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In a recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers measured the effects of 3 artificial sweeteners on the health of both humans and mice. (1)
When a group of mice were given saccharin, sucralose, or aspartame, a significant rise in blood sugar levels and weight gain was seen. This is surprising, as these sweeteners are all marketed as “zero calories” and, therefore, should not have an effect on blood sugar.
The researchers then measured the effects on the microbiome from ingesting these 3 sweeteners and found that both the type and function of the gut microbes dramatically changed. Interestingly, certain bacteria grew in number while others decreased, but more profoundly, levels of certain microbes that have been linked to metabolism regulation relating to blood sugar and weight were severely compromised. (1)
“But… It’s Zero-Calorie?!?”
So, what’s the explanation as to how a zero-calorie substance could actually raise blood sugar levels and weight? It is related to dramatic changes in gut microbes that regulate blood sugar and metabolic pathways, which are linked to weight gain and other functions that govern cardiovascular health. (1)
To further evaluate the effects of artificial sweeteners on blood sugar and the microbiome, researchers measured a large group of individuals. The group that regularly consumed artificial sweeteners showed the same changes in blood sugar and the microbiome as in the mice study.
Finally, they took a small group of human subjects and gave them the maximum safe dose of saccharin each day for one week. They monitored blood sugar every five minutes and the microbiome daily during that week. (1)
The results showed that 4 out of the 7 subjects had significant changes in blood sugar and the microbiome, as previous studies had shown. They then took samples of fecal matter from the 4 human subjects who were sensitive to the saccharin and inserted it into sterile mice. These mice developed the same blood sugar and metabolic symptoms as in previous findings. Then, researchers inserted a fecal matter sample of the 3 human subjects unaffected by the saccharin into sterile mice and the mice showed no changes in blood sugar or weight. This strongly suggests that it was the changes in gut microbes that were responsible for the high blood sugar and weight gain. (1)
Artificial Sweeteners Effects on Weight
Science is beginning to identify the many possible links between the sweet taste mechanism and how that influences our perception of satiation. (2) Studies in humans have shown that men who drank tea with artificial sweeteners had an increase in waistline by nearly two inches, while women who drank tea with artificial sweeteners had an increase in waistline by an average of one inch. (3) Users of artificial sweeteners have been shown to be significantly more likely to gain weight than non-users, both in humans and in animals. (4, 5, 6) Also, interestingly, animals exposed to aspartame during their prenatal period were shown to consume more sweet foods as adults and had greater susceptibility to metabolic changes. (7)
While artificial sweeteners are marketed to have no effect on blood sugar and as part of a weight loss strategy, these studies strongly suggest that they have a damaging influence on the function of gut microbes that are the body’s primary regulators of blood sugar, weight and metabolism. They did not study stevia or the sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol.
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Through these studies, we can become more aware of how sensitive the microbiome actually is, and that processed foods and sweeteners may wreak havoc on the gut microbes that are fundamentally responsible for our longevity and well-being.