Artificial Sweeteners, Gut Flora & Diabetes

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Scientists Discover Yet Another Way Artificial Sweeteners May Cause Diabetes

Have you ever used Sweet’N Low, Splenda or Nutrasweet? Almost anyone who is concerned about diabetes or weight gain has used sugar-free artificial sweeteners, often in the form of diet drinks and sugar-free gum. While reducing your sugar intake seems like a healthy decision, new research suggests that 

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have discovered that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin increase weight gain, insulin resistance, and the risk of diabetes by influencing our gut bacteria. Their study, published in acclaimed scientific journal Nature, documents the researchers investigations into the effect of artificial sweeteners in both mice and humans (1).

When mice were fed the equivalent of the maximum safe dose of saccharin as stipulated by the FDA (a dose of 5mg/kg) the researchers noticed two things:

  1. the mice became much more resistant to insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar, and
  2. the mice also experienced alterations in their normal gut bacteria.

Just like humans, mice have a variety of natural microflora that populate their digestive system. When the balance of bacteria in the digestive system changes in a negative way, such as a depletion of “good” bacteria or a sudden rise in “bad” bacteria, it is referred to as dysbiosis.

When the mice were given antibiotic treatment to completely eliminate all gut bacteria, there was a surprising change – the insulin resistance resolved immediately.

Now, we all know that animal studies are not necessarily applicable to humans. So, these researchers included in their paper the results of 3 separate human trials they also performed looking at artificial sweeteners, probiotic bacteria and insulin resistance.

As part of a larger nutritional study with 381 people who were given artificial sweeteners, the majority of participants experienced increased weight gain, in particular changes to their waist-to-hip ratio, and rises in blood sugar (1). In a second trial with 172 randomly selected individuals,  a connection between high usage of artificial sweeteners and the development of dysbiosis was found.

Finally, the researchers gave 7 individuals who did not usually consume artificial sweeteners the maximum dose of saccharin (5mg/kg) as they did with the mice earlier on. In 5 of the 7 participants, there were significant rises in blood sugar as well signs of gut dysbiosis from fecal tests. Of the 2 individuals in this study who did not experience increased blood sugars, there were also no changes in the probiotic bacteria.

Here is where it gets very interesting. Samples of the 7 participants’ feces were transplanted into the digestive systems of 7 healthy mice. Samples of the gut bacteria from the 5 human participants who developed dysbiosis caused high blood sugars and insulin resistance in the mice. On the other hand, the samples of gut bacteria from the 2 human participants who did not develop dysbiosis caused no changes in blood sugar or metabolism in the mice.

So what does all of this mean? First, the prevention of metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and diabetes is more complicated than we first thought. It is not just about calories and sugar and glycemic index foods. Your body is a synergistic unit – the whole is made up of parts, and parts make up a whole – and one area that becomes imbalanced may cause a domino effect somewhere else.

Probiotic bacteria are important for many aspects of human health, and chemicals that influence our gut bacteria or cause dysbiosis will impact the health of the entire body. Researchers Mohamed B. Abou-Donia, et al. from Duke University in North Carolina, USA state that probiotic bacteria are involved with the following important functions: (2).

  1. Fermentation of dietary carbohydrates
  2. Salvaging energy from some fats
  3. Producing vitamins
  4. Maintaining healthy immune function
  5. Keeping the digestive tract moving regularly
  6. Inhibiting harmful micro-organisms
  7. Metabolizing drugs and chemicals.

You can imagine the damaging and insidious effect that dysbiosis can begin to have on a body.

Previous studies have already shown that artificial sweeteners have potential antibiotic properties (3), cause dysbiosis in animals (4), and increase the risk of digestive disease in humans (5). Animal studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may cause changes in gut bacteria. One study found that Sucralose decreases gut bacteria from anywhere between 47% to 79% (2).

Studies have also found that using artificial sweeteners lead to increased levels of something called propionate, which has been linked to insulin resistance and blood sugar changes in animals (4). It is entirely possible this same mechanism, or something similar, is what is affecting humans.

What can you do?

  • Avoid artificially sweetened diet drinks, candies, gums, mints, lozenges, medications, toothpastes, mouthwashes, etc. that contain sucralose, aspartame, or saccharin.
  • Maintain a balanced and healthy diet, for example by following The Advanced Plan, which focuses on a low-intake of grains and sugars and a high intake of healthy vegetables, oils and protein sources.
  • Use natural sweeteners at home, such as stevia, xylitol, erythritol and honey (actually honey may have some anti-diabetic properties (6) — check out my article on Satisfying The Sweet Tooth – Without Sugar to learn more).
  • Consume probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir and tempeh.
  • Consider using probiotic supplements following antibiotic use to replenish your internal bacterial cultures.
  • Consume prebiotic foods, which feed your probiotic bacteria and include high-fibre carbohydrates, all vegetables, rice bran, flaxseeds, chicory root, and fruits (especially apples and pears that contain high levels of pectin)

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Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More