Artificial Sweeteners and Gut Health: Are They Linked?

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

Taste without the calories – is this a dream come true? For food marketers, yes. But if you’re a consumer interested in living a healthy lifestyle, not so much.

An average consumer mindful of calories may often opt for artificial sugar that are baked into protein bars, sprinkled in their coffee, or a part of their daily diet soda habit. Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA, and defined by the Mayo Clinic as any sweetener that you use instead of regular table sugar (sucrose). Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter – anywhere from 40 to 8,000x sweeter – than regular sugar.

Artificial sugars can be found in just about any grocery store shelf item, from chewing gum and cookies to sports drinks and soda. Typically the products are marked as “sugar-free,” or “diet.” Some foods contain multiple forms of these sweeteners to either lower the calorie/sugar gram count in their nutrition facts labeling or to maintain structure or shelf stability.

Credit: Flickr creative commons, m01229

Artificial sweeteners are typically found in the products marked as “sugar-free.” | Credit: Flickr creative commons, m01229

Unfortunately, this abundance and availability of alternative sweeteners has consumers swapping calories for chemicals, which is having a dangerous effect on our bodies. While studies have linked artificial sweeteners to raising blood sugar, chronic diseases, and even weight gain, the impact of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome and gut flora may be even  more significant.

Why Your Gut Health is Important

About 5 lbs. of bacteria reside in your intestine – your digestive system is teeming with them.

Your small intestine breaks down food and absorbs nutrients. Inside your small intestine is a combination of good and potentially harmful bacteria. In a healthy gut, the goal is for these these two types of bacteria to be in balance.  The lining of your small intestine is a very thin layer that acts as a protective barrier as bacteria pass through it. Too much bad bacteria can compromise this thin lining, allowing bad bacteria to be absorbed and non-nutritive materials to slip into your bloodstream.

Consequences of an unhealthy gut include poor absorption of nutrients, a lowered immune system, disrupted digestive health, and weight gain. Poor gut health has also been tied to anxiety.

New Observations About Artificial Sweeteners and Gut Health

According to Eran Segal, a professor of computer science and applied mathematics at Weizmann and one of the collaborators behind the recent study published in Nature, most artificial sweeteners pass through the gastrointestinal tract without being digested. This means that when they get to our intestine, they directly encounter our gut bacteria. Since what we eat impacts our bacterial make-up, the researchers investigated whether glucose intolerance might be affected by a change in the bacterial composition due to artificial sweeteners.

The scientists began by adding saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) or aspartame (Equal) to the drinking water of 10-week-old mice. A control group of mice drank plain water or water supplemented with glucose or with table sugar. After a week, the group getting artificial sweeteners developed marked intolerance to glucose. Glucose intolerance increases the risk of metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

As detailed in the NY Times, when the researchers treated the mice with antibiotics, killing much of the bacteria in the digestive system, the glucose intolerance went away – this assumes, in this case, that because antibiotics corrected the glucose intolerance, the artificial sweeteners were the culprit increasing the gut bacteria.

“At present, the scientists cannot explain how the sweeteners affect the bacteria or why the three different molecules of saccharin, aspartame and sucralose result in similar changes in the glucose metabolism.”

One experiment using seven subjects monitored the effects of diet sodas containing artificial sweeteners. They used volunteers who normally did not use artificial sweeteners. Over six days, they were given the maximum amount of saccharin recommended by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The findings demonstrated that consumption altered the gut microbes in at least four of the seven participants in a way that can lead some to become glucose intolerant.

Alternative Sweeteners: Bonus Round

While not categorized by the FDA as an artificial sweetener, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a popular sweetener in processed foods that is worth highlighting because of its potential impact on the microbiome. A study done by the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute did a study on just how damaging HFCS is to your intestinal lining. They found that free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed by the gut. According to the study, “High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your bloodstream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia, and accelerated aging.”

There has yet to be a large-scale study done on the effects of artificial sweeteners on the human microbiome.

Calories vs. Chemicals – What Matters More?

Now that we know a little more about what these foods are doing to our bodies, it’s time to ask the question of What Matters More: Quantity (calories) or Quality (ingredients)?

For those looking to manage or lose weight, calories typically play a role in strategy and achieving desired outcomes. As well they should – calories do play a part in the overall picture. However, with popular weight loss programs that rely on calorie counting and closely monitoring the scale, the body has been reduced to simple math. We believe it to be more than simple addition/subtraction. The body is an intricate system, complex and responsive to even the smallest changes.

What’s on the inside – metabolic health, cardiovascular health, blood health, kidney and liver health, vitamin and mineral levels, bone health, hormone levels – matters.

The quality of our food matters.

It’s time to take a step back to look at the whole picture, and bridge the gap between fitness and health. Ask yourself this:

If a food has been heavily manufactured to be lower in calories but the processing and additives are potentially impacting your health and even your fitness goals – how effective was your choice? Is the short-term gain worth the possible long-term effects? Is the initial research enough to reassess or exercise caution? That’s up to you decide for yourself.

How WellnessFX Can Help

For a list of natural sweetener alternatives, check out this list from biohacker and WellnessFX practitioner Ben Greenfield.

If you want to dig more into the topic of your gut or artificial sugars, check out these posts:

In order to have an accurate picture of where your health is, we recommend regular blood testing. Your blood cells regenerate every 120 days, so after an initial assessment via a biomarker testing, we recommend a re-assessment every 4-6 months, after instituting new habits.

Get a blood test

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.