9 Surprising Signs Your Body Might Not Tolerate Sugar Substitutes Well

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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 even dizziness — they may be worth avoiding.

"Not everyone has immediate effects from sugar substitutes," Dr. Jennifer Stagg 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," says NJ-based nutritionist Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN.

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.  

1. Dizziness

Aspartame, a type of artificial sweetener often found in zero calorie drinks, can really mess with those who are sensitive to it. As Stagg tells me, you might even feel dizzy after consuming it. To test it out, read those labels and keep it out of your diet for a while. You might just feel better.

2. Headaches And Migraines

As health expert Alessa Caridi tells me, it's not uncommon to experience headaches — and even migraines — after eating a sugar substitute. "I can tell, sometimes within a few minutes of digestion, if something has fake sugar in it," she says. And that's just not worth it.  

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.

4. Diarrhea

Sugar alcohols, like xylitol and sorbitol, may seem benign. But for some people, all it takes is one sugar free candy before they're racing off to the bathroom. As Stagg tells me, this is due to the laxative effect of many sugar alcohols.

5. Painful Gas

Read labels to check for those sugar alcohols — like sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, and isomalt — and see if there's a connection between snacking on them and feeling extra gassy. "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 tells me, they can increase your gas and bloating — which is not what you want when dealing with this disease.

7. Bloating

In the same vein, keep an eye out for painful bloating. "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."

8. Inflammation

Because 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," says NYC-based nutritionist Lorraine Kearney. "Often these sugar substitutes are unrecognized by the body, causing inflammation that can possible lead to health complications."

9. Nausea

As Dr. Bindiya Gandhi tells me, artificial sweeteners can even cause nausea. 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. I bet you'll feel a lot better. Or, at the very least, a lot less bloated.

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