Here’s a frightening story for all of you parents out there…and one that many of you can probably relate to. It was the middle of the night and my son came into our bedroom in agony. He was hunched over, whimpering, and clearly in distress…my first thought was that he probably had appendicitis and that we’d be in the ER before dawn.
My Son Learns a Painful Lesson About Artificial Sweeteners (And What You Need to Know Too)
It was immediately clear to both my wife (who is also a doctor) and I that this was no ordinary tummy ache. He was in so much distress that it was really tough to examine him, but I convinced him to let me lightly press and then tap on his belly while we listened for a hollow, drum-like sound…which we all heard loud and clear. The diagnosis was becoming more clear…and it was looking less like appendicitis.
The hollow sound in his belly in response to my tapping was caused by a buildup of intestinal gas…mostly hydrogen and methane…and in this case, a whole lot of it. It’s a sound called “tympany” which, in combination with the pain that came in intense waves, made it clear that we did not need to rush to the ER like we first thought.
The “aha” moment came thanks to my brilliant wife who somehow, during all this mayhem, remembered that our son had ventured out to a local pharmacy earlier in the day where he bought a package of breath mints (Watermelon-flavored Ice Breakers Duo to be precise.) Rather than sucking on one or two of these mints…he ate the whole pack like it was candy.
Sorbitol and Maltitol — Artificial Sweeteners You Don’t Want in Your Diet
Thankfully, the plastic container was still in the downstairs garbage and a quick glance at the label revealed the problem. These candies were loaded with sorbitol and maltitol, which are “sugar alcohols” that are used as artificial sweeteners. The serving size listed on the package was one mint and there were 33 servings per container. So, my son managed to consume 33X the normal dose of sugar alcohols…and he only weighs about 60 pounds!
Although sugar alcohols will not raise your blood sugar, they do have an adverse effect that most people don’t realize. When these molecules pass through the GI tract, they become food for the bacteria that live in our intestines. That’s right, the microorganisms that are critical to the health of our digestive system actually devour these sugar alcohols. Microbial digestion of these compounds is much like a fermentation process…and as a result, loads of methane and hydrogen gases end up being released by these tiny microbes. That’s why my son’s belly blew up like a balloon after eating these artificially sweetened candies.
After a very uncomfortable few hours (and several dramatic trips to the bathroom) all of that gas worked it’s way out and the situation resolved. He fell back asleep for a few hours, then woke up in the morning and went to school like it never happened. (His parents had a tougher day than he did.)
Most of the people who regularly consume artificially-sweetened gums, mints, and other candies are not aware of the gastrointestinal adverse effects of sugar alcohols like sorbitol. My son’s case was a dramatic example of this phenomenon because he took such a large dose…but even in normal amounts, they can cause cramps, excess gas, bloating, and other forms of digestive distress (including an unwanted laxative effect).
If you want to enjoy something sweet, use only natural sweeteners. My top choice is honey, which is loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants that can boost your immune system, improve your metabolism, and help you regulate your blood sugar. You heard that right, honey is a natural sweetener and studies have shown that consuming raw honey can actually improve blood sugar control…even in people with diabetes.
I think of honey as liquid gold…and it’s a medicine in the true sense of the word. I am such a fan that I even have a backyard beehive that houses over 50K honeybees who are always busy pollinating our gardens and producing honey for our family. And…I’ve been so intrigued by the medical literature on honey that I wrote a book about how this gift from nature can improve health from head to toe.
Our bodies have evolved to take advantage of the micronutrients and beneficial properties of natural sweeteners like honey. On the other hand, as my son learned the hard way, the man-made sweeteners are tailor-made to give you a bellyache.
Take good care,