A Gut Feeling About Artificial Sweeteners
Empty calories! That’s the idea that most people associate with refined carbohydrates like white sugar. Sugar is just empty calories that make you fat and might give you diabetes one day, right? Well, what many people don’t realize is that sugar isn’t just empty calories. Sugar creates nutritional debt in the body and brain. Our bodies have nutritional demands and when we put mental or physical stress on our body, for example when we consume unhealthy foods like sugar, it robs us of important nutrients and creates a large nutritional deficit. Eating sugar puts such a burden on your body and brain that you require even more nutrients to compensate for it.
In the interest of health, and as a way to limit sugar consumption, many people have turned to artificial sweeteners. Many alternative sweeteners are derived from synthetic chemicals and can be just as, if not more, problematic than sugar itself. They may contain little to no calories but they often contain no nutrients either or, even worse, contain anti-nutrients that leech nutrients from your body and your brain.
The most common artificial sweeteners are:
- Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Saccharin (Sweet ’N Low)
- Erythritol & Xylitol (gum, candy, peanut butter, toothpaste, cough syrup)
These sugar substitutes are meant to function as ‘healthy’ replacements to sugar due to their limited or null calorie count, which is believed to help people lose weight, prevent dental decay and aid in blood sugar control for those with diabetes. Sounds great, right? What if I told you that some of these alternatives might actually be contributing to the same health issues that you’re taking them in order to avoid. That’s right, some of these sweeteners, just like sugar, have been linked to obesity and even cancer.
Think of it this way, when the human brain registers sweetness, it mounts an insulin response in preparation for what is assumed to be an increase in blood sugar. The problem? When the body consumes something sweet with little to no calories and the blood sugar doesn’t rise, the increase in insulin may result in a drop in blood sugar, which could promote cravings for more sweet food, resulting in excess calories consumption and weight gain. It seems that our short cut to avoiding sugar through artificial sweeteners backfired and it seems the miscommunication starts in our gut!
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is the biochemical signalling that takes place between the gastro-intestinal tract and the brain. Gut flora, or intestinal flora, are a complex community of microorganisms that live in our body. Our gut contains the largest number of bacteria in our body and they play an important role in absorption, digestion and synthesizing vitamins. Changes in the gut flora due to diet, drugs, stress or disease have been shown to affect cell signalling, sometimes affecting communication with the brain.
Gut flora also release molecules that effect something called the vagus nerve, which helps transmit the state of important peripheral organs such as the gut, intestines and stomach to the brain. More so, emerging research has found that exposure to stress can both impact the gut microbiome and gut permeability, which in turn can influence gut-brain communication and produce a state of systemic inflammation. These disturbances in the gut and the periphery organs, then, can have a profound impact on the way the brain functions and have been linked to a wide range of illnesses from mental health disorders to autoimmune diseases.
Artificial Sweeteners & The Gut
We’re now learning that these seemingly healthy sugar alternatives may be adversely altering the bacteria in our gut, not only leading to obesity and diabetes but, just like sugar, they’re also being linked to cancer! Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance (where the body can no longer deal with sugar), resulting in high blood sugar and pre-diabetes. They appear to create glucose intolerance by actually altering the gut microbiome! This imbalance of gut bacteria then seems to open our bodies up to inflammation and also results in increased glucose storage and body fat. It turns out that artificial sweeteners actually worsen, rather than prevent obesity and metabolic disorders and wreaks havoc on metabolic hormones.
It turns out that artificial sweeteners actually worsen, rather than prevent obesity and metabolic disorders and wreaks havoc on metabolic hormones.
There is also increasing evidence linking gut flora, and its alteration by stress and/or diet, with anxiety and mood disorders, including depression. Currently, there are more studies being done on the relationship between the gut and other disorders affecting the brain, from schizophrenia to Parkinson’s disease, but it is becoming quite clear that a healthy gut flora means a happy, healthy body and brain.
The Alternative to the Alternative
While we can all agree sugar is out, hopefully we can now all agree that so are artificial sweeteners. So, what now? What’s the alternative to the alternative? How do we enjoy the sweet things in life but keep our gut health in check so we can live a happy healthy life? Say goodbye to sugar and artificial sweeteners and hello to natural, whole foods. Often, they taste richer and may even minimize inflammation in the body. When you replace unhealthy refined carbohydrates and processed white sugar with real food alternatives in moderation, you’re not just preventing nutritional debt in your body (depending on the natural sweetener your choose) you may even be consuming essential brain and gut health promoting vitamins and minerals!
NeuroT’s Top 3 Natural Sweeteners
1) Raw Unpasteurized Honey
Raw unpasteurized honey is an excellent source of brain boosting B2, B6, iron and enzymes and can help fight inflammation.
2) Maple Syrup
Maple syrup contains brain friendly antioxidants and antioxidant supporting minerals, such as manganese and may contain some gut healing amino acids too. And I’m Canadian, so I might be partial to this national treasure.
3) Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar has even more brain friendly antioxidants than maple syrup AND it contains phytonutrients that may actually help protect the body from diabetes!
A Note About Stevia
Unrefined Stevia is a plant based natural sweetener believed to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It is calorie free and 200 times sweeter than sugar, which may lead your brain in to believe it’s consuming something sweet but without the calories, leading to more cravings for sweet foods and beverages. Something to consider when choosing your natural sweetener of choice!
Like the saying goes, “trust your gut.” Because if you listen to what your gut is telling you, you won’t go wrong. You have probably been thinking for years that artificial sweeteners can’t be good for you, despite the lack of scientific evidence they are harmful. And, as this emerging evidence is suggesting, your gut feeling couldn’t have been more right.
Contributions to this article provided by Dr. Matthew Hill, PhD.
- Abou-Donia M.B., El-Masry E.M., Abdel-Rahman A.A., McLendon R., Schiffman S.S. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environment Health Part A, 71(21), 1415-1429.
- Suez J., Korem T., Zeevi D., Zilberman-Schapira G., Thaiss C.A., Maza O., Israeli D., Zmora N., Gilad S., Weinberger A., Kuperman Y., Harmelin A., Kolodkin-Gal I., Shapiro H., Halpern Z., Segal E., Elinav E. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature International Weekly Journal of Science, 514, 181–186.
- Raveendran S. R., Thankappan Rajamohan. (2012). Protective and curative effects of Cocos nucifera inflorescence on alloxan-induced pancreatic cytotoxicity in rats. Indian Journal of Pharmacology, 44(5), 555–559.
- Owoyele B.V., Adenekan O.T., Soladoye A.O. (2011). Effects of honey on inflammation and nitric oxide production in Wistar rats. Journal of Interative Medicine, 9(4), 447-452.