“We’ll celebrate your birthday another day, I promise,” Nicole Beurkens told her husband as she canceled their plans. “My heart filled with guilt knowing it might never happen,” she recalls. Another day I’m letting my family down because I’m too tired, she thought.
“Despite wanting and trying to will my body to be active with my kids or do everyday tasks, I couldn’t gather the energy to do much more than sit on the sofa waiting for the day to end so I could go to bed.
Too Tired to Cope
“At this time in my life, I was eating a healthy diet and trying to stay active, when my energy began to decline. What started as me feeling unusually tired while playing with my kids and yawning more than normal progressed into exhaustion that made it tough to stay awake during the day.
“After months of relentless fatigue, a new symptom — extreme joint pain — began to complicate my life. It was so severe that I was unable to do laundry or go to the grocery store. At its worst, I couldn’t walk, aside from short distances in the house.
“I became so exhausted that even basic tasks like showering wiped me out. It got to the point where I had to spend a significant portion of the day resting. I also experienced headaches that were sometimes so bad that over-the-counter pain medication barely took the edge off. I needed a lot more help from my husband and my parents, which was frustrating. I’ve always been independent, active and capable. I was working as an educational consultant, and I had to stop working for a period of time, as I didn’t have the energy or mobility needed.
“I saw my doctor, who thought I had early onset rheumatoid arthritis and possibly lupus or fibromyalgia and sent me to a rheumatologist. He suggested I get intense steroid injections to treat symptoms believed to be caused by rheumatoid arthritis, but I was hesitant because no one had any specific answers or explanations as to what was causing my symptoms.
A Surprising Remedy
“After listening to a Paul Harvey radio episode about artificial sweeteners and health, my husband suggested maybe my symptoms were a response to something I was consuming. At the time, I was an avid diet soda drinker and consumed many products with artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which I thought were part of a healthy diet. I did some research and saw that perhaps foods were involved.
“I was excited to find information linking my symptoms to artificial sweeteners. When I talked to my doctor, he was supportive and said there was some research to suggest a sensitivity to sucralose could cause the kinds of symptoms I was having. At a minimum, he thought it was possible my headaches and fatigue might improve a bit with a diet change. He suggested I remove all artificial sweeteners from my diet for a month.
“Even though I was somewhat skeptical this simple tweak would alleviate my symptoms, I was desperate, so I immediately cut out food and drinks that had any artificial sweetener in the ingredient list.
“I was surprised to find the number of products that contain sucralose. I had to stop drinking many flavored waters, diet sodas, juices, and a lot of yogurts I was eating. Even the oatmeal I regularly ate had sucralose in it, so that had to go, along with several crackers, breads and chewing gum.
“Within a week of making these changes, I had more energy and my pain began subsiding. Within two weeks, I was walking normally. Within eight weeks, my symptoms had completely resolved. To test if my symptoms were definitely related to sucralose, my doctor had me put the sweetener back in my diet to see what would happen.
“Within a few hours, I began to have some mild joint pain, headaches, and generally felt unwell. The same thing happened with the sweetener aspartame. It was clear to everyone that a sensitivity to sucralose and other artificial sweeteners was causing my fatigue and pain.
“To this day if I consume sucralose, I experience symptoms very quickly, so I remain careful about reading labels to avoid it. But I feel amazing! I have more energy than ever, and I enjoy working full-time and staying busy with my husband and children. This easy change gave me back my life and showed me to never take the basics, like going for a walk with my family, for granted. I’m so grateful for the chance to feel so energized!”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.