All those non-caloric packages of saccharin, aspartame, or neotame (lots of different trade names – Splenda, Equal, etc) you may have been putting in your coffee have been found to make changes in your intestinal bacteria - changes that can actually move you towards diabetes. The same is true for sugar free colas and other diet drinks. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel started working with mice, and showed that the artificial sweeteners induced glucose intolerance – which occurs when the body cannot cope with the amount of sugar in the diet. They found that the gut bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, were involved – reacting to the sweeteners even though the body does not recognize these substances as food. The artificial sweeteners changed the composition of bacteria in the microbiome, and induced glucose intolerance. The new microbial functions are known to infer a propensity to obesity and diabetes.
The researchers then enlisted a group of human volunteers who did not generally use artificially sweetened food or drink, and had them consume them for a week. Many, but not all of the volunteers began to develop glucose intolerance after a week. The composition of their gut microbiome explained the differences. The researchers found two different populations of gut bacteria – one that induced glucose intolerance when exposed to artificial sweeteners and one that had no effect either way. They believed that certain bacteria in the guts of those who developed glucose intolerance reacted to the chemical sweeteners by secreting substances that provoked an inflammatory response similar to sugar overdose, promoting changes in the body’s ability to utilize sugar.
Here’s how Dr. Elinav of the Weizmann Institute summarized his findings: “Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the food we eat affects us. Especially intriguing is the link between use of artificial sweeteners – through the bacteria in our guts – to a tendency to develop the very disorders they were designed to prevent; this calls for reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances.”
What is a person to do with this new information if s/he uses artificial sweeteners? Here are some answers I found on the internet: add cinnamon to your coffee, or a little unsweetened cocoa. Try milk, cream, Almond Milk or unsweetened coconut milk. Many people use Stevia - from the leaf of a tropical plant. Only a drop is needed, though some find it has a bitter aftertaste. Not enough research has been done to tell if Stevia can alter the microbiome. I have used xylitol and concentrated pomegranate juice to sweeten cocoa. Xylitol is a sugar made from hardwood trees, corncobs or other plants, with 33% fewer calories than sucrose per gram. It has dental health properties, as it increases saliva production and is not metabolized by mouth bacteria. Bacteria are unable to produce as much acid in the presence of xylitol, so that the teeth are less damaged by acid and plaque. Many toothpastes are sweetened with xylitol. This would be my recommendation for people who want sweeteners in their coffee or tea – carry a little home made packet of xylitol. Chew xylitol gum during the day as well if you have problems with cavities (talk to your dentist first!). You can get xylitol at the Palace Market, the Bolinas People’s store, and most natural food stores. A xylitol gum called Spry is also available at markets and on the internet. If your passion is diet soft drinks, try substituting plain carbonated water with slices of lemons and oranges.
Good luck – it takes time to change a habit, but it can be done.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH back issues on this blog