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article imageOp-Ed: Artificial sweeteners sabotage gut flora, cause sugar intolerance

By Paul Wallis     Sep 23, 2014 in Health
Rehovot - One urban legend seems to be true according to a new study – Artificial sweeteners have damaging effects, sabotaging gut flora by promoting unhealthy flora and leading to health problems. Worse, small amounts of the sweeteners can cause the problems.
The three most commonly used, approved artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame) were tested by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Results showed that mice exposed to the sweeteners developed glucose intolerance, notably when saccharin was added to their diets. Suspecting that gut flora were responsible, the team used antibiotics to wipe out the gut flora, whereupon they found they could return blood sugar levels to normal.
Those familiar with the metabolic/gut flora process may not be too surprised that nutrients reconfigured the gut flora. Nutrients naturally affect gut flora population. That, however, is only the start of the story. The ramifications of these findings for human diets, however are potentially very grim indeed, particularly in the light of this finding as quoted from National Geographic’s article: (See also article in Nature.com's preview)
Analysis of mouse gut bacteria after the experiments found a proliferation of the bugs involved in digesting carbohydrates in the glucose-intolerant mice. (Carbohydrates are found in breads, cereals, and other foods in the human diet.)
Now consider — artificial sweeteners, which are designed not to be absorbed through digestion, contributed to altering digestive performance. The researchers didn’t leave it at that. They went on to human trials, and:
…To see if the effect extends to humans, the team first looked at 381 people in a nutritional study headed by Segal. They found links between artificial sweetener use, symptoms of obesity and elevated blood sugar, and the kinds of altered gut bacteria seen in the mice.
In particular, the study noted a 20-fold increase in the numbers of Bacteroides fragilis bacteria, linked to inflammation in the gut.
(This bacterium is highly controversial, potentially very dangerous, and produces a small library of anything but reassuring information when searched. It can cause problems, but is also being researched for other purposes. See Wikipedia's brief overview. Readers are advised to search the subject directly.)
A further trial of seven people showed that four people also duplicated the results of the previous tests.
The exact mechanism isn’t clear, but tests on mice and people have shown that a definite link to metabolic problems and related conditions exists. What’s not clear is why sweeteners effectively boost populations of some bacteria, while crashing the populations of others. This may be some sort of interaction between the different gut flora, obviously, but the unhealthy bacteria seem to have a sudden advantage.
It may be that these bacteria receive some sort of benefit from the sweeteners, making them uncharacteristically reproductive and/or stimulated. It may also be that the sweeteners act directly on the benign gut flora as a negative influence. The problem is that the answer to this question has to show the reason for both effects.
Sweet death? That’s not the only problem
More worryingly, these findings also indicate that people who are normally very conscientious about managing their sugar intake, using artificial sweeteners as the healthy option, could be at risk. High intake of these sweeteners could be catastrophic for those with compromised dietary conditions.
There’s another problem — starch. These harmful bacteria are carbohydrate specialists. Carbohydrates include a vast range of starches. Sugar, in fact, is a starch, and links have recently been made to the role of high starches in medical conditions like diabetes. The starches, in fact, could be worse than the sugars, because they’re far more prevalent.
So — add starches to the risk list for diabetics and obese people, and then add bacteria which process starches by the ton. Result — a potentially very dangerous metabolic condition, actively processing starches in large amounts.
It should be noted that starchy foods, in moderation and eating healthy foods, have traditionally been considered OK for people with diabetes. That may not be the case with people who have metabolic issues of this kind. Carbohydrates are not the enemy per se — they’re a natural part of the human diet. The gut flora issue, however, means that the real effects of starches on individuals need to be assessed differently, if gut flora are behaving as indicated by this research.
This is critically important research, the first to pin down at least a few of the common factors of the strange, almost perverse nature of many issues related to diet, obesity, and diabetes. It may well be the answer to many traditional dietary problems.
The logic is good — it makes sense that people put on weight fast if they have a huge population of gut flora processing massive amounts of carbohydrates. It also makes sense that wiping out gut flora influencing glucose intolerance assists in returning blood sugar levels to normal. (Actually, the ability to manage blood sugar this way is extremely good news, if that method can be applied consistently.)
Researchers have gone to some lengths to point out that this is very early in the study process. That said, this may well be the identification of an entire range of contributing factors to some of the world’s most pressing, and most dangerous, major health issues.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about Weizmann Institute of Science, artificial sweeteners, saccharin, sucralose, Aspartame
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