Because eating sugar (sucrose) is a sure route to weight gain, many of us use artificial sweeteners as an alternative. People with diabetes are often advised to use these products as an aid to keeping their blood sugar levels stable. But how much do we know about artificial sweeteners and the effects they may be having on our body processes?
It has been recognised for some time that, as the use of artificial sweeteners has grown worldwide, the incidence of obesity has been rising in parallel. Scientists have started asking whether these sweeteners, far from helping people to lose weight, are actually contributing to weight gain. The answer, it seems, lies in the way our brains respond to sugar.
As I pointed out in an earlier post (Real Diabetes Truth 13 Feb 2012), sugar is an addictive substance. It triggers the brain’s reward centres in just the same way as drugs such as cocaine and morphine. But when sweetness is provided without accompanying calories, this addiction is not fully satisfied. Instead, artificial sweeteners encourage greater sugar cravings and sugar dependence.
So, while we may feel virtuous using a sweetener instead of sugar in our tea or coffee, doing so can fuel an ongoing need to reach for something sweet. Using sweeteners as part of a weight loss plan could actually make it more difficult to stick to a healthy diet and, in the end, contribute to weight gain.
I have been talking about artificial sweeteners as if they were all the same, but in fact there are important differences between them. Some have been associated with effects that are detrimental to health, while others have been found to be quite beneficial. Heading the list of “villains” is aspartame (Nutra Sweet), over which controversy has raged for some years. It has been linked to brain and nerve diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, dementia, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Aspartame and xylitol have opposite effects on insulin sensitivity
Especially relevant for people with diabetes or metabolic syndrome are the results of new research showing that aspartame can reduce insulin sensitivity, in mice at least. Compared to controls, mice fed aspartame long-term had higher fasting blood glucose levels and showed a greater degree of insulin resistance. The aspartame-fed mice also took longer to learn how to escape from a maze and made more mistakes, suggesting that aspartame may also affect memory and spatial awareness. In a separate new study, aspartame was found to cause free radical damage in the brains of rats, due to its conversion to methanol, a brain toxin.
Leading for the “heroes” is a sweetener called xylitol, which newly published research has shown to prevent the development of insulin resistance in rats. The animals were given direct infusions of lipids to raise their blood fat levels, which resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in insulin sensitivity. However, this drop in insulin sensitivity was prevented if xylitol was infused into the rats’ blood at the same time. Although this effect needs to be tested in humans consuming xylitol as a sweetener, the results hold considerable promise for people with diabetes.
Another sweetener that may help to stabilise blood sugar is stevia, a natural herb. When rats were treated with alloxan, a chemical that causes damage to the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, their blood sugar levels rose; but if they were then given stevia for ten days, normal blood sugar levels were restored. Compared with the anti-diabetes drug glibenclamide, stevia normalised blood sugar safely, without the swing to hypoglycaemia (dangerously low blood sugar) associated with the drug. In a separate study, the main active chemical in stevia (rebauside A) was again shown to reduce blood sugar levels in diabetic rats.
My best advice is to reduce your intake of both sugar and artificial sweeteners as far as possible, in order to control the feeling that you need to eat something sweet. A diet that includes plenty of good quality protein, fish oils, nuts and seeds and fresh green vegetables will also help to cut sugar cravings. If you want to continue to use a sugar alternative, it seems that aspartame is definitely best avoided while xylitol or stevia could be beneficial in helping with blood sugar control.
One of the harmful effects of sugar intake, and a consequent high blood sugar level, is that it suppresses the activity of the white blood cells, an important part of the immune system’s defence mechanism against infection. Chronic, low level infections, with organisms such as cytomegalovirus, could be an important factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, according to recent research. That will be the subject of my next blog post.
Wishing you the best of health,
PhD DHD Nutritionist
for Real Diabetes Truth
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Bear in mind we are not addressing anyone’s personal situation and you should rely on this for informational purposes only. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.
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Category: Natural Diabetes Alternatives