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Why you may be deficient in magnesium – a mineral that’s essential for heart health, sleep, and muscle recovery.

One of the most important minerals is one that most of us aren’t paying attention to – and around half of the population is lacking. Magnesium is key for heart health, sleep, and keeping stress at bay and muscles healthy. Yet a raft of studies point out that we aren’t getting enough of it, and this may cause insomnia, anxiety, and high blood pressure. “So many patients and doctors are unaware that a deficiency in a simple mineral can lead to so many problems,” says Dr. Dennis Goodman, Clinical Assoc. Professor of Cardiology at NYU, Director of Integrative Medicine at the New York Medical Associates, and author of a new book, ‘Magnificent Magnesium.’ “Some of these, like muscle cramps, are nuisances, but others are major – we’re talking diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, and strokes.”

Magnesium helps regulate cortisol (too much can lead to anxiety), melatonin (essential for sleep), and blood pressure, and provides the energy to contract and relax the heart and other muscles. Low magnesium levels can lead to symptoms like exhaustion, irritation, and sleeplessness. “If you feel fatigued or irritable, or you’re having muscle twitches or weakness, those are all symptoms of possible low magnesium,” says Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCLA’s medical school. Goodman recommends everyone get tested with a simple red blood cell magnesium test that can be added to a routine blood test by your primary doctor.

Many Americans are magnesium deficient because we eat so many fried and refined foods, processed in a way that strips out the mineral. But those of us who eat well may have trouble getting enough, too: Foods richest in magnesium, like green leafy vegetables, have lower levels when grown with chemical fertilizers. Antibiotics, beta-blockers, and other prescription medications decrease reserves as well. Even diuretics taken for high blood pressure – which itself can be a sign of low magnesium – can drain your body of the nutrient that helps to regulate your blood flow.

Researchers are beginning to pay more attention to magnesium levels for cardiovascular health, says Dr. Liana Del Gobbo, of the Harvard School of Public Health. Del Gobbo recently published a study showing that having more magnesium in the diet can cut overall heart risk (including heart attack and stroke) by up to 22 percent. “Dietary cholesterol has been overemphasized as the main heart health concern,” she says, adding that a magnesium test should be part of the prevention.

If you find that your levels are low, you can usually get balanced with supplements and changes to your diet. “If you’re deficient, I suggest taking magnesium supplements first,” says Goodman. The National Institutes of Health recommends at least 400 milligrams a day of magnesium for men, but Goodman advises a more specific regimen for those who have low levels: about five milligrams per pound of body weight. “If you then change your diet to include more leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, you can take yourself off the supplements.” Our need for magnesium also gives us another reason to avoid processed foods. “It’s as easy as eating whole wheat instead of refined flour, which has 85 percent of the magnesium stripped out.” says Andrea Rosanoff, director for the Center for Magnesium Education and Research in Pahoa, Hawaii.

How to Get Extra Magnesium

In ‘Magnificent Magnesium,’ Dr. Goodman suggests the average person get three milligrams a day for every pound they weigh – or 540 milligrams for an 180-pound man. If you’re deficient, bump that up to five milligrams per pound. Here is his advice on how to get all that magnesium.

If your levels are normal . . .

Eat for magnesium. Good sources include spinach (269 milligrams for one bunch), almonds (124 milligrams for half a cup), dark chocolate (237 milligrams for one bar), and fish (106 milligrams for a salmon fillet).

Buy local and organic. The amount of magnesium in plants varies with soil quality. Organic farms use less fertilizer – meaning there’s more magnesium in their veggies.

If your levels are low . . .

Take a supplement. “Aim for magnesium that ends in -ate,” says Goodman – magnesium citrate, chelate, malate, and sulfate, which are better absorbed than magnesium hydroxide. Diarrhea can be a side effect of magnesium supplements, so opt for slow-release pills, or lower your dose if symptoms continue.

If stressed, up your intake. Low magnesium can lead to stress and anxiety, which can further deplete your levels.

Watch out for drug interactions. Magnesium can interact with a number of drugs, including antibiotics and blood pressure medication. Talk to your doctor and take magnesium supplements more than two hours before any medication.

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Unlike Vegas, Whole Foods’ clientele are all about mindfulness and compassion… until they get to the parking lot. Then it’s war. As I pull up this morning, I see a pregnant lady on the crosswalk holding a baby and groceries. This driver swerves around her and honks. As he speeds off I catch his bumper sticker, which says ‘NAMASTE’. Poor lady didn’t even hear him approaching because he was driving a Prius. He crept up on her like a panther.

As the great, sliding glass doors part I am immediately smacked in the face by a wall of cool, moist air that smells of strawberries and orchids. I leave behind the concrete jungle and enter a cornucopia of organic bliss; the land of hemp milk and honey. Seriously, think about Heaven and then think about Whole Foods; they’re basically the same.

The first thing I see is the great wall of kombucha — 42 different kinds of rotten tea. Fun fact: the word kombucha is Japanese for ‘I gizzed in your tea.’ Anyone who’s ever swallowed the glob of mucus at the end of the bottle knows exactly what I’m talking about. I believe this thing is called “The Mother,” which makes it that much creepier.

Next I see the gluten-free section filled with crackers and bread made from various wheat-substitutes such as cardboard and sawdust. I skip this aisle because I’m not rich enough to have dietary restrictions. Ever notice that you don’t meet poor people with special diet needs? A gluten intolerant house cleaner? A cab driver with Candida? Candida is what I call a rich, white person problem. You know you’ve really made it in this world when you get Candida. My personal theory is that Candida is something you get from too much hot yoga. All I’m saying is if I were a yeast, I would want to live in your yoga pants.

Next I approach the beauty aisle. There is a scary looking machine there that you put your face inside of and it tells you exactly how ugly you are. They calculate your wrinkles, sun spots, the size of your pores, etc. and compare it to other women your age. I think of myself attractive but as it turns out, I am 78 percent ugly, meaning less pretty than 78 percent of women in the world. On the popular 1-10 hotness scale used by males the world over, that makes me a 3 (if you round up, which I hope you will.) A glance at the extremely close-up picture they took of my face, in which I somehow have a glorious, blond porn mustache, tells me that 3 is about right. Especially because the left side of my face is apparently 20 percent more aged than the right. Fantastic. After contemplating ending it all here and now, I decide instead to buy their product. One bottle of delicious smelling, silky feeling creme that is maybe going to raise me from a 3 to a 4 for only $108 which is a pretty good deal when you think about it.

I grab a handful of peanut butter pretzels on my way out of this stupid aisle. I don’t feel bad about pilfering these bites because of the umpteen times that I’ve overpaid at the salad bar and been tricked into buying $108 beauty creams. The pretzels are very fattening but I’m already in the seventieth percentile of ugly so who cares.

Next I come to the vitamin aisle which is a danger zone for any broke hypochondriac. Warning: Whole Foods keeps their best people in this section. Although you think she’s a homeless person at first, that vitamin clerk is an ex-pharmaceuticals sales rep. Today she talks me into buying estrogen for my mystery mustache and Women’s Acidophilus because apparently I DO have Candida after all.

I move on to the next aisle and ask the nearest Whole Foods clerk for help. He’s wearing a visor inside and as if that weren’t douchey enough, it has one word on it in all caps. Yup, NAMASTE. I ask him where I can find whole wheat bread. He chuckles at me “Oh, we keep the poison in aisle 7.” Based solely on the attitudes of people sporting namaste paraphernalia today, I’d think it was Sanskrit for “go fuck yourself.”

I pass the table where the guy invites me to join a group cleanse he’s leading. For $179.99 I can not-eat not-alone… not-gonna-happen. They’re doing the cleanse where you consume nothing but lemon juice, cayenne pepper and fiber pills for 10 days, what’s that one called again? Oh, yeah…anorexia. I went on a cleanse once; it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I detoxified, I purified, I lost weight. On the other hand, I fell asleep on the highway, fantasized about eating a pigeon, and crapped my pants. I think I’ll stick with the whole eating thing.

I grab a couple of loaves of poison, and head to checkout. The fact that I’m at Whole Foods on a Sunday finally sinks in when I join the end of the line…halfway down the dog food aisle. I suddenly realize that I’m dying to get out of this store. Maybe it’s the lonely feeling of being a carnivore in a sea of vegans, or the newfound knowledge that some people’s dogs eat better than I do, but mostly I think it’s the fact that Yanni has been playing literally this entire time. Like sensory deprivation, listening to Yanni seems harmless at first, enjoyable even. But two hours in, you’ll chew your own ear off to make it stop.

A thousand minutes later, I get to the cashier. She is 95 percent beautiful. “Have you brought your reusable bags?” Fuck. No, they are at home with their 2 dozen once-used friends. She rings up my meat, alcohol, gluten and a wrapper from the chocolate bar I ate in line, with thinly veiled alarm. She scans my ladies acidophilus, gives me a pitying frown and whispers, “Ya know, if you wanna get rid of your Candida, you should stop feeding it.” She rings me up for $313. I resist the urge to unwrap and swallow whole another $6 truffle in protest. Barely. Instead, I reach for my wallet, flash her a quiet smile and say, “Namaste.”

Her parents were running out of hope. Their teenage daughter, Mary, had been diagnosed with a severe case of obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as ADHD. They had dragged her to clinics around the country in an effort to thwart the scary, intrusive thoughts and the repetitive behaviors that Mary felt compelled to perform. Even a litany of psychotropic medications didn’t make much difference. It seemed like nothing could stop the relentless nature of Mary’s disorder.

Their last hope for Mary was Boston-area psychiatrist James Greenblatt. Arriving at his office in Waltham, MA, her parents had only one request: help us help Mary.

Greenblatt started by posing the usual questions about Mary’s background, her childhood, and the onset of her illness. But then he asked a question that no psychiatrist ever had: How was Mary’s gut? Did she suffer digestive upset? Constipation or diarrhea? Acid reflux? Had Mary’s digestion seemed to change at all before or during her illness? Her parents looked at each other. The answer to many of the doctor’s questions was, indeed, “Yes.”

That’s what prompted Greenblatt to take a surprising approach: besides psychotherapy and medication, Greenblatt also prescribed Mary a twice-daily dose of probiotics, the array of helpful bacteria that lives in our gut. The change in Mary was nothing short of miraculous: within six months, her symptoms had greatly diminished. One year after the probiotic prescription, there was no sign that Mary had ever been ill.

Her parents may have been stunned, but to Greenblatt, Mary’s case was an obvious one. An imbalance in the microbes in Mary’s gut was either contributing to, or causing, her mental symptoms. “The gut is really your second brain,” Greenblatt said. “There are more neurons in the GI tract than anywhere else except the brain.”

Greenblatt’s provocative idea — that psychiatric woes can be solved by targeting the digestive system — is increasingly reinforced by cutting-edge science. For decades, researchers have known of the connection between the brain and the gut. Anxiety often causes nausea and diarrhea, and depression can change appetite. The connection may have been established, but scientists thought communication was one way: it traveled from the brain to the gut, and not the other way around.

But now, a new understanding of the trillions of microbes living in our guts reveals that this communication process is more like a multi-lane superhighway than a one-way street. By showing that changing bacteria in the gut can change behavior, this new research might one day transform the way we understand — and treat — a variety of mental health disorders.
“For decades, researchers have known of the connection between the brain and the gut”

For Greenblatt, this radical treatment protocol has actually been decades in the making. Even during his psychiatric residency at George Washington University, he was perplexed by the way mental disorders were treated. It was as if, he said, the brain was totally separate from the body. More than 20 years of work treating eating disorders emphasized Greenblatt’s hunch: that the connection between body and mind was more important than conventional psychiatry assumed. “Each year, I get more and more impressed at how important the GI tract is for healthy mood and the controlling of behavior,” Greenblatt said. Among eating disorder patients, Greenblatt found that more than half of psychiatric complaints were associated with problems in the gut — and in some patients, he says he has remedied both using solely high-dose probiotics, along with normalizing eating.

Greenblatt’s solution might strike us as simple, but he’s actually targeting a vast, complex, and mysterious realm of the human body: around 90 percent of our cells are actually bacterial, and bacterial genes outnumber human genes by a factor of 99 to 1. But those bacteria, most of which perform helpful functions, weren’t always with us: a baby is essentially sterile until it enters the birth canal, at which point the bacteria start to arrive — and they don’t stop. From a mother’s vaginal microbes to hugs and kisses from relatives, the exposures of newborns and toddlers in their earliest years is critical to the development of a robust microbiome.
“Greenblatt’s actually targeting a vast, complex, and mysterious realm of the human body”

In fact, recent research suggests that early microbiome development might play a key role in at least some aspects of one’s adult mental health. One 2011 study out of McMaster University compared the behaviors of normal eight-week-old mice and mice whose guts were stripped of microbes. Bacteria-free mice exhibited higher levels of risk-taking, and neurochemical analysis revealed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and altered levels of the brain chemical BDNF, which has been implicated in human anxiety and depression. “This work showed us that anxiety was normal, and that the gut-brain axis was involved in that,” Jane Foster, the study’s lead author, said. “Everybody knew that stress and anxiety could lead to gastrointestinal symptoms, but we looked at it from the bottom up and showed that the gut could communicate with the brain. It was the first demonstration that the gut itself could influence brain development.”

Subsequent research out of McMaster further enforces those findings, by showing that swapping one mouse’s gut bacteria with that of another can significantly alter behavior. Researchers transplanted microbes from one group of mice, which were characterized by timidity, into the guts of mice who tended to take more risks. What they observed was a complete personality shift: timid mice became outgoing, while outgoing mice became timid. “It’s good evidence that the microbiota houses these behaviors,” Foster said.

While researchers have established a compelling link between gut bacteria and mental health, they’re still trying to figure out the extent to which the human microbiome — once it’s populated in early childhood — can be transformed. “The brain seems to be hardwired for anxiety by puberty and early adolescence,” Foster said. If the microbiome is part of that hardwiring, then it would suggest that once we pass a certain threshold, the impact of bacterial tweaks on problems like depression and anxiety might wane.

In one Japanese study, for instance, researchers were only able to change the baseline stress characteristics of germ-free mice until nine weeks of age. After that, no variety of bacterial additions to the mice’s guts could properly regulate stress and anxiety levels. The explanation for this phenomenon might lie in what’s known as “developmental programming” — the idea that various environmental factors, to which we’re exposed early on, greatly determine the structure and function of organs including the gut and the brain.

“There are changes that happen early in life that we can’t reverse,” said John Cryan, a neuroscientist at the University of Cork in Ireland and a main investigator at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre. “But there are some changes that we can reverse. It tells us that there is a window when microbes are having their main effects and, until this closes, many changes can be reversed.”

Even if our gut bacteria carries the biggest influence when we’re young, experts like Greenblatt and Cryan are still convinced that tweaking these bacteria later in life can yield profound behavioral and psychological changes. In a study led by Cryan, anxious mice dosed with the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus rhamnosus (JB-1) showed lower levels of anxiety, decreased stress hormones, and even an increase in brain receptors for a neurotransmitter that’s vital in curbing worry, anxiety, and fear.

John Bienenstock, a co-author on that study, compared the probiotics’ effects to benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax. “The similarity is intriguing. It doesn’t prove they both use the same pathway [in the brain], but it’s a possibility.”

Although plenty of questions remain, the benefits of using probiotics to treat human behavior are becoming increasingly obvious. Yogurts like Dannon’s Activia have been marketed with much success as a panacea for all of our intestinal ills. Other probiotic supplements have claimed to support immune health. Probiotics’ potential to treat human behavior is increasingly apparent, but will manufacturers one day toss an anxiety-fighting blend into their probiotic brews?
“Experts are convinced that tweaking these bacteria later in life can yield profound behavioral and psychological changes”

It’s a distinct possibility: in one 2013 proof-of-concept study, researchers at UCLA showed that healthy women who consumed a drink with four added probiotic strains twice daily for four weeks showed significantly altered brain functioning on an fMRI brain scan. The women’s brains were scanned while they looked at photos of angry or sad faces, and then asked to match those with other faces showing similar emotions.

Those who had consumed the probiotic drink showed significantly lower brain activity in the neural networks that help drive responses to sensory and emotional behavior. The research is “groundbreaking,” Cryan said, because it’s the first trial to show that probiotics could affect the functioning of the human brain. Still, he notes that the results need to be interpreted with care.

As the research community increasingly lends credence to Greenblatt’s ideas, and public awareness about gut bacteria grows, he’s confident we’ll soon know more about the power of probiotics. “Because of the commercials and the other information that’s out there, patients are beginning to ask,” he said. “They’re much more aware of how important probiotics are.”

Whether all of our mental woes respond to probiotic treatment as dramatically as Greenblatt’s patient Mary remains to be seen. “We have to be very cautious in this field not to be too hyperbolic about what we promise,” Cryan said. Indeed, scientists still aren’t sure exactly which microbial species are part of a healthy microbiome, nor do they know whether certain bacterial strains are absolutely vital to mental functioning, or whether the right balance is what’s key. Furthermore, research still hasn’t parsed which illnesses might be affected by the microbiome and, therefore, treatable using probiotics. “There are beginning to be suggestions that this type of probiotic treatment is worth pursuing,” Bienenstock said. “Whether we can use this to improve people’s lives, well, the door is just beginning to open on this.”

pregnant woman

Whether you want to get pregnant now or down the road, many recommend clearing out toxic chemicals—especially the ones that disrupt hormones—before conception.

If you opt for a preconception visit with an integrative medicine specialist, like a naturopath, you may get tested for levels of environmental pollutants and heavy metals in your blood, as well as whether you have any nutritional deficiencies. (Getty Images/Mladen Mitrinovic)
Whether or not you’re baby-minded right now, it can sometimes be hard to summon up huge excitement at the idea of bringing a child into a world far more toxic than the one into which our parents—not to mention our grandparents—brought us. You know the litany: There are pesticides in food, flame retardants in clothing and furniture, and pollution in the air we breathe.
But once you’re pregnant—or even just thinking about trying—you may well wonder if the toxins we all absorb might have an effect on your fertility or on having a healthy baby. The truth is that because conventional medicine doesn’t routinely test the “body burden” of chemicals we carry around all the time in our bodies, no one knows for sure how many we typically absorb. A small 2008 study of teenage girls, led by the Washigton, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) detected 16 hormone-altering chemicals from common beauty products. Every girl in the study tested positive for parabens, which are used as preservatives in cosmetics and have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. These and other chemicals can be passed along to a child in utero.
Other research by EWG found that infants are typically born “pre-polluted,” with over 200 toxic industrial chemicals circulating in their bodies, which they’ve obviously absorbed prior to being born. It doesn’t matter where parents live, either, because consumer, food, medical, and industrial chemicals circulate via air, water, soil, and food, and they’re found all over the world. And Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that the earlier in life that toxic exposure occurs, the more powerfully these chemicals affect a child’s development ongoing from that day forward.
Infants are typically born ‘pre-polluted,’ with over 200 toxic industrial chemicals circulating in their bodies.
“Mercury is one of the most damaging toxins, affecting both parents and baby. It affects the brain, the nervous system, and hormonal functions, [possibly] causing symptoms like ADHD, pain, attention problems, and fatigue,” says Andreanna Rainville, R.N., a holistic nurse at the Holistic Healing Arts clinic, in Seattle. In addition, “gasoline and many cosmetics contain toluene, which can disrupt hormones and cause kidney and liver damage.”
Concern over toxins is why more people who are intending to start families—whether immediately or later—are getting their health checked out “pre-conception” so their kids get as healthy a start as possible. At a pre-conception medical checkup, a physician will advise that you stop smoking, using recreational drugs, and drinking alcohol, and she may want to review your prescriptions, since some medications can cause birth defects.
A preconception visit to an integrative medicine specialist, though, may involve testing hormone levels to ascertain whether both parents have the right endocrine balance to conceive, says Rainville. A naturopath or another kind of integrative specialist may also look at the levels of environmental pollutants and heavy metals in your blood, as well as essential nutrients to ensure you don’t have any nutritional deficiencies that could lead to birth defects.
For women, while having a child does carry some risk, when it comes to toxins, pregnancy actually lowers your risk. Why? Because through both pregnancy and breastfeeding, mothers download a portion of their bodily load of toxins into their children. Most women aren’t happy to hear that, of course.
The simple math is this: Toxins will continue to compound over your child’s lifetime, once he or she is born, but since the earlier the exposure the more harmful it is, one of the best things you can do is to lower your own levels before you get pregnant. Rainville says there are two ways to do this: avoidance and detoxification. Although many toxins cannot be eliminated, some can be better avoided. Try to follow the tips below for a minimum of six months prior to conception (ideally, both parents should try to detoxify because toxins can also impact a future father’s sperm):
• Avoid the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables such as peaches, strawberries, apples, peppers, and celery. Eat organic ones instead.
• Steer clear of cosmetics and beauty products that contain toluene, phthalates, xylene, and parabens. (EWG has a comprehensive list.) Parabens have been found in cancerous tissue, and phthalates have been linked to abnormal sex organ development in males.
• Eat organically raised meat and dairy to limit exposure to hormones and antibiotics. Hormones given to animals can alter both fetal and child development, as well as contribute to cancers, says the American Public Health Association, and pesticide exposure in utero is linked to lower IQ levels.
• Eat fish rarely. In January 2013, the Biodiversity Research Institute found that 84 percent of fish was found to have unsafe mercury levels.
• Limit use of nail polish. Even “three-free” brands aren’t ones you can trust. These lines of nail polish are so-named because, after pressure by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, many brands (including the popular OPI line) began to omit the “toxic trio”—ibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene—but these polishes still contain some toxic chemicals, such as xylene, which in animal studies delayed fetal growth and development, and acetone, which has produced kidney and liver damage in animal studies.
The second part of Rainville’s recommendation for anyone wanting to become a parent is to detox for at least six to 12 months prior to conception. Here’s how to get started on a detoxification program:
• Stick with a healthy, whole-foods diet. Rainville recommends eating organic fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins at every meal. Amino acids, which are found in proteins, are essential for tissue repair and heavy-metal detox. Avoiding sweets, soda, fast foods, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners is also advisable.
• Take probiotics to support your digestion (this helps release built-up toxins); vitamin C for energy; and essential fatty acids for brain and cellular support.
• Use herbs and teas that help other organs release toxins (like dandelion tea for the liver); Ashwagandha and Rhodiola for the adrenals; and red root for the lymphatic system.
• Drink lots of water, with a dash of Himalayan or Celtic sea salt for mineral balance.
• Use saunas to release toxins via sweating (make sure you’re definitely not pregnant if you’re using a sauna).
Detox is important because even if you live a saintly life, there are still some chemicals, like xylene, that cannot be avoided. “Xylene is an ingredient in air pollution and smog,” explains Rainville. “It’s been shown to increase the risk of miscarriages as well as causing birth defects, but both parents can detoxify from it. Alcohol decreases the ability to excrete xylene, which is why it’s important for couples planning to conceive to cut out alcohol.”
If you want a more personalized plan with an integrative medicine bent, you can consult a healthcare provider like Rainville or a naturopath. These specialists typically make it easy to get tested for toxins, chemicals, heavy metals and anything else adding to your “body burden.” Plus they may also be able to help couples with problems conceiving and recurrent miscarriages.
And if you’re ready to take your detoxing to the next step, to help others and the planet, you can work with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families to ask the government to study and regulate 80,000-plus chemicals currently in use—most of which are currently untested.

By Lisa Collier Cool
Feb 22, 2012

 

Darren Jones wants to check himself into rehab for an unusual “addiction.” He says he’s so hooked on Diet Coke that he downs 18 cans a day and can’t leave home without it. Judging by his photos in The Daily Mail, all that diet soda hasn’t helped him control his weight, which was edging toward 500 pounds when the pictures were taken.

He’s not alone. Former president Bill Clinton, Victoria Beckham, Elton John and movie moguls Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Katzenberg have all admitted to a Diet Coke habit, according to the New York Times.

And then there’s Elisa Zied, a high profile registered dietician with no discernible weight problem and three books and numerous TV appearances to her credit. Last year she confessed to a Diet Coke addiction on Twitter, a deliberate strategy – she said she hoped that “putting it out there would make me accountable”.

Replace soda with these healthy smoothie recipes.

The Addiction Question

Surveys show that people who drink these beverages rarely stop with just one. In fact, the typical consumer of diet sodas downs an average of more than 26 ounces per day, and 3 percent of diet-soda drinkers have at least four per day. But are hardcore diet soda fiends actually hooked?

If there’s anything in diet colas that could be addicting, the most likely suspect is caffeine (although many diet soda guzzlers prefer caffeine-free colas). Besides, comparisons with coffee show that cola can’t deliver the caffeine kick equal to a cup of java. An 8-ounce Diet Coke gives you a measly 47 milligrams of caffeine, compared to 133 in a cup of ordinary coffee and 320 in a Starbucks’ grande.

Learn about the most addictive prescription drugs on the market.

Insights from Brain Science

Another plausible explanation is habit: diet soda becomes part of daily rituals – a break from work, lunch, watching the news, you name it.  And sipping a zero-calorie beverage may not seem to have downside to curb the urge to overindulge.

More persuasive, perhaps, is the notion that artificial sweeteners trigger the brain’s reward system. In a study of women who drank water sweetened with sugar or Splenda, the women couldn’t taste the difference between the two, but functional MRIs showed that the brain’s reward system responded more strongly to sugar.

Study author Martin P. Paulus, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego suggests that diet soda might be addicting because “artificial sweeteners have positive reinforcing effects – meaning humans will work for it, like for other foods, alcohol and even drugs of abuse.”

Is diet soda making you fat? 

Is Diet Soda Harmful?

Beyond the addiction issue, diet soda has been linked to increased rates of heart attack and stroke, kidney problems, preterm deliveries, and, yes, weight gain. While not yet carved in scientific stone, the emerging evidence is a bit disturbing. Here’s a rundown:

  • Heart Attack and Stroke: Drinking diet sodas daily may increase the risks for heart attack and stroke and other vascular events by 43 percent, but no such threat exists with regular soft drinks or with less frequent consumption of diet soda. These results come from a study including more than 2,500 adults published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine on January 30, 2012. So far, no one knows what it is about diet sodas that could explain the added risk.
  • Kidney Trouble: In 2009, researchers at Harvard found that drinking two or more diet sodas daily could lead to a 30 percent drop in a measure of kidney function in women. No accelerated decline was seen in women who drank less than two diet sodas daily. The drop held true even after the researchers accounted for age, high blood pressure, diabetes and physical activity.

Read more facts about diet soda.

  • Preterm Delivery: A Danish study including more than 59,000 women found a link between drinking one or more diet sodas daily and a 38 percent increase in the risk of giving birth to preterm babies; the risk was 78 percent higher among pregnant women who drank four or more diet sodas daily. No such risk was seen with regular soda.
  • Weight Gain: Wouldn’t it be ironic if instead of helping you lose weight, diet sodas had the opposite effect? A study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that compared to those who drank no diet sodas, study participants who did had a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference; worse, drinking two or more diet sodas daily led to ballooning waist circumference that was 500 percent greater than those who drank none. This doesn’t prove that diet soda is to blame since the study was observational – it could be that participants began gaining weight and then started drinking diet sodas.