Artificial sweeteners once seemed like the holy grail, only to disappoint many with the news of their harmful effects on the gut. Then came stevia, the natural extract of a plant with a sweetness of 200-300 times that of sucrose. People rejoiced! they could have sweet things without sugar and without chemical sweeteners. This seemingly safer alternative has grown in popularity over recent years, but we were surprised to learn that it might not be much better for us than its lab-engineered peers. Check out what the latest research has to say about stevia’s effects on the gut.
Researchers have been investigating the negative effects of stevia compared to other sugar substitutes for some time with mixed results. A study recently published in Molecules showed the sweetener didn’t cause any notable microbial die-offs in Petri dishes, but it did affect bacteria communication.
And, as in a marriage, poor communication can lead to imbalances. And these types of imbalances in the gut may be just as damaging as a bacterial die-off. Research published in Nutrients showed stevia-induced changes to the dopamine/reward system that may be associated with unhealthy behaviors like overeating. So people suffering from obesity who are using stevia to reduce their caloric intake may find its use counterproductive.
Other study results are even bleaker, showing negative impacts on Lactobacillus reuteri and anaerobic bacteria. And this is key because the majority of the bacteria in our guts function anaerobically, which means stevia could potentially damage much of our microbiomes if consumed in high enough amounts.
The microbes that reside in our guts do a lot more than affect our digestive health. Experts now know that our microbiomes are vital in maintaining our immune systems, controlling our metabolisms and sending instructions to cells in other parts of the body. When this complex communications network breaks down, the imbalance can lead to devastation across numerous systems.
The types of bacteria we keep healthy in our guts may even affect our weight. Changes in ratios of the most common bacteria in the gut, Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, may be responsible for many cases of obesity. More research into the effects stevia has on these bacteria (and others) could offer more detailed info about its actual impact on weight.
Finding effective strategies for reducing sugar intake can be an important part of managing weight and minimizing certain metabolic issues. However, using even natural sugar substitutes might not be the right approach. Some may want to use caution with all sweeteners until we know more about their full effects — especially where it concerns our gut health.
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