Arizona State University's director of food science and nutritional laboratories, file petitions with the FDA objecting to aspartame approval based on possible seriousadverse effects from the chronic intake of the sweetener. Monte also cites concern about the chronic intake of methanol associated with aspartame ingestion.

Hayes resigns as FDA commissioner under a cloud of controversy about his taking unauthorised rides aboard a General Foods jet (General Foods was and is a major purchaser of aspartame). He serves briefly as provost at New York Medical College, and then takes a position as senior scientific consultant with Burston-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Searle and Monsanto.

The first carbonated beverages containing aspartame go on sale in the US.

17 FEBRUARY 1984
The FDA denies Turner and Monte's requests for a hearing, noting that aspartame's critics had not presented any unresolved safety questions. Regarding aspartame's breakdown components, the FDA says that it has reviewed animal, clinical and consumption studies submitted by the sweetener's manufacturer, as well as the existing body of scientific data, and concludes that 'the studies demonstrated the safety of these components'.

MARCH 1984
Public complaints about the adverse effects of aspartame begin to come in. The FDA requests that the US agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) begins investigations of a select number of cases of adverse reactions to aspartame.

30 MAY 1984
The FDA approves aspartame for use in multivitamins.

JULY 1984
A study by the state of Arizona Department of Health into aspartame is published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition. It determines that soft drinks stored at elevated temperatures promote more rapid deterioration of aspartame into poisonous methanol.

The CDC review of public complaints relating to aspartame culminates in a report, Evaluation of Consumer Complaints Related to Aspartame Use, which reviews 213 of 592 cases and notes that re-challenge tests show that sensitive individuals consistently produce the same adverse symptoms each time they ingested aspartame. The reported symptoms include: aggressive behaviour, disorientation, hyperactivity, extreme numbness, excitability, memory loss, loss of depth perception, liver impairment, cardiac arrest, seizures, suicidal tendencies and severe mood swings. The CDC nevertheless concludes that aspartame is safe to ingest. On the same day that the CDC exonerates aspartame, Pepsi announces that it is dropping saccharin and adopting aspartame as the sweetener in all its diet drinks. Others quickly follow suit.

1 OCTOBER 1985
Monsanto, the producer of recombinant bovine growth hormone, genetically engineered soya beans, the pesticide Roundup and many other industrial and agricultural chemicals, purchases Searle for $2.7 billion.

21 APRIL 1986
The US Supreme Court, headed by Justice Clarence Thomas, a former Monsanto attorney, refuses to consider arguments from the Community Nutrition Institute and other consumer groups that the FDA has not followed proper procedures in approving aspartame, and that the liquid form of the artificial sweetener may cause brain damage in heavy users of low-calorie soft drinks.

16 OCTOBER 1986
Turner files another citizen's petition, this time concerning the risk of seizures and eye damage from aspartame. The petition argues that medical records of 140 aspartame users show them to have suffered from epileptic seizures and eye damage after consuming products containing the sweetener and that the FDA should ban aspartame as an 'imminent hazard to the public health'.
21 NOVEMBER 1986
The FDA denies Turner's new petition, saying: 'The data and information supporting the safety of aspartame are extensive. It is likely that no food product has ever been so closely examined for safety. Moreover, the decisions of the agency to approve aspartame for its uses have been given the fullest airing that the legal process requires.'

28 NOVEMBER 1986
The FDA approves aspartame for non-carbonated frozen or refrigerated concentrates and single-strength fruit juice, fruit drinks, fruit-flavoured drinks, imitation fruit-flavoured drinks, frozen stock-type confections and novelties, breath mints and tea beverages.

The FDA declares aspartame safe for use as an inactive ingredient, provided labelling meets certain specifications.

An FDA report on adverse reactions associated with aspartame states the majority of the complaints about aspartame - now numbering 3,133 - refer to neurological effects.

2 JANUARY 1987
NutraSweet's aspartame patent runs out in Europe, Canada and Japan. More companies are now free to produce aspartame sweeteners in these countries.

12 OCTOBER 1987
United Press International, a leading global news-syndication organisation, reports that more than 10 federal officials involved in the decision to approve aspartame have now taken jobs in the private sector that are linked to the aspartame industry.

A US Senate hearing is held to address the issue of aspartame safety and labelling. The hearing reviews the faulty testing procedures and the 'psychological strategy' used by Searle to help ensure aspartame's approval. Other information that comes to light includes the fact that aspartame was once on a Pentagon list of prospective biochemical-warfare weapons.

Numerous medical and scientific experts testify as to the toxicity of aspartame. Among them is Dr Verrett, who reveals that, while compiling its 1977 report, her team was instructed not to comment on or be concerned with the overall validity of the studies. She states that questions about birth defects have not been answered. She also states that increasing the temperature of the product leads to an increase in production of DKP, a substance shown to increase uterine polyps and change blood cholesterol levels. Verrett comments: 'It was pretty obvious that somewhere along the line, the bureau officials were working up to a whitewash.'

The FDA has received more than 4,000 complaints from consumers about adverse reactions to the sweetener.

14 OCTOBER 1989
Dr HJ Roberts, director of the Palm Beach Institute for Medical Research, claims that several recent aircraft accidents involving confusion and aberrant pilot behaviour were caused by ingestion of products containing aspartame.

20 JULY 1990
The Guardian publishes a major investigation of aspartame and delivers to government officials 'a dossier of evidence' that draws heavily on the transcripts of the Bressler Report and demands that the government review the safety of aspartame. No review is undertaken. The Guardian is taken to court by Monsanto and forced to apologise for printing its story.

The US National Institutes of Health publishes Adverse Effects of Aspartame: January '86 through December '90, a bibliography of 167 studies documenting adverse effects associated with aspartame.

NutraSweet signs agreements with Coca-Cola and Pepsi stipulating that it is their preferred supplier of aspartame.

30 JANUARY 1992
The FDA approves aspartame for use in malt beverages, breakfast cereals, and refrigerated puddings and fillings and in bulk form (in large packages like sugar) for tabletop use. NutraSweet markets these bulk products under the name 'NutraSweet Spoonful'.

14 DECEMBER 1992
NutraSweet's US patent for aspartame expires, opening up the market for other companies to produce the substance.

19 APRIL 1993
The FDA approves aspartame for use in hard and soft candies, non-alcoholic flavoured beverages, tea beverages, fruit juices and concentrates, baked goods and baking mixes, and frostings, toppings and fillings for baked goods.

28 FEBRUARY 1994
Aspartame now accounts for the majority (75 per cent) of all the complaints in the US adverse-reaction monitoring system. The US Department of Health and Human Services compiles a report that brings together all current information on adverse reactions attributed to aspartame. It lists 6,888 complaints, including 649 reported by the CDC and 1,305 reported by the FDA.

APRIL 1995
Consumer activist, and founder of anti-aspartame group Mission Possible, Betty Martini uses the US's Freedom of Information Act to force the FDA to release an official list of adverse effects associated with aspartame ingestion. Culled from 10,000 consumer complaints, the list includes four deaths and more than 90 unique symptoms, a majority of which are connected to impaired neurological function. They include: headache; dizziness or problems with balance; mood change; vomiting and nausea; seizures and convulsions; memory loss; tremors; muscle weakness; abdominal pains and cramps; change in vision; diarrhoea; fatigue and weakness; skin rashes; deteriorating vision; joint and musculoskeletal pain. By the FDA's own admission, fewer then 1 per cent of those who have problems with something they consume ever report it to the FDA. This means that around 1 million people could have been experiencing adverse effects from ingesting aspartame.

12 JUNE 1995
The FDA announces it has no further plans to continue to collect adverse reaction reports or monitor research on aspartame.

27 JUNE 1996
The FDA removes all restrictions from aspartame use, and approves it as a general-purpose sweetener', meaning that aspartame can now be used in any food or beverage.

Drawing on data compiled by the US National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results programme, which collects and distributes data on all types of cancer, Olney publishes peer-reviewed research in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology. It shows that brain-tumour rates have risen in line with aspartame consumption and that there has been a significant increase in the conversion of less deadly tumours into much more deadly ones.

The results of a remarkable study conducted by Dr Ralph G Walton, professor of clinical psychology at Northeastern Ohio Universities, are revealed. Commissioned by the hard-hitting US national news programme 60 Minutes, it sheds some light on the absurdity of aspartame-safety studies. Walton reviewed 165 separate studies published in the preceding 20 years in peer-reviewed medical journals. Seventy-four of the studies were industry-funded, all of which attested to aspartame's safety. Of the other 91 non-industry funded studies, 84 identified adverse health effects. Six of the seven non-industry funded studies that were favourable to aspartame were from the FDA, which has a public record of strong pro-industry bias. To this day, the industry-funded studies are the ones that are always quoted to the press and in official rebuttals to aspartame critics. They are also the studies given the greatest weight during the approval process and in official safety reviews.

10 FEBRUARY 1998
Monsanto petitions the FDA for approval of a new tabletop sweetener called Neotame. It is around 60 times sweeter than aspartame and up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Neotame is less prone to breaking down in heat and in liquids than aspartame because of the addition of 3,3-dimethylbutyl, a poorly studied chemical with suspected neurotoxic effects. Strengthening the bond between aspartame's main constituents eliminates the need for a health warning directed at people suffering from PKU.

13 MAY 1998
Independent scientists from the University of Barcelona publish a landmark study clearly showing that aspartame is transformed into formaldehyde in the bodies of living specimens (in this case rats), and that this formaldehyde spreads throughout the specimens' vital organs, including the liver, kidneys, eyes and brain. The results fly in the face of manufacturers' claims that aspartame does not break down into formaldehyde in the body, and bolster the claims of aspartame critics that many of the symptoms associated with aspartame toxicity are caused by the poisonous and cumulative effects of formaldehyde.

The UK's Food Commission publishes two surveys on sweeteners. The first shows that several leading companies, including St Ivel, Müller and Sainsbury's, have ignored the legal requirement to state 'with sweeteners' next to the name of the product. The second reveals that aspartame not only appears in 'no-sugar added' and 'light' beverages but also in ordinary non-dietetic drinks because it's three times cheaper than ordinary sugar.

Monsanto files a petition with the FDA for approval of the general use of Neotame.

20 JUNE 1999
An investigation by The Independent on Sunday reveals that aspartame is made using a genetic engineering process. Aspartame component phenylalanine is naturally produced by bacteria. The newspaper reveals that Monsanto has genetically engineered the bacteria to make them produce more phenylalanine. Monsanto claims that the process had not been revealed previously because no modified DNA remains in the finished product, and insists that the product is completely safe; though scientists counter that toxic effects cannot be ruled out in the absence of long-term studies. A Monsanto spokeswoman says that while aspartame for the US market is often made using genetic engineering, aspartame supplied to British food producers is not. The extent to which US brands of low-calorie products containing genetically engineered aspartame have been imported into Britain is unclear.

MAY 2000
Monsanto, under pressure - not least from the worldwide resistance to genetically manipulated food and ongoing lawsuits - sells NutraSweet to JW Childs Associates, a private-equity firm comprised of several former Monsanto managers, for $440m. Monsanto also sells its equity interest in two European sweetener joint ventures, NutraSweet AG and Euro-Aspartame SA.

10 DECEMBER 2001
The UK's Food Standards Agency requests that the European Commission Scientific Committee on Food conducts an updated review of aspartame. The committee is asked to look carefully at more than 500 scientific papers published between 1988 and 2000 and any other new scientific research not examined previously.

9 JULY 2002
The FDA approves the tabletop and general use of Neotame. The 'fast-track' approval raises eyebrows because, historically, the FDA takes at least 10 years to approve food additives. Neotame is also approved for use in Australia and New Zealand, but has yet to be approved in the UK.

10 DECEMBER 2002
The European Commission Scientific Committee on Food publishes its final report on aspartame. The 24-page report largely ignores independent research and consumer complaints, relying instead on frequently cited articles in books and reviews put together by employees or consultants of aspartame manufacturers. When independent research is cited, it is generally refuted with industry-sponsored data. An animal study showing aspartame's disruption of brain chemistry, a human study linking aspartame to neurophysiological changes that could increase seizure risk, another linking aspartame use with depression in individuals susceptible to mood disorder, and two others linking aspartame ingestion with headaches are all dismissed.

The report's conclusion amounts to a single sentence: 'The committee concluded that.there is no evidence to suggest that there is a need to revise the outcome of the earlier risk assessment or the [acceptance daily intake] previously established for aspartame.'

As with the FDA, there are concerns about the neutrality of some of the committee's members and their links with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry group that funds, among other things, research into aspartame. ILSI members include Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

19 FEBRUARY 2003
Members of the European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy Committee approve the use of sucralose (see page 50) and an aspartame-acesulfame salt compound (manufactured in Europe by the aspartame-producing Holland Sweetener Company and sold under the name Twinsweet), agreeing to review of the use of both in three years' time. At the same time, a request by European greens that the committee re-evaluate the safety of aspartame and improve the labelling of aspartame-containing products is rejected.

MAY 2004
The feature-length documentary Sweet Misery is released on DVD (see http://www.soundandfuryproductions.com). Part-documentary, part-detective story, it includes interviews with people who have been harmed by aspartame, as well as credible testimony from advocates, doctors, lawyers and long-time campaigners, including James Turner, HJ Roberts and renowned neurosurgeon Dr Russell Blaylock. (UK orders: Namaste Publishing,

US consumer group the National Justice League files a $350m class action lawsuit against the NutraSweet Corporation (the current owner of aspartame products), the American Diabetes Association and Monsanto. Some 50 other defendants have yet to be named, but mentioned throughout the lawsuit is the central role of Donald Rumsfeld in helping to get aspartame approved through the FDA. The plaintiffs maintain that this litigation will prove how deadly aspartame is when it is consumed by humans. Little progress has been made so far in bringing the action to court. The NutraSweet Company reopens its plant in Atlanta, Georgia, (dormant since 2003) in order to meet increased demand for its sweetener. Aspartame, sold commercially as NutraSweet, Equal, Equal-Measure, Spoonful, Canderel and Benevia, is currently available in more than 100 countries and used in more than 5,000 products by at least 250 million people every day. Worldwide, the aspartame industry's sales amount to more than $1 billion yearly. The US is the primary consumer.

JULY 2005
The Ramizzini Institute in Bologna, a non-profit, private institution set up to research the causes of cancer, releases the results of a very large, long-term animal study into aspartame ingestion. Its study shows that aspartame causes lymphomas and leukaemia in female animals fed aspartame at doses around 20 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, or around half the accepted daily intake for humans.

Page 47
Aspartame has been linked to a host of devastating central nervous system disorders

When aspartame was approved for use, Dr HJ Roberts, director of the Palm Beach Institute for Medical Research, had no reason to doubt the FDA's decision. 'But my attitude changed,' he says, 'after repeatedly encountering serious reactions in my patients that seemed justifiably linked to aspartame.' Twenty years on, Roberts has coined the phrase 'aspartame disease' to describe the wide range of adverse effects he has seen among aspartame-guzzling patients.

He estimates: 'Hundreds of thousands of consumers, more likely millions, currently suffer major reactions to products containing aspartame. Today, every physician probably encounters aspartame disease in everyday practice, especially among patients with illnesses that are undiagnosed or difficult to treat.'

As a guide for other doctors, Roberts, a recognised expert in difficult diagnoses, has published a lengthy series of case studies, Aspartame Disease: an ignored epidemic (Sunshine Sentinel Press), in which he meticulously details his treatment of 1,200 aspartame-sensitive individuals, or 'reactors', encountered in his own practice. Following accepted medical procedure for detecting sensitivities to foods, Roberts had his patients remove aspartame from their diets. With nearly two thirds of reactors, symptoms began to improve within days of removing aspartame, and improvements were maintained as long as aspartame was kept out of their diet.

Roberts' case studies parallel much of what was revealed in the FDA's report on adverse reactions to aspartame - that toxicity often reveals itself through central nervous system disorders and compromised immunity. His casework shows that aspartame toxicity can mimic the symptoms of and/or worsen several diseases that fall into these broad categories (see sidebar, below).

Case studies, especially a large series like this, address some of the issues surrounding real-world use in a way that laboratory studies never can; and the conclusions that can be drawn from such observations aren't just startling, they are also potentially highly significant. In fact, Roberts believes that one of the major problems with aspartame research has been the continued over-emphasis on laboratory studies. This has meant that the input of concerned independent physicians and other interested persons, especially consumers, is 'reflexively discounted as "anecdotal"'.

Many of the diseases listed by Roberts fall into the category of medicine's 'mystery diseases' - conditions with no clear etiology and few effective cures. And while no one is suggesting that aspartame is the single cause of such diseases, Roberts' research suggests that some people diagnosed with, for example, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's or chronic fatigue syndrome may end up on a regimen of potentially harmful drugs that could have been avoided if they simply stopped ingesting aspartame-laced products.

Conditions Mimicked By Aspartame Toxicity
§ Multiple sclerosis
§ Parkinson's disease
§ Alzheimer's disease
§ Fibromyalgia
§ Arthritis
§ Multiple chemical sensitivity
§ Chronic fatigue syndrome
§ Attention deficit disorder
§ Panic disorder depression and other psychological disorders
§ Lupus § Diabetes and diabetic complications
§ Birth defects
§ Lymphoma
§ Lyme disease
§ Hypothyroidism

Pages 48-49


Aspartame is made up of three chemicals: the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and methanol. The chemical bond that holds these constituents together is fairly weak. As a result, aspartame readily breaks down into its component parts in a variety of circumstances: in liquids; during prolonged storage; when exposed to heat in excess of 86° Fahrenheit (30° Centigrade); and when ingested. These constituents further break down into other toxic by-products, namely formaldehyde, formic acid and aspartylphenylalanine diketopiperazine (DKP).

Manufacturers argue that the instability of aspartame is irrelevant since its constituents are all found naturally in food. This is only partially true and ignores the fact that in food amino acids like aspartic acid and phenylalanine are bound to proteins, which means that during digestion and metabolism they are released slowly into the body. In aspartame, these amino acids are in an unbound or 'free' form that releases greater amounts of these chemicals into the system much more quickly. Similarly, the methanol present in natural foods like fruits, for example, is bound to pectin and also has a co-factor, ethanol, to mediate some of its effects. No such chemical 'back-stops' exist in aspartame.
According to neuroscientist Russell Blaylock, the effect of aspartame's breakdown components on brain function is central to its known adverse effects. Like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and L-cysteine, an amino acid found in hydrolysed vegetable protein, aspartame is what is known as an 'excitotoxin' - a chemical transmitter that allows brain cells to communicate. Blaylock has written a book about them, Excitotoxins: the taste that kills, and says: 'Even a minute over-concentration of these chemicals causes the brain cells to become so over-excited that they very quickly burn themselves out and die.'

While aspartame manufacturers say aspartame cannot penetrate the blood-brain barrier - the tightly-walled membrane that keeps toxins from reaching the brain, Blaylock counters that a number of factors make the blood-brain barrier more porous, including exposure to pesticides, hypoglycaemia, all immune diseases (such as lupus and diabetes), Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, strokes (including silent strokes) and a whole range of medical drugs. Under these conditions, ingesting aspartame-laced foods may cause a spike in the level of excitotoxins that directly reach the brain, thus increasing the likelihood of adverse effects. Each of aspartame's main constituents is a known neurotoxin capable of producing a unique array of adverse effects.

The essential amino acid phenylalanine comprises 50 per cent of aspartame. In people disorder, phenylketonuria (PKU) with the genetic the liver cannot metabolise phenylalanine, causing it to build up in the blood and tissues. Chronically high levels of phenylalanine and its breakdown products cause significant neurological problems, which is why foods and beverages containing aspartame must carry a warning for PKU sufferers.
But according to Dr HJ Roberts, sensitivity to aspartame is not limited to PKU sufferers. PKU carriers - people who inherited the gene for the disorder but do not themselves have the condition (around 2 per cent of the general population) - are also more prone to adverse effects. In Roberts' data there is also a high incidence of aspartame reactions among the close relatives of patients who cannot tolerate aspartame. Furthermore, there is evidence that ingesting aspartame, especially along with carbohydrates, can lead to excess levels of phenylalanine in the brain even among those not affected by PKU.

Although phenylalanine is sometimes used as a treatment for depression, excessive amounts in the brain can cause levels of the mood regulator serotonin to decrease, making depression more serious or likely. Build-up of phenylalanine in the brain can also worsen schizophrenia or make individuals more susceptible to seizures. Moreover, decrease in serotonin levels can result in carbohydrate craving. This could explain aspartame's lack of effectiveness as a diet aid.

DKP is a breakdown product of phenylalanine that forms when aspartame-containing liquids are stored for prolonged periods. In animal experiments it has produced brain tumours, uterine polyps and changes in blood cholesterol. Before the FDA approved aspartame, the amount of DKP in our diets was essentially zero. So no claim of DKP's safety can be accepted as genuine until good-quality long-term studies have been performed. No such studies have been done.

Aspartic acid (also known as aspartate) is a non-essential amino acid that comprises 40 per cent of aspartame. In the brain, it functions as a neurotransmitter - facilitating the transfer of information from one nerve cell (neuron) to another. Both human and animal experiments have demonstrated a significant spike in blood-plasma levels of aspartate after the administration of aspartame in liquids. Too much aspartate in the brain produces free radicals, unstable molecules that damage and kill brain cells.

Humans are five times more sensitive to the effects of aspartic acid (as well as glutamic acid, found in MSG) than rodents, and 20 times more sensitive than monkeys, because we concentrate these excitatory amino acids in our blood at much higher levels and for a longer period of time. Aspartic acid has a cumulative harmful effect on the endocrine and reproductive systems. Several animal experiments have shown that excitotoxins can penetrate the placental barrier and reach the foetus.

In addition, as levels of aspartic acid rise in the body so do levels of the key neurotransmitter norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline), a 'stress hormone' that affects parts of the human brain where attention and impulsivity are controlled. Excessive norepinephrine is associated with symptoms such as anxiety, agitation and mania.

Methanol (wood alcohol) comprises 10 per cent of aspartame. It is a deadly poison that is liberated from aspartame at temperatures in excess of 86° Fahrenheit (30° centigrade) - for instance, during storage or inside the human body. The US Environmental Protection Agency considers methanol a 'cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed', meaning that even small amounts in aspartame-containing foods can build up over time in the body.

The most well known problems from methanol poisoning are vision disorders, including misty or blurry vision, retinal damage and blindness. Other symptoms include headaches, Tinnitus, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities behavioural disturbances, and neuritis.

The EPA tightly controls methanol exposure, allowing only very minute levels to be present in foods or in environmental exposures. But Blaylock says: 'The level allowed in NutraSweet is seven times the amount that the EPA will allow anyone else to use.'

The methanol absorbed from aspartame is converted to formaldehyde in the liver. Formaldehyde is a neurotoxin and known carcinogen. It causes retinal damage and birth defects, interferes with DNA replication, and has been shown to cause squamous-cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, in animals. Several human studies have found that chronic, low-level formaldehyde exposure has been linked with a variety of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, chest tightness, dizziness, nausea, poor concentration and seizures.

Formic acid is a cumulative poison produced by the breakdown of formaldehyde. It concentrates in the brain, kidneys, spinal fluid and other organs, and is highly toxic to cells. Formic acid can lead to accumulation of excessive acid in the body fluids - a condition known as acidosis. The small amounts of formic acid derived from the methanol absorbed from aspartame may or may not be dangerous; there are no human or mammalian studies to enlighten us.

Comment, page 49

The story of aspartame is the story of the triumph of corporate might over scientific rigour. It shines a spotlight on the archaic and unbalanced procedure for approving food additives.

We ingest food additives daily, yet their approval does not require the same scientific thoroughness as drug approval; and, unlike drugs, there is no requirement for surveillance of adverse effects that crop up once the additive is in use.

Approval does not involve looking at what people are already eating and whether the proposed substance will interact with other additives. Nor does it take into account whether the additive exacerbates damage caused by other aspects of the modern lifestyle (for instance, the neurological damage caused by pesticide ingestion or exposure). Nor does it look for subtle chronic effects (for instance, the gradual build-up of methanol in the body with regular aspartame ingestion).

There are other problems. Most studies into aspartame are animal studies, which are notoriously difficult to relate to humans. So why bother performing them in the first place? The answer is, manufacturers and regulators use animal research as a double-edged sword. If an animal study reveals no evidence of harm, the manufacturer can use it to support its case. If it reveals harm, however, the manufacturer is free to flip-flop into the argument that the results of animal studies are inconclusive in relation to humans. Faced with inconclusive evidence regulators will always err on the side of the manufacturer, who has after all demonstrated proper bureaucratic procedure by funding and submitting its animal tests for consideration.

The approval process for any substance that humans put in their mouths on a daily basis should be based on solid human data and on the precautionary principle when such data is not available. But, as it stands, the regulation of food additives in the US, the UK and elsewhere leaves the burden of proof of harm on average people, despite the fact that most of us are either too detached or too timid to complain or simply don't have the energy to take on multinational corporations.

The history of aspartame is all the more remarkable because of the number of motivated people who have refused to accept the mantra 'if it's approved by the government it must be safe'. Nearly every piece of independent research shows the outrage of these people, who have had to withstand threats of litigation and being vilified in the media as 'hysterics', is justified.

After 30 years of aspartame's commercial success, it would be easy to conclude it is too late to act. And yet earlier this year hundreds of products were swept off supermarket shelves on the chance that they might have contained minuscule amounts of a potentially carcinogenic dye, Sudan 1. No studies existed to show that Sudan 1 could cause cancer in humans. The likelihood of any one person's exposure to Sudan 1 being high enough to produce a tumour was minute. Nevertheless, on the basis of the precautionary principle, action was taken.
Aspartame is not a life-saving drug. It is not even a very effective diet aid, as shown by widespread obesity in the West. Until the many concerns about it have been examined in 'corporate-neutral', large-scale, long-term, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials (the gold standard of scientific proof) it should be taken out of our food.

Pages 50-51

Aspartame should never have reached the marketplace. But even if the authorities were to remove it from sale tomorrow, how much faith should consumers place in the other artificial sweeteners on the market? PAT THOMAS REPORTS

There is not a single artificial sweetener on the market that can claim, beyond all reasonable doubt, to be safe for humans to consume. Saccharin, cyclamate and acesulfame-K have all been show to cause cancer in animals. Even the family of relatively benign sweeteners known as polyols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, can cause gastric upset if eaten in quantity. NutraSweet believes that its new aspartame-based sweetener, Neotame, is 'revolutionary'; but, seemingly, it is only amore stable version of aspartame. This leaves the market wide open for sucralose.
Sucralose, sold commercially as Splenda, was discovered in 1976 by researchers working for British sugar refiner Tate & Lyle. Four years later, Tate & Lyle joined forces with Johnson & Johnson to develop and commercialise sucralose under the auspices of a new company, McNeil Specialty Products (now called McNeil Nutritionals). Sucralose has been approved by more than 60 regulatory bodies throughout the world, and is now in more than 3,000 products worldwide. In the US, Coca-Cola has developed a new diet drink sweetened with Splenda, and other major soft drink manufacturers are expected to follow suit.
Splenda has had to rethink its slogan "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar" in the wake of a heated US legal challenge and a recent ruling by the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority that said it confused and misled consumers. While it is true that sugar, or sucrose, is one of the starting materials for sucralose, its chemical structure is significantly different from that of sucrose.

In a complex chemical process, the sucrose is processed with, among other things, phosgene (a chemical-warfare agent used during WWI, now a common intermediary in the production of plastics, pesticides and dyes), and three atoms of chlorine are selectively substituted for three hydroxyl (hydrogen and oxygen) groups naturally attached to the sugar molecule.

This process produces 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-beta-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside (also known as trichlorogalactosucrose or sucralose), a new chemical substance which Tate & Lyle calls a 'water-soluble chlorocarbohydrate'.

Accepting Tate & Lyle's classification of sucralose as a chlorocarbohydrate at face value raises reasonable concerns about its suitability as a food additive. Chlorinated carbohydrates belong to a class of chemicals known as chlorocarbons. This class of chemicals includes a number of notorious human and environmental poisons, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); aliphatic chlorinated carbohydrates; aromatic chlorinated carbohydrates such as DDT; organochlorine pesticides such as aldrin and dieldrin; and aromatic chlorinated ethers such as polychlorinated dioxins (PCDD) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF).

Most of the synthetic chlorinated compounds that we ingest, such as the pesticide residues in our food and water, bio-accumulate slowly in the body; and many cause developmental problems in the womb or are carcinogenic. How do we know that sucralose is any different?

Tate & Lyle insists that sucralose passes through the body virtually intact, and that the tight molecular bond between the chlorine atoms and the sugar molecule results in a very stable and versatile product that is not metabolised in the body for calories. This doesn't mean, however, that sucralose is not metabolised in the body at all, and critics like HJ Roberts argue that, during storage and in the body, sucralose breaks down into among other things 1,6 dichlorofructose, a chlorinated compound that has not been adequately tested in humans.

Tate & Lyle maintains that sucralose and its breakdown products have been extensively tested and proven safe for human consumption. The company notes that in seeking approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), McNeil Specialty Products submitted more than 110 studies that attested to the safety of sucralose.


The vast majority of studies submitted to the FDA were unpublished animal and laboratory studies performed by Tate & Lyle itself, and therefore liable to charges of potentially unacceptable bias. Only five involved human subjects, and these were short-term, often single-dose, studies that clearly could not adequately reflect the expected real-world usage of sucralose. After questions were raised by the FDA about the safety of sucralose for diabetics, and prior to approval, a further five human studies were eventually submitted. On 1 April 1998 the FDA approved sucralose for limited uses; one year later it approved it as a general-purpose sweetener.

Some questions about sucralose's safety, arising from the data submitted to the FDA, remain unanswered. These studies included unsettling findings about animals, which, when exposed to high doses of sucralose, experienced: § Shrunken thymus and spleen;

§ Enlarged liver and kidneys; and

§ Reduced growth rate in adults and newborns.

In the FDA's 'final-rule' report, several of the studies submitted by McNeil were found to have 'inconclusive' results or were 'insufficient' to draw firm conclusions from them. These included:

§ A test that examined the clastogenic activity (ability to break chromosomes apart) of sucralose, and a test that looked for chromosomal aberrations in human lymphocytes exposed to sucralose';

§ A series of three animal genotoxicity studies; and

§ Laboratory studies using lymphoma tissue from mice which showed that sucralose was weakly mutagenic' (capable of causing cellular mutations).
Clastogenic, genotoxic and mutagenic substances are all potential risk factors in the development of cancer.

In addition to these, three studies that looked at very specific 'anti-fertility' effects of sucralose and its breakdown products, especially with regard to sperm production were also deemed insufficient; this is particularly worrying, since other 'chlorosugars', such as 6-chloroglucose, are currently being studied as anti-spermatogenic drugs.

Furthermore, the administration observed that McNeil had failed to explain satisfactorily a reduction in body weight seen in animals fed sucralose and that 'additional study data were needed to resolve this issue'. Ironically for a product that 'tastes like sugar', McNeil argued that weight loss was due to the 'reduced palatability of sucralose-containing diets'. FDA reviewers also found that at mid to high doses there was a trend towards 'decreasing white blood cell and lymphocyte counts with increasing dose levels of sucralose'. This was dismissed as having no 'statistical significance' by the FDA; in healthy animals and humans this may be so, but what happens when already immune-compromised individuals ingest sucralose?

Tate & Lyle says that any lingering concerns about sucralose are unfounded and that only a small amount, 15-20 per cent, of sucralose is absorbed and broken down in the human gut. The rest passes through the body unmetabolised and is excreted in urine and faeces. This in itself provokes important questions.
§ What happens to sucralose that is flushed down the toilet? Does it remain stable or react with other substances (for instance, the chlorine used in water-treatment plants, or microbial life) to form new compounds?

§ Is sucralose or any resulting chemical compound it may form safe for the environment? Is it harmful to aquatic life or wild animals?

§ Will sucralose begin to appear in our water supply, in the way that certain drugs have, silently increasing our exposure to it? And would that increased exposure be safe?


In the face of emerging public criticism, lawyers for Tate & Lyle are already gearing up for a battle. According to attorney James Turner, a key player in the aspartame drama, 'There's going to be a huge fight about Splenda in the next few months.[Tate & Lyle's] lawyers are already on the case trying to shut everybody up'.

It's a tactic that worked well for Monsanto, which certainly used legal pressure against anyone who criticised NutraSweet. Recently, the publisher of the local newspaper the Brighton Argus considered it prudent to publish an apology composed by Tate & Lyle (or their lawyers) or face a legal action for defamation and loss of sales after printing an article suggesting that sucralose was harmful to humans.

Tate & Lyle's first high-profile victim, however, was mercola.com - one of the world's most visited internet health sites. Run by Dr Joseph Mercola, the site has been a vocal critic of sucralose for years. Instead of carrying freely available information on sucralose that might stimulate spirited public debate, it now carries the following message:

'Attorneys acting on behalf of the manufacturers of sucralose, Tate & Lyle Plc, based in London, England, have requested that the information contained on this page not be made available to internet users in England.'

At this point, concerned consumers should be asking themselves several questions. Does the story of sucralose sound familiar? If sucralose is safe beyond any reasonable doubt, why is there such a fervent need to suppress any criticism of it? Finally, whom do such tactics really serve? Do they serve the consumer and the principles of choice, information, safety and redress? Or do they serve the corporate machine and its need to keep generating profits without taking responsibility for the human cost of doing so?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What is the Meaning of Optimal Health?

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What is the Meaning of Optimal Health?

If there's one thing everyone wants, it's good health. That's why there are so many diet books, lifestyle guides and health programs available. That being, said, it is still difficult to attain ideal levels of health in this busy world of ours. But it is possible to attain optimal health. Before you can do that, however, you must have a solid understanding of what optimal health is and how you can achieve it practically in your day-to-day life.

  1. Definition

    • To be brief, optimal health is an individual person's physical, emotional and mental health abilities. That is, it is the health goals that a person can realistically achieve to feel their personal best. No two people's health goals are the same, that's why optimal health is such an individualized matter. One person might focus on physical health while to another healing emotional wounds is a more pressing matter. It really just depends on what is important to you. Likewise, one person's optimal health may be another's bare minimum. There is no right or wrong when it comes to optimal health--really, it's just a matter of finding what best suits you and your abilities.

    Health Types

    • There are several types of health that might be of concern to you in the attempt to achieve optimal health. The first is physical health. Establishing a sound diet, your exercise routine and getting routine checkups are the biggest aspects. Another type is emotional health, which involves how you feel and react to stressful situations. How you feel about yourself and your role in the world are also included in this category. Other areas include your social health and your intellectual health, that is, how you interact with others and how you find new ways to stimulate your mind. For some, spiritual health will also be a factor, but again, how much of a role this will play in your life depends on your specific needs and preferences.

    Physical Optimal Health

    • In order to attain your own personal physical optimal health, there are certain things you'll need to do. A few common concerns involve maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol, smoking and substance abuse, exercising to the best of your ability and seeing your doctor regularly. However, for some the idea of optimal physical health demands extreme exercise regimes and continuously pushing the boundaries of the human body. It just depends on your tolerance and physical abilities. In some cases, adopting an alternate health regimen, like a vegan diet, is involved in a person's optimal health. Likewise, partaking in regular system cleanses can be a part of this as well like colon cleansing with cayenne-based lemonade or having enemas.

    Emotional Optimal Health

    • Achieving your goals for emotional optimal health will vary, but there are some common goals most people share. These include taking time each day to relax and "come down" from the day, actively expressing your feelings, communicating your emotions and learning to deal with stressful situations. For some it might mean being more open about your feelings or seeking the advice of a psychiatrist.

    Mental Optimal Health

    • Obtaining mental optimal health, again, will vary depending on your personal goals, but people tend to share a few of these goals in common. For instance, you may wish to reduce the time you spend watching TV or increase the time you spend reading. You might wish keep up with the news or participate in other mentally stimulating activities. Goals will differ, but finding the right type and amount of mental stimulation you need is the key to your optimal health.

    Spiritual Optimal Health

    • Spirituality is a very individual aspect of our lives. It would make sense, then that your optimal spiritual health would be a highly individualized determination. Going to church everyday might be one person's idea of optimal health, while another's might be meditating in the middle of a forest. However you connect (or don't connect) to the powers of the universe is up to you and your optimal health will depend on what satisfies your soul.

The Definition of Optimal Health

The Definition of Optimal Health thumbnail
Optimal health is a matter of balance
Optimal health can be defined as "being your best with what you've been given." Most of us think of optimal health as having to do with our physical bodies: proper nutrition, getting the right amount of sleep and exercise, etc. But optimal health actually incorporates a much broader spectrum. According to Michael O'Donnell, MBA, MPH, there are, in fact, five key areas to keep in balance in order to achieve optimal health: physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual.

Read more: The Definition of Optimal Health | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_5606825_definition-optimal-health.html#ixzz1z7S3Gfjb

  1. Physical health

    • A daily workout is essential for optimal health

      Optimal physical health covers the themes of nutrition, fitness, medical self-care and controlling chemical abuses. Most people understand that to be physically fit and healthy, we must eat a healthy diet that is rich in fruits and dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains and the proper amount of protein. We need to schedule a daily workout and get an adequate amount of sleep. We need to accept responsibility for our own health, and prevent serious disease and other health issues through healthy choices we make every day. We need to avoid damaging substances like tobacco, alcohol and addictive drugs.

    Emotional health

    • Express who you are

      Optimal health also includes healthy emotions. Every person has a certain amount of stress in her life. Most of us have bills for which we are responsible, appointments we must keep and families to care for. Many of us also have much additional stress to deal with, such as extremely demanding jobs or job loss, toxic relationships, a loved one's death or poor health, or divorce. For optimal health, we have to develop good coping skills to deal with life's stresses. We can either develop these skills on our own or we can get professional help. Either way, we have to deal with stress and emotional crises in healthy ways, or they can lead to imbalances in other areas of our lives.

    Social health

    • Choose friends who will support your dreams

      A supportive social network is vital for optimal health. Having friends and a family that love and affirm us is essential to great health. You can make friends in your neighborhood, at your children's schools and activities, from involvement in hobbies and interests, at your job and at your place of worship.
      We need to learn how to love ourselves and become our own best friends. We must discern which friends and other relationships support our personal growth, and which relationships are hindering us from becoming the best we can be. We elect to keep those friends who will stay with us through thick and thin and who will lift us up when we are down. We must leave behind those people who do not have our best interests at heart.

    Intellectual health

    • Your career should be more than just a job

      Intellectual health has to do with our level of education, our careers and our personal achievements. These are all important pieces of optimal health. Many people are limited in what they can achieve because of family or other responsibilities placed on them by others or taken on themselves. At work, stress can result from the possibility of job loss, working toward a promotion or strained relationships with co-workers.
      It is important to set career goals, but not just for financial gain. Other aspects must be considered, such as child or adult care responsibilities, a desire for more flex time or personal values.

    Spiritual health

    • Spirituality is an important aspect of optimal health

      Spiritual health starts with believing in Someone or Something bigger than ourselves, and is often expressed by acts of love and kindness toward our fellow human beings and the environment. We need to develop a positive attitude and have a sense of hope for a bright future. Giving to others and serving in our communities and our families give us a sense of purpose and belonging. Learning that happiness comes from within rather than from external and temporal things brings a sense of inner peace and contentment.

Read more: The Definition of Optimal Health | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_5606825_definition-optimal-health.html#ixzz1z7SNURJx

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How You Feel What Another Body Feels: Empathy's surprising roots in the sense of touch

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Mind Matters | Mind & Brain

How You Feel What Another Body Feels

Empathy's surprising roots in the sense of touch


Do you feel “touched” by the plight of another?  
Image: iStock/Valua Vitaly

When a friend hits her thumb with a hammer, you don't have to put much effort into imagining how this feels. You know it immediately. You will probably tense up, your "Ouch!" may arise even quicker than your friend's, and chances are that you will feel a little pain yourself. Of course, you will then thoughtfully offer consolation and bandages, but your initial reaction seems just about automatic. Why?

Neuroscience now offers you an answer: A recent line of research has demonstrated that seeing other people being touched activates primary sensory areas of your brain, much like experiencing the same touch yourself would do. What these findings suggest is beautiful in its simplicity—that you literally "feel with" others.

There is no denying that the exceptional interpersonal understanding we humans show is by and large a product of our emotional responsiveness. We are automatically affected by other people’s feelings, even without explicit communication. Our involvement is sometimes so powerful that we have to flee it, turning our heads away when we see someone get hurt in a movie. Researchers hold that this capacity emerged long before humans evolved. However, only quite recently has it been given a name: A mere hundred years ago, the word "Empathy"—a combination of the Greek "in" (em-) and "feeling" (pathos)—was coined by the British psychologist E. B. Titchener during his endeavor to translate the German Einfühlungsvermögen ("the ability to feel into").

Despite the lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of empathy, the mechanisms of sharing and understanding another’s experience have always been of scientific and public interest—and particularly so since the introduction of “mirror neurons.” This important discovery was made two decades ago by  Giacomo Rizzolatti and his co-workers at the University of Parma, who were studying motor neuron properties in macaque monkeys. To compensate for the tedious electrophysiological recordings required, the monkey was occasionally given food rewards. During these incidental actions something unexpected happened: When the monkey, remaining perfectly still, saw the food being grasped by an experimenter in a specific way, some of its motor neurons discharged. Remarkably, these neurons normally fired when the monkey itself grasped the food in this way. It was as if the monkey’s brain was directly mirroring the actions it observed. This “neural resonance,” which was later also demonstrated in humans, suggested the existence of a special type of "mirror" neurons that help us understand other people’s actions.

Do you find yourself wondering, now, whether a similar mirror mechanism could have caused your pungent empathic reaction to your friend maltreating herself with a hammer? A group of scientists led by Christian Keysers believed so. The researchers had their participants watch short movie clips of people being touched, while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record their brain activity. The brain scans revealed that the somatosensory cortex, a complex of brain regions processing touch information, was highly active during the movie presentations—although participants were not being touched at all. As was later confirmed by other studies, this activity strongly resembled the somatosensory response participants showed when they were actually touched in the same way. A recent study by Esther Kuehn and colleagues even found that, during the observation of a human hand being touched, parts of the somatosensory cortex were particularly active when (judging by perspective) the hand clearly belonged to another person.

Is It Hard for You to Say No to Sweets and Temptation? You May Be Suffering From "Ego Depletion"



Saying no to every naughty impulse requires a little bit of willpower fuel, and once you spend that fuel it becomes harder to say no.

This story is cross-posted from You Are Not So Smart. 

The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.

The Truth: Willpower is a finite resource.

In 2005, a team of psychologists made a group of college students feel like scum.
The researchers invited the undergraduates into their lab and asked the students to just hang out for a while and get to know each other. The setting was designed to simulate a casual meet-and-greet atmosphere, you know, like a reception or an office Christmas party – the sort of thing that never really feels all that casual?

The students divided into same-sex clusters of about six people each and chatted for 20 minutes using conversation starters provided by the researchers. They asked things like “Where are you from?” and “What is your major?” and “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Researchers asked the students beforehand to make an effort to learn each other’s names during the hang-out period, which was important, because the next task was to move into a room, sit alone, and write down the names of two people from the fake party with whom the subjects would most like to be partnered for the next part of the study. The researchers noted the responses and asked the students to wait to be called. Unbeknownst to the subjects, their choices were tossed aside while they waited.

The researchers – Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan DeWall, Natalie J. Ciarocco and Jean M. Twenge of Florida State, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State universities – then asked the young men and women to proceed to the next stage of the activity in which the subjects would learn, based on their social skills at the party, what sort of impression they had made on their new acquaintances. This is where it got funky.

The scientists individually told the members of one group of randomly selected people, “everyone chose you as someone they’d like to work with.” To keep each person in the wanted group isolated, the researchers also told each person the groups were already too big and he or she would have to work alone. Students in the wanted group proceeded to the next task with a spring in their step, their hearts filled with moonbeams and fireworks. The scientists individually told each member of another group of randomly selected people, “I hate to tell you this, but no one chose you as someone they wanted to work with.” Believing absolutely no one wanted to hang out with them, people in this group then learned they would have to work by themselves. Punched in the soul, their self-esteem dripping with inky sludge, the people in the unwanted group proceeded to the main task.

The task, the whole point of going through all of this as far as the students knew, was to sit in front of a bowl containing 35 mini chocolate-chip cookies and judge those cookies on taste, smell, and texture. The subjects learned they could eat as many as they wanted while filling out a form commonly used in corporate taste tests. The researchers left them alone with the cookies for 10 minutes.

This was the actual experiment – measuring cookie consumption based on social acceptance. How many cookies would the wanted people eat, and how would their behavior differ from the unwanted? Well, if you’ve had much contact with human beings, and especially if you’ve ever felt the icy embrace of being left-out of the party or getting picked last in kickball, your hypothesis is probably the same as the one put forth by the psychologists. They predicted the rejects would gorge themselves, and so they did. On average the rejects ate twice as many cookies as the popular people. To an outside observer, nothing was different – same setting, same work, similar students sitting alone in front of scrumptious cookies. In their heads though, they were on different planets. For those on the sunny planet with the double-rainbow sky, the cookies were easy to resist. Those on the rocky, lifeless world where the forgotten go to fade away found it more difficult to stay their hands when their desire to reach into the bowl surfaced.
Why did the rejected group feel motivated to keep mushing cookies into their sad faces? Why is it, as explained by the scientists in this study, that social exclusion impairs self-regulation? The answer has to do with something psychologists now call ego depletion, and you would be surprised to learn how many things can cause it, how often you feel it, and how much in life depends on it. Before we get into all of that, let’s briefly discuss the ego.

So, there was this guy named Sigismund Schlomo Freud. He was born in 1856, the oldest of eight children. He grew up and became a doctor. He loved cocaine and cigars. He escaped the Nazis but lost his sisters to concentration camps, and in 1939, an old man in great pain from mouth cancer, he used assisted suicide to shuffle off his mortal coil. Time Magazine once named him one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. He is why the word “ego” is part of everyday language, and he is probably the first face you imagine when someone says “psychology.”

Despite his fame, the late 1800s wasn’t a good time to be in need of mental or physical care. Medical school was mostly about anatomy, physiology and the classics. You drew the insides of things and wondered what they did. You learned where the heart was, how to amputate a leg, and what Plato had to say about his cave. Pretty much everything useful that doctors know today was yet to be discovered or understood. Sore throat? No problem. Tie some peppered bacon around your neck. Hernia? Lie down so you can anally absorb a little tobacco smoke. The wild west of science and medicine was only just becoming tamed, so in many places there was still debate over things like washing your hands after dealing with a fetid corpse before sticking them still sticky into the body of a woman giving birth.

Near the end of his studies, Freud set himself to the squishy, messy task of slicing apart eels. He dissected 400 of them looking for testicles, a feature of the animal still unknown to science at the time. It was thoroughly disgusting and unfulfilling work, and it went nowhere. If he had found testes, his name might appear in different textbooks today. Instead, he earned his medical degree and went to work in a hospital where he spent years studying the brain, drawing neurons, and searching in that gelatinous goop much as he had the innards of the eels. But, as it does for so many of us, money became a central concern, and to pay the bills he abandoned the laboratory to set up his own medical practice. He remained the same intense, obsessive Freud though, and as he searched for the source of nervous disorders by going farther and farther back into the childhoods and histories of his patients he began to sketch out the geography and anatomy of the mind. This is how he came to produce his model of the psyche. Freud imagined behavior and thought, neurosis and malady, were all the result of an interplay and communication between mental agencies each with their own functions. He called those agencies “das Es,” “das Ich,” and “das Über-Ich” or “the it,” “the I,” and the “over-I,” – what would famously become known to English speakers as the id, the ego and the superego. In Freud’s view, the id was the primal part of the mind residing in the unconscious, always seeking pleasure while avoiding uncomfortable situations. The ego was the realistic part of the mind that considered the consequences of punching people in the face or stealing their french fries. When the ego lost a battle with the id over control of the mind, the super-ego would tower over the whole system and shake its metaphorical head in disgust. This, Freud thought, forced the ego to take control or hide behind denial or rationalization or any one of many defense mechanisms so as to avoid the harsh judgment of the super-ego from which morals and cultural norms exerted their influence. Of course, none of this is actually true. It was just the speculation of a well-educated man at about the same time penicillin was discovered.

Doctors like Freud could hypothesize whatever they wished, and if they were charismatic enough in person and on paper, they would lead the conversation in science. Once, Freud treated a female patient who complained of menstrual cramps. He sent her to an ear, nose, and throat doctor he knew who had this hypothesis that runny noses and menstruation were connected. During recovery, after her nasal cavity had received a proper chiseling, she complained of a growing pain in her sinuses that not even morphine could abate, and one night she produced two bowls of pus before horking out a piece of bone the size of a water chestnut. Freud concluded the hemorrhage was the result of a hysterical episode fueled by repressed sexual longings. A return trip to the surgeon determined it was actually a leftover piece of gauze. Freud remained unconvinced, claiming her relief came from psychoanalysis.

The point here is that science has come a long way since then, and although Freud’s work is still a big part of pop culture and everyday language – Freudian slips, repression, anal retentiveness, etc. – it’s mostly bunk, and you know this because psychology became a proper science over the last century with rigorous lab work published in peer reviewed journals. Today, scientists are still slicing away at the problem of consciousness and the ego, or what we now call the self, and that brings us back to Roy F. Baumeister and his bowl of cookies.

In the 1990s, Baumeister and his colleagues spent a lot of time researching self-regulation through the careful application of chocolate. Self-regulation is an important part of being a person. You are the central character in the story of your life, the unreliable narrator in the epic tale of your past, present, and future. You have a sense there is boundary between you and all the other atoms pulsating nearby, a sense of being a separate entity and not just a bag of organs and cells and molecules scooped out of the sea 530 million years ago. That sense of self cascades into a variety of other notions about your body and your mind called volition – the feeling of free will that provides you with the belief that you are in control of your decisions and choices. Volition makes you feel responsible for your actions both before and after they occur. There are a few thousand years of debate over what this actually means and whether or not it is an illusion through and through, but Baumeister’s research over the last decade or so has been about learning how that sense of self-control can be manipulated.

In 1998, Baumeister and his colleagues Ellen Bratlavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice at Case Western Reserve University gathered subjects for a study. They told the participants the research was on taste perception, and thus each person was to skip a meal before the experiment and arrive with an empty stomach. The scientists led the subjects one at a time into a room with an oven that had just finished baking chocolate-chip cookies and had each person sit down in front of a selection of two foods – chocolate-chip cookies stacked high and a lone bowl of radishes. They asked a third of the participants to eat only the radishes and to take note of the sensations for follow up questions the next day. Another third were to eat only the cookies. A final third skipped all of this. The psychologists then left the room for five minutes and returned with a questionnaire about mood. According to Baumeister’s book on his research, Willpower, written with the help of John Tierney, the typical radish eater stared the cookies down like a gunfighter on main street. Some even went so far as to grab the cookies and put them to their noses. If they couldn’t have the taste, they could at least take a long, deep drag on the aroma. Still, the radish group stuck to the rules; not one of them ate a cookie, but not without some anguish. Next, the subjects moved on to a second experiment along with the group that skipped the food completely. The next task was to sit and solve puzzles. All each subject had to do was trace a geometric figure without lifting his or her pencil or retracing any lines. They were told they could take as long as they wanted, but they weren’t told that the puzzles were impossible to solve. For the next 30 minutes, the scientists watched and recorded the behavior of the participants, eager to see how long it would take each one to give up.

On average, the people left out of the room with the radishes and the cookies worked for about 20 minutes before admitting defeat. The people allowed cookies persevered for about 19 minutes. The people who got stuck with the radishes, and had to fight off their impulse to gobble up a delicious confection in a room saturated with chocolate fumes, quit after approximately 8 minutes. Baumeister said of this, “Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost.” Somehow, the evidence suggested the more you restrain that which Freud would have called your id, the more difficult it becomes to restrain it. Freud would have probably have said the more your ego fought the id, the more it held it down, the more tired, exhausted, and weak your ego became. Baumeister named this process ego depletion with a nod and wink.

Baumeister and his colleagues soon discovered many other ways to get people to give up early. In one study, college students divided into three groups. One group had to give a speech supporting raising tuition at their college. A second group chose between a speech for or against tuition hikes. A third group proceeded directly to the second stage – those devious, unsolvable puzzles. This time, the no-speech group and the group that gave the speech with which they likely disagreed both lasted about twice as long as the people who got to choose what they spoke about. The results suggested it wasn’t just restraint in the face of desire that could deplete your ego, but any choice at all. The subjects who didn’t have to choose a topic were able to allow their volition to take a break, and their ego energy reserves remained intact. Another study had participants attempt to show and feel no emotion while watching video of either stand-up comedy or an actor pretending to die from cancer. They then tried to solve word puzzles along with people who watched the same videos with the freedom to feel whatever they wished. This time, the people who exerted emotional restraint subsequently solved fewer puzzles than those who let their feelings flow.

In a study about active and passive choices, subjects had to find all instances of the letter e on a piece of paper filled with nonsense text. Another group had to find every e that was at least two letters distant from a vowel. Try it yourself in this paragraph and you’ll notice the first group’s task was way easier and required little effort. The e finders who had to adhere to the vowel rule took much longer as they had to examine every word and double-check themselves. Next, people in each group individually watched a video of a blank wall while holding a remote control. For some people pressing a button would end the video. For others pressing down kept the video running. The subjects then had to watch the boring video until they believed they had seen enough to answer a questionnaire about it. Nothing ever happened in the video, but something might have happened at any moment as far as the subjects knew. Each person was also told as soon as he or she ended the video they would get to watch a clip from Saturday Night Live. The people who first performed the easy task and then had to press a button to end the boring video did so much sooner than the depleted group. They also held the button down longer when letting it go meant ending the clip. The depleted group just went with whatever was the most passive option in either case. If it was to press a button, they procrastinated. If it was to hold a button down, they gave up sooner. The results suggested that focused concentration later made people less eager to make active choices.

A great deal of your thoughts and behaviors are automatic and unconscious. Blinking and breathing, for example, need no help from the conscious part of you. Much of your behavior, like driving to work or toweling off after a shower, just happens while your conscious mind drifts off to think about Game of Thrones or how you’ll approach your boss for a raise. If you touch a stove you recoil without thought. Your desire to avoid dark alleys and approach embraces occurs without your input. When moved by a song or a painting or a kitten, the emotional rush comes without volition. Much of your mental life is simply not under your conscious control, and Baumeister’s research suggests once you take the helm every act of volition diminishes the next.

It is as if the mind is a terribly designed airplane. As long as the plane flies in a straight line, it burns very little fuel, but as soon as the pilot takes over in any way, to dive or bank or climb, the plane burns fuel at an alarming rate making it more difficult to steer in the future. At some point, you must return the plane to autopilot until it can refuel or else it crashes. In this analogy, taking control of the human mind includes making choices, avoiding temptation, suppressing emotions and thoughts, and acting in a way deemed appropriate by your culture. Saying no to every naughty impulse from raiding the refrigerator to skipping class requires a little bit of willpower fuel, and once you spend that fuel it becomes harder to say no the next time. All of Baumeister’s research suggests self-control is a strenuous act. As your ego depletes, your automatic processes get louder, and each successive attempt to take control of your impulses is less successful than the last. Yet, ego depletion is not just the effects of fatigue. Being sleepy, drunk, or in the middle of a meth binge will certainly diminish your ability to resist pie, but what makes ego depletion so weird is that the research suggests the system affected by lack of sleep and excess of drink can get worn out just from regular use. Inhibiting and redirecting your own behavior in any way makes it more difficult to delay gratification and persevere in the face of adversity or boredom in the future.

So, why is it then that the students hit by the rejection bus, the ones told that no one picked them after listening to them prattle at the fake party, couldn’t keep the cookies out of their mouths? It seems as though ego depletion can go both ways. Getting along with others requires effort, and thus much of what we call prosocial behavior involves the sort of things that deplete the ego. The results of the social exclusion study suggest that when you’ve been rejected by society it’s as if somewhere deep inside you ask, “Why keep regulating my behavior if no one cares what I do?”

You may have felt the urge to shut down your computer, shed your clothes, and walk naked into the woods, but you don’t do it. With differing motivations, many people have famously exited society to be alone: Ted Kaczynski, Henry David Thoreau, Christopher McCandless to name a few. As with these three, most don’t go so far as to shed all remnants of the tools and trappings of modern living. You may decide one day to throw middle fingers at the material world and head into the wild, but you’ll probably keep your shoes on and take a pocket knife at the very least. Just in case of, you know, bears. It’s a compelling idea nonetheless – leaving society with no company. You enjoy watching shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild. You revisit tales like Castaway and Robinson Crusoe and Life of Pi. It’s in our shared experience, a curiosity and a fear, the idea of total expulsion from the rest of your kin.
Ostracism is a potent and painful experience. The word comes from a form of serious punishment in ancient Athens and other large cities. The Greeks often expelled those who broke the trust of their society. Shards of pottery, ostracon, were used as voting tokens when a person’s fate was on the ballot. Primates like you survive and thrive because they stick together and form groups, keeping up with those prickly social variables like status and alliance, temperament and skill, political affiliation and sexual disposition to prevent ostracism. For a primate, banishment is death. Even among your cousins the chimps, banishment is rare. The only lone chimps are usually ex-alpha males defeated in power takeovers.
Chimpanzees will stop hanging out, stop grooming, but they rarely banish. It is likely this has been true of your kind going back for many millennia. A person on their own usually doesn’t make it very long. Your ancestors probably survived not only by keeping away from spiders, snakes, and lions, but also by making friends and not rocking the boat too much back at the village. It makes sense then that you feel an intense, deep pain when rejected socially. You have an innate system for considering that which might get you ostracized. When you get down to it, most of what you know others will consider socially unacceptable are behaviors that would demonstrate selfishness. People who are unreliable, who don’t pitch in, or share, or consider the feelings of others get pushed to the fringe. In the big picture, stealing, raping, murdering, fraud and so on harm others while sating some selfish desire of an individual or a splinter group.
Baumeister and his group wrote in the social exclusion paper that being part of society means accepting a bargain between you and others. If you will self-regulate and not be selfish then you get to stay and enjoy the rewards of having a circle of friends and society as a whole, but if you break that bargain society will break its promise and reject you. Your friend groups will stop inviting you to parties, unfollow you on Twitter. If you are too selfish in your larger social group, it might reject you by sending you to jail or worse.
The researchers in the “no one chose you” study proposed that since self-regulation is required to be prosocial, you expect some sort of reward for regulating your behavior. People in the unwanted group felt the sting of ostracism, and that reframed their self-regulation as being wasteful. It was as if they thought, “Why play by the rules if no one cares?” It poked a hole in their willpower fuel tanks, and when they sat in front of the cookies they couldn’t control their impulses as well as the others. Other studies show when you feel ostracized and unwanted, you can’t solve puzzles as well, you become less likely to cooperate, less motivated to work, more likely to drink and smoke and do other self-destructive things. Rejection obliterates self control, and thus it seems it’s one of the many avenues toward a state of ego depletion.

So, looking back on all of this, what about the nutty propositions put forth by Freud? All of this talk about mental energy, impulses, and cultural judgement sounds a lot like we are validating the ideas of the id, ego, and superego, right? Well, that’s why psychologists have been working so hard to pinpoint what is being depleted when we speak of ego depletion, and it may just be glucose.
A study published in 2010 conducted by Jonathan Leval, Shai Danziger, and Liora Avniam-Pesso of of Columbia and Ben-Guron Universities looked at 1,112 judicial ruling over the course of 10 months concerning prisoner paroles. They found that right after breakfast and lunch, your chances of getting paroled were at their highest. On average, the judges granted parole to around 60 percent of prisoners right after the judge had eaten a meal. The rate of approval crept down after that. Right before a meal, the judges granted parole to about 20 percent of those appearing before them. The less glucose in judges’ bodies, the less willing they were to make the active choice of setting a person free and accepting the consequences and the more likely they were to go with the passive choice to put the fate of the prisoner off until a future date.

The glucose correlation is made stronger by another study by Baumeister in 2007 in which he had people watch a silent video of a woman talking while words flashed in the lower right-hand corner. The subjects’ task was to try as best they could to ignore the words. The scientists tested blood glucose levels before and after the video and compared them to a control group who watched the video without special instructions. Sure enough, the people who avoided the words had lower blood glucose levels after the video than the control group. In subsequent experiments the subjects drank either Kool-aid with sugar or Kool-aid with Splenda right after the video and then proceeded to the sorts of things that tend to reveal ego-depletion in the lab – word puzzles, geometric line tracing puzzles, tests of emotional restraint, tests of suppression of prejudicial attitudes, tests of altruism, etc. The people who thought they got an energy boost tended to perform worse than those who actually got their glucose replenished. Thus, it seems as though you are more able to exert willpower and control, to make decisions and suppress naughtiness by eating and drinking beforehand, which sucks of course if the thing over which you need willpower are food and drink.

It is important to note that this research into what is now being called the resource model of self control is still new and incomplete. In some experiments subjects are able to stave off ego depletion after receiving a gift, a swish of sugar water, or a chance to engage in non-boring tasks, which leads some researchers to believe the reward system of the brain plays a significant role in ego depletion and that glucose is not the only factor. As a wink and a nod to Freud, the idea of ego depletion is still a metaphor for something more complex and nuanced that has yet to be fully understood.

The current understanding of this is that all brain functions require fuel, but the executive functions seem to require the most. Or, if you prefer, the executive branch of the mind has the most expensive operating costs. Studies show that when low on glucose, those executive functions suffer, and the result is a state of mind called ego depletion. That mental state harkens back to the way Freud and his contemporaries saw the psyche, as a battle between dumb primal desires and the contemplative self. The early psychologists would have said when your ego is weak, your id runs amok. We now know it may just be your prefrontal cortex dealing with a lack of glucose.

Remember, no matter what the self-help books say, the research suggests that willpower isn’t a skill. If it was, there would be some consistency from one task to the next. Instead, every time you exert control over the giant system that is you, that control gets weaker. If you hold back laughter in a church or classroom, every subsequent silly notion is that much funnier until you run the risk of bursting into snorts.

The only way to avoid this state of mind is to predict what might cause it in your own daily life and to avoid those things when you need the most volition. Modern life requires more self control than ever. Just knowing Reddit is out there beckoning your browser, or your iPad is waiting for your caress, or your smart phone is full of status updates, requires a level of impulse control unique to the human mind. Each abstained vagary strengthens the pull of the next. Remember too that you can dampen your executive functions in many ways, like by staying up all night for a few days, or downing a few alcoholic beverages, or holding your tongue at a family gathering, or resisting the pleas of a child for the umpteenth time. Having an important job can lead to decision fatigue which may lead to ego depletion simply because big decisions require lots of energy, literally, and when you slump you go passive. A long day of dealing with bullshit often leads to an evening of no-decision television in which you don’t even feel like switching the channel to get Kim Kardashian’s face out of your television, or sitting and watching a censored Jurassic Park between commercials even though you own a copy of the movie five feet away. If so, no big deal, but if you find yourself in control of air traffic or a heart bypass, or you need to lose 200 pounds, that’s when it’s time to plan ahead. If you want the most control over your own mind so that you can alter your responses to the world instead of giving in and doing what comes naturally, stay fresh. Take breaks. Get some sleep. And until we understand just what ego depletion really is, don’t make important decisions on an empty stomach.