Sweet taste without the calories. That was the promise of artificial sweeteners. Today, non-caloric artificial sweeteners are among the most widely used food additives worldwide. In fact, the average American consumes about 125 pounds of sweeteners per year. For many years, artificial sweeteners were endorsed as a good choice for managing weight and diabetes because they are not carbohydrates and have no calories. While artificial sweeteners vary in terms of their composition and manufacturing process, they are all synthetic substances that mimic natural sugar. However, new research is showing that artificial sweeteners can have negative impacts on our digestive health.
In a recent article published in the journal Nature, “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota,” a team of researchers warned that artificial sweeteners may cause imbalances in our ‘gut ecology’ - the complex interactions of colonies of bacteria that govern the overall functioning of our digestive system. The research shows that extensive use of artificial sweeteners can alter the delicate balance between these bacterial colonies and cause an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacterial strains present among them. This can activate inflammatory processes in the digestive tract and manifest in diseases such as glucose intolerance. It may also aggravate conditions such as celiac disease.
Not everyone using artificial sweeteners will experience these types of issues. Fortunately, there are now tests available to determine if such bacterial overgrowth is present and treatments that can be used to reduce or eliminate the condition. One technique for diagnosing bacterial overgrowth involves extracting bacterial DNA from samples of stool and using DNA analysis to determine the types of bacteria present as well as their numbers. Another test involves analyzing the gases that bacteria in the gut produce when they digest carbohydrates and sugar. This is usually carbon dioxide, but also smaller amounts of hydrogen and methane. Although most of the hydrogen and methane produced by colonic bacteria is used up by other bacteria, small amounts of these gases are absorbed through the lining of the colon and into the blood. The gases circulate in the blood and go to the lungs, where they are eliminated in the breath. The gases can be measured in the breath with special analyzers. Treatment may involve antibiotics and / or probiotics.