***DISCLAIMER – I am sharing my story in the hopes of helping anyone else who may be in the same situation. We are all bio individuals and our bodies react differently to different foods. In NO WAY am I saying you need to avoid stevia because we are all responsible for ourselves and should never blindly follow anyone’s advice. Do your research and make the best decision for you.***
On Monday, November 6th, I took a leap by making an announcement on my Instagram account (great for accountability) that I decided to cut stevia out for a week, which I knew wouldn’t be easy. It was meant to be an experiment of sorts to see if I felt any different without it. When it came to stevia I noticed a few things, the first of which was that as time went by I needed to use more and more stevia to satisfy my sweet craving and then about 6 months ago I noticed that I would feel a big blood sugar drop about 30 minutes to an hour after my morning smoothie which consisted of:
- 2c spinach
- 1 1/2c diced zucchini
- 1 scoop Paleo grassfed beef protein powder
- 2Tbs Valrhona cacoa powder
- 1/2tsp vanilla bean powder
- 1 overflowing scoop Pure Encapsulations L-Glutamine Powder
- 3 dropperfuls of Sweetleaf liquid stevia (yes, that’s a lot)
My blood sugar would drop, I would feel light-headed, and ravenous hunger would set in. I would have some nuts to try and quell the hunger (logically knowing that I had already consumed enough food), and would keep myself busy in order to keep my mind off the hunger.
For lunch I would make a giant salad and that would keep me full for quite a while. When I made my salad dressing I would add about 1/4 dropperful of liquid stevia to cut the bite out of the apple cider vinegar. My salads have always been epically big, so all of the fiber from the veggies would do a good job of keeping my belly full.
Dinnertime would roll around and I would eat a nutritious, well-balanced meal with my family which would satisfy me and then I would follow the meal with some sort of stevia-sweetened treat such as Plain Coyo yogurt (with some stevia, nuts, and wild blueberries) or a tea latte with stevia and coconut milk. Sure enough 30-60 minutes later I would be ravenous. Thinking back on my day I would know I had eaten enough, yet those hormonal urges were hard to suppress. Sometimes I could get through it by making myself busy and other times I couldn’t help it and would go grab a snack.
Coincidentally for the past 3-6 months my hormones have been all over the place. I can just “tell” when that is the case because I know my body really well. Having experienced these sorts of issues for 20+ years I know what I feel like when everything is running along smoothly and I know when something is off. I have been working with my Integrative PA ,Karen Callagy (she’s awesome), to try and figure out what is wrong. The symptoms I went to her with were:
- Intense hunger
- Hypoglycemic symptoms
- Light-headed / dizzy
- Sugar cravings – especially strong at night
- Sleep disturbances
- light sleep…get up in the middle of the night to use restroom 1-2x
- High fasting glucose
- between 95-105 while eating a ketogenic diet
- Numbness in arms and fingers – occasional
- Weight gain while eating same
- I track macros, so I know my intake hadn’t increased
- I even cut macros significantly to try and lose the weight and it just wouldn’t budge (12 weeks of dieting and lost 2 pounds)
- Body composition changes
- higher fat percentage
- cellulite increase (even around knees)
- Puffiness / water retention
- I felt like my body was wearing an extra layer everywhere
- i.e. the skin around my legs hurt when I would kneel down…they felt like overinflated balloons
- puffy face
- Super painful breasts during premenstral time
- I actually thought I could be pregnant they hurt so bad the last two months (NOTE – I had a tubal ligation 14 years ago)
- Shortness of breath
- Pulse would randomly race
- Hard time getting into deep ketosis
- blood sugar all over the place
Karen ran a slew of blood tests and nothing came back of note, which was good news and bad because we hadn’t found a reason/solution. We decided to run another stool test (it’s been a while) as well as a full Dutch hormone panel (I will get both results at the beginning of December).
In the meantime my husband and I went to visit some friends out of town and I didn’t bring much with me in the way of food since we would be in Austin and I knew I would have access to a lot of great options. That also meant that I did not use stevia while I was gone. While we stayed up WAY too late most nights talking and catching-up, etc., overall I felt a ton more balanced and my appetite was totally normal (no ravenous episodes). A little birdie in the back of my head started chirping that maybe I should trial life without stevia.
We came home and the next day I was right back into stevia mode, starting with a smoothie….and the symptoms began returning. I went about my normal stevia-filled life for another week and then decided the following Monday I would do an experiment and forgo stevia for one week. Normally I would ask myself to try something for a month, but when you have an addiction of sorts to sweets, the idea of 7 days seemed more manageable for me to tackle.
The first few days were hard, but within two days something interesting started to happen; I was losing weight eating the same exact macros. In addition, I wasn’t experiencing the light-headed episodes, and wasn’t having episodes of intense hunger. Hmmmmm. By day 5 I checked my fasting glucose and it was 70!!! It went from 95-105 to 70 in 5 days. By the end of the week I had slept through 2 nights without waking. Now that’s thought provoking.
These changes led me to doing some more research and got me thinking about the digestive process which we have been studying in depth in my NTP program. I want to give you a quick run-down on carbohydrate metabolism to help you understand some possible reasons why I was experiencing some of those symptoms as a result of stevia consumption. If you are not into science, feel free to skip forward, however I find that understanding the “whys” can sometimes help us push forward with behavioral changes (If that is what you decide to do):
When we consume something sweet, as soon as the sweet taste touches our tongue our body begins responding hormonally and releases insulin. Normally, when we taste sweet that means that we will be ingesting carbs that will eventually turn into glucose. Once the glucose enters our bloodstream insulin is there to shuttle it into our cells.
What do you think happens when our tongue tastes sweet, releases insulin, and then no glucose appears due to the ingestion of zero-calorie sweeteners? We are in a situation where our body has been flooded with insulin, but insulin can’t do it’s job because there is no glucose there to shuttle into our cells. When this happens our body has two choices; one, induce hunger (thus the increase in appetite) to encourage the consumption of calories resulting in glucose in the bloodstream or, if we are in a fasted state, the body realizes that it needs to correct this insulin imbalance, so the adrenal glands fire (stress in the body) and tells the body to form glucose by converting lean muscle tissue into glucose. LIGHTBULB…perhaps this is why I have been experiencing body composition changes and muscle wasting despite continuing my healthy diet and exercise routine. According to an article Naturopath Dr. Bruce Fife wrote on the subject,
Sugar stimulates metabolism immediately after eating, non-caloric sweeteners do not. So after eating a meal containing non-caloric sweeteners, more of the calories are converted into fat and packed away in storage.6
Apparently our body cannot produce glycogen and ketones at the same time. When you consume a zero calorie sweetener and the cascade of events follows necessitating the conversion of muscle to glucose, you cannot make ketones. LIGHTBULB…perhaps this is why my ketones were all over the place.
While doing my research I happened upon a podcast (which I have really been enjoying) called the Ketovangelist and on episode 114 Dr. Bruce Fife makes the case against stevia. Dr. Fife found that his patients who were using stevia had a very difficult time losing weight and also struggled to get into ketosis despite following the ketogenic diet parameters he gave them. He began to research stevia heavily and ultimately wrote the book, “The Stevia Deception,” (which I have on order). The episode really made me think about the possible links between zero calorie sweeteners and the symptoms I have been struggling with. Within the podcast they discuss how stevia extract is produced, the addictive nature of stevia, stevia and weight loss, stevia and digestive health, and stevia as it pertains to reproductive / hormone health.
I appreciate the fact that a few episodes later (episode 118) the host, Brian Williamson, has Thom King (the founder of the company Steviva) on to make the case for stevia. I always want to hear both sides of a story and both episodes made some compelling arguments. Perhaps the strongest argument made during this episode was for the fact that quality matters. For example, while Dr. Fife sites some influential studies on rodents, this episode mentioned the fact that we do not know whether or not the studies used pure stevia or stevia mixed with malodextrin and other fillers, etc.
I think we can all agree that the stevia we are able to purchase in the store is not the same as the unrefined stevia leaves that the Indians in South America use. That being said, Thom’s company produces their stevia sweetener using a natural water extraction process whereas many companies that produce stevia do so with the use of petrochemicals and bleach agents and then add a slew of fillers resulting in a substance that our body does not recognize. In the episode Thom mentions a study published on the National Institute of Health website (click HERE for the study) that supports his claim that stevia does not have the same effect on the body that aspartame and sucrose do. He also mentions experiments he has done on himself (he follows a ketogenic diet and tracks his ketones and insulin) where he has tested his ketones and consumed a diet soda and that kicked him out of ketosis whereas consumption of stevia had no effect on his ketones.
I want to update you on how the last two stevia-free weeks have gone for me. The following symptoms have either disappeared for me or have been greatly reduced:
- Intense hunger – GONE
- Hypoglycemic symptoms – NEARLY TOTALLY GONE
- Light-headed – ONLY A FEW EPISODES (was usually multiple times per day)
- Exhaustion – GONE
- Sugar cravings – GONE
- Sleep disturbances – SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT most nights
- High fasting glucose – GONE
- Numbness in arms and fingers – HAVEN’T HAD IT IN TWO WEEKS
- Weight gain while eating same – LOSING WEIGHT
- Body composition changes – CAN SEE CHANGES ALREADY
- Puffiness / water retention – GONE
- Super painful breasts during premenstral time – TBD
- I have had my period yet since beginning this experiment
- Shortness of breath – GONE
- Pulse would race – GONE
- Hard time getting into deep ketosis – HAVE BEEN CONSISTENTLY IN KETOSIS and a much deeper ketosis than before
Ultimately it is up to you to do your own research and decide for yourself whether or not you want stevia to be part of your diet. Personally, I plan on eliminating the use of any zero-calorie sweeteners since it has become clear to me that my body does not respond well to them and because I understand the hormonal reactions that occur when we taste sweet and insulin is released. If I do have something sweet it will most likely be sweetened it with dates or raw honey since they are whole food sources…some coconut sugar may make its way in there too.
I want to reiterate that we are all individuals and how valuable it is for you to learn your body and what works for you. Be honest with yourself and if you have been experiencing similar symptoms there is no harm in trying a week without zero-calorie sweeteners.
Have any of you had any bad experiences with zero-calorie sweeteners or stevia in particular? I’d love to hear from you.
If you are interested in reading Dr. Fife’s article title, “The Stevia Myth” click HERE.
Dr. Fife article source: 6. Yang, Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med 2010;83:101-108.