Sugar substitutes always seem like an OK idea at first. They're low in calories (or don't have any calories at all) and are often touted as healthier than real sugar. But since artificial sweeteners can cause negative side effects — like digestive troubles, headaches, and dizziness — it's definitely worth it to learn more, and possibly even avoid them in the future.
"Not everyone has immediate effects from sugar substitutes," Dr. Jennifer Stagg, a practicing naturopathic physician and founder and medical director of Whole Health Wellness Center, tells Bustle. "Based on your individual genetics, metabolism, and even microbiome, your tolerance of sugar substitutes will vary." But for those of us who are sensitive, sweeteners — like xylitol, sorbitol, and maltitol — can wreak all sorts of havoc.
"These compounds [like the sugar alcohol xylitol] are among several classes of compounds found in foods that may not be well-digested and as a result can pull water into your gut, and be the source of food for bacteria to feed on — both resulting in uncomfortable symptoms," Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN, a NJ-based nutritionist, tells Bustle.
If this sounds all too familiar, start reading labels and look for a connection between your symptoms, and all those sugar-free foods. And don't be afraid to swap 'em out for the real deal. "If you don't tolerate these sugar alcohols, absolutely use real sugar-containing products instead," Warren says. If you have any of the symptoms below, the change will definitely be worth it.
Aspartame, a type of artificial sweetener often found in zero calorie drinks, can really mess with you if you're sensitive to it, sometimes to the point you might even feel dizzy after consuming it, Stagg says. And when you're just trying to enjoy a fizzy drink as an afternoon pick-me-up, that's the last thing you want.
To test it out and see if your dizziness is, in fact, caused by artificial sweeteners, read all food labels and keep it out of your diet for a while. You might notice that without it you feel a lot better.
2. Headaches And Migraines
It's not uncommon to experience headaches — and even migraines — after eating a sugar substitute, health expert Alessa Caridi, tells Bustle. "I can tell, sometimes within a few minutes of digestion, if something has fake sugar in it," she says. And maybe you've noticed the same thing.
There can be lots of triggers for migraines, including stress, sudden changes in temperature, and even staring at your phone for too long. But what you eat can play a role, including certain food additives, such as artificial sweeteners.
3. Mood Changes
If you gulp down a sugar-free drink and then feel positively awful, it may be that aspartame once again. "It can alter your metabolism and your nervous system," Stagg says. And, scarily enough, it's even been known to cause mood changes in some people.
If this is something you've experienced, it can help to switch your go-to beverage of choice, and replace it with someone that doesn't contain artificial sweetener. It may also be worth discussing with your therapist, especially if you experience mood changes often.
Sugar alcohols, like xylitol and sorbitol, may seem benign. Even though these sugars are altered in a chemical process, they're often touted as being natural, because they are originally derived from plants. So you might think something natural won't impact your gut, or make you feel bad.
But for some people, all it takes is one sugar free candy before they're racing off to the bathroom. As Stagg says, this is due to the laxative effect of many sugar alcohols, which can leave you with side effects like diarrhea. It can also result in other stomach troubles, such as gas and bloating.
5. Painful Gas
Speaking of gas, you may want to read labels to check for those sugar alcohols — like sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, and isomalt — if you've been feeling extra bloated lately. "They're found in sugar-free foods like gum," Warren says. "They can cause gas and diarrhea, especially when eaten in excess (like if you chew sugar-free gum all day long, frequently replacing pieces)."
6. Worsening IBS Symptoms
Because sugar alcohols can affect your gut, they aren't a great combo for those with irritable bowel syndrome. As Warren says, they can increase your gas and bloating — which is not what you want when dealing with this disease.
Diet can play a big role in easing symptoms, so your doctor might suggest you cut out foods that can trigger symptoms, such as beans, cauliflower, chickpeas, berries, and red meat. But you can also ask them about artificial sweeteners, and get their advice.
In the same vein, keep an eye out for signs of bloating, which can be pretty painful. "When your body doesn't tolerate sugar substitutes like xylitol, erythritol, isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, and sorbitol, you'll definitely know it," Zlata Faerman, owner of health blog Life and Thymez, tells Bustle. "You might feel gassy, bloated, have intense gas-like pains, feel diarrhea pangs, have diarrhea, and also feel exhaustion as a result."
While some people might be drawn to the benefits of artificial sweeteners, including enjoying foods without the added calories or sugar intake, it's not always worth side effects like these.
Because these sugar substitutes are chemically altered from their natural form, they can react negatively in the body and lead to inflammation.
"When the chemical structure of a sugar changes, it also affects how the body responds to it," Lorraine Kearney, a NYC-based nutritionist, tells Bustle. "Often these sugar substitutes are unrecognized by the body, causing inflammation that can possible lead to health complications."
That's why health experts always suggest sticking with natural foods as often as possible, and avoiding things that come out of a bag, or even artificial sweeteners, which can seem too good to be true.
Artificial sweeteners can even cause nausea, Dr. Bindiya Gandhi, a double-board certified doctor who specializes in women’s health and preventative medicine, tells Bustle. And this is, once again, all thanks to the fact they're fake.
"Sugar substitutes are made of man-made chemicals, which are meant to mimic the sugar molecule," she says. "However, due to its processing, it can sometimes negatively affect people."
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, experiment with eating fewer artificial sugars. Check foods for ingredients like "aspartame" or "xylitol" and avoid them as often as possible. You might notice that you feel a lot better, or at least a loss less bloated.