Artificial Sweeteners--A Double Edged Sword?

People have been turning to artificial sweeteners for years now in the hopes of avoiding the negative consequences associated with consuming regular table sugar: weight gain, diabetes, etc.. But recent findings suggest that artificial sweeteners (e.g. Sweet n’ Low, Splenda, Equal, etc.) may not be so healthy after all. In fact, they may be a cause of glucose intolerance, Metabolic Syndrome and diabetes (Metabolic Syndrome is a condition resulting from the consumption of a diet too high in carbs and grains. It often leads to glucose intolerance which can progress to Type 2 Diabetes.). These are all the things we seek to avoid by using artificial sweeteners in the first place!

In the first part of the study, researches performed several experiments on mice to see how/if sweeteners affected them. Scientists added sucralose, saccharin, or aspartame to the mice’s drinking water, while a separate group of mice drank plain water mixed with ordinary table sugar. When a week was up, the mice that were fed table sugar were relatively unchanged; but the mice that ingested artificial sweeteners had developed a marked intolerance to glucose. After performing several more experiments, scientists found that the artificial sweeteners were altering the population of bacteria in the mice’s digestive systems, making it harder for their bodies to regulate blood sugar.

Next, researchers looked to human subjects. They surveyed 381 non-diabetic participants about their consumption of artificial sweeteners, and the results showed a strong correlation between ingestion of artificial sweeteners and signs of glucose intolerance. Like the mice, those who ate artificial sweeteners also had different populations of gut bacteria than those who ate traditional sugar.

In a final experiment, researchers recruited seven volunteers who typically did not use artificial sweeteners. Over six days, they were given the maximum amount of saccharin recommended by the FDA. At the end of the trial, four of the patients showed the same disruption in blood-sugar levels that appeared in the mice. Scientists then injected the gut bacteria of these patients into the intestines of mice, and found that the mice once again developed glucose intolerance—suggesting the effects on humans and mice might be the same.

As a whole, this research casts serious doubt over the health of artificial sweeteners. While a single scientific study is never a final authority, the findings did prompt one of the researches to make a personal decision to discontinue his use of artificial sweeteners. At the same time, other scientists remain unconvinced, citing the small sample size of the human studies.

While the study was mainly done to test the healthfulness of artificial sweeteners, it also holds relevance to a growing concern in the medical world: the role of gut bacteria in our overall health. The human body is made of 90% bacteria and only 10% human cells, and the growing body of research suggests that these bacteria may have a bigger effect on our physical and mental states than previously thought. We already know that 70% of a person’s immune system is contained in the bacteria in the gut. But according to this study and numerous others, the population of bacteria in our digestive systems could influence everything from digestion to the development of neurological disorders, possibly including depression, autism, and more.

On the bright side, if so many health issues really do arise from changes in gut bacteria, then they might be countered by taking a probiotic supplement. Probiotics come in many different varieties and can help restore the population of good bacteria in our guts. Lactobacilli, for example, which is easily available on the market, may ward off stress and anxiety; another bacteria, bifidobacteria is now being associated with reduced depression. There are many different probiotics at your local grocery/drug store. They are not all the same and many are substandard. It is advisable to purchase them from a trained health care professional..

If artificial sweeteners really do have a negative effect on our gut bacteria, and consequentially our ability to regulate blood sugar, then taking a probiotic might be one way of combating this; or, as an alternative, using regular sugar in minimal amounts. If nothing else, this study reminds us that it is always important to approach food fads with a healthy degree of skepticism, and artificial sweeteners are no exception.

Although there are many type of probiotics based products available, it is advisable to fist consult with a trained clinician.

Please call 734-726-0153 to schedule a free consultation and evaluation. At Digestive Health Ann Arbor we are known for providing professional and compassionate care. We strive to guide people towards a comprehensive and holistic healing strategy. Restoring your body to health will restore the quality of your life.