Stevia is a natural plant product once thought to be a healthful alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. However, there is some recent emerging evidence that stevia may have some signficant health risks:
- Damage to gut health
- Endocrine disturbances
- Low blood sugar and hypotension
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Kidney damage
- Allergic reactions
What is Stevia?
Stevia’s scientific name is Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni. It’s a member of the sunflower family and grows as a bushy native South American shrub. There are some 150 stevia species, all native to North and South America. However, the plant is highly amenable and is easily grown in other locations as well. Stevia is a fairly common nursery plant, where is often purchased as an attractive addition to a home garden. The leaves exude a sweet taste when chewed. Stevia does contain important antioxidants and one of them may be associated with a significantly reduced risk of pancreatic cancer.
Stevia is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It’s an economical plant, consuming far less natural resources compared to sugar cane and other sources of natural sweeteners. Its taste comes closer to that of sugar than many artificial sweeteners do, although many people dislike its annoying, somewhat tangy aftertaste. It contains almost no calories and is considered safe to use by diabetics. Stevia does not promote tooth decay. It has a very low glycemic index, which means it doesn’t cause sharp spikes in blood sugar. The glycemic index is a numerical system listing foods along a 100-point scale. Foods very high on the index, such as simple sugars, cause a rapid rise in blood glucose. Foods very low on the scale, such as non-starchy vegetables, meats and fats, do not.
The Intestinal Microbiome
The gut’s microbial environment is called the microbiome. When healthy, it’s a mix of diverse beneficial bacteria that help to manufacture vitamins, modulate the immune system, regulate hormones and keep pathogen growth in check. Sugar and processed foods are harmful to the microbiome, as are antibiotics. The best way to support a healthy microbiome is to eat whole foods in their raw, natural state as much as possible. This means lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, aged cheeses, tempeh and miso help to populate the microbiome with healthy, beneficial probiotic bacteria. Prebiotics provide food for the probiotics and can be found in foods like bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, dandelion greens and chicory root. Both probiotics and prebiotics are available in supplement form, but they’re not a substitute for a healthy diet.
Refined sugar promotes the overgrowth of yeasts and bad bacteria. This disturbs the microbiome’s balance and can lead to inflammation within the intestines and elsewhere in the body. The brain depends on the microbiome to supply it with a critical brain chemical called serotonin, necessary for normal mood. In fact, the brain and the microbiome are in near constant communication. That’s why the microbiome is sometimes called the body’s second brain.
Stevia and the Microbiome
Emerging research indicates that stevia may disrupt the microbiome by interfering with the messaging system between the beneficial bacteria there. Without communication, these bacteria cannot do their jobs to maintain a healthy environment. Stevia doesn’t seem to kill these friendly bacteria, but it may lead to an unbalanced microbiome that may compromise the health of the entire body and its other microbiomes, such as that in the skin, the mouth and the scalp. Friendly bacteria are essential to health. In fact, about three to five pounds of an adult human’s body weight is composed of bacteria!
An unbalanced gut microbiome may lead to weight gain, problems with reproduction and the immune system, metabolic dysfunction and systemic inflammation. Some users of stevia have reported side effects like heart palpitations and gastric disturbances.
If you’d like to know more about the risks of stevia, we’re here to answer your questions. We’re an integrative medicine specialty group offering many alternatives to better health through a holistic treatment philosophy. Just call 205-352-9141. and a trained staff member will assist you and if you like, set an appointment for you to see one of our physicians. We always welcome new patients.