The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

Below is a passage from a book I got for my birthday. I was skimming through this tome and came across a note from one of the later chapters. It discusses a theory about how new substances, caffeine and sugar, helped cause changes in mentality during colonialism, early modernity, and industrialization. I first came across a version of this theory back in the late ’90s or early Aughts, in a book I no longer own and haven’t been able to track down since.

So, it was nice coming across this brief summary with references. But in the other version, the argument was that these substances (including nicotine, cocaine, etc; along with a different kind of drug like opium) were central to the Enlightenment Age and the post-Enlightenment world, something only suggested by this author. This is a supporting theory for my larger theory on addictive substances, including some thoughts on how they replaced psychedelics, as written about previously: Sugar is an Addictive Drug, The Agricultural Mind, Diets and Systems, and “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”. It has to do with what has built the rigid boundaries of modern egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. It was a revolution of the mind.

Many have made arguments along these lines. It’s not hard to make the connection. Diverse leading figures over history have observed the importance changes that followed along as these substances were introduced and spread. In recent years, this line of thought has been catching on. Michael Pollan came out with an audiobook about the role coffee has played, “Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World.” I haven’t listened to it because it’s only available through Audible and I don’t do business with Amazon, but reviews of it and interviews with Pollan about it make it sound fascinating. Pollan has many thoughts about psychedelics as well, although I’m not sure if he has talked about psychedelics in relation to stimulants. Steven Johnson has also written and talked about this.

As a side note, there is also an interesting point that connects rising drug addiction with an earlier era of moral panic, specifically a crisis of identity. There was a then new category of disease called neurasthenia, as first described by George Miller Beard. It replaced earlier notions of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nerves’. In many ways, neurasthenia could be thought of as some kind of variant of mood disorder with some overlap with depression. But a passage from another work, also included below, indicates that drug addiction was closely linked in this developing ideology about the diseased mind and crippled self. At that stage, the relationship wasn’t entirely clear. All that was understood was that, in a fatigued and deficient state, increasing numbers turned to drugs as a coping mechanism.

Drugs may have helped to build modern civilization. But then they quickly came to be taken as a threat. This concern was implicitly understood and sometimes overtly applied right from the beginning. With the colonial trade, laws were often quickly put in place to make sugar and coffee controlled substances. Sugar for a long time was only sold in pharmacies. And a number of fearful rulers tried to ban coffee for fear of it, not unlike how psychedelics were perceived in the 1960s. It’s not only that these substances were radicalizing and revolutionary within the mind and society as seen in retrospect. Many at the time realized these addictive and often stimulating drugs (and one might even call sugar a drug) were powerful substances right from the beginning. That is what made them such profitable commodities requiring an emergent militaristic capitalism that was violently brutal in fulfilling this demand with forced labor.

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The WEIRDest People in the World:
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
by Joseph Henrich
Ch. 13 “Escape Velocity”, section “More Inventive?”
p. 289, note 58

People’s industriousness may have been bolstered by new beverages: sugar mixed into caffeinated drinks—tea and coffee. These products only began arriving in Europe in large quantities after 1500, when overseas trade began to dramatically expand. The consumption of sugar, for example, rose 20-fold between 1663 and 1775. By the 18th century, sugary caffeinated beverages were not only becoming part of the daily consumption of the urban middle class, but they were also spreading into the working class. We know from his famous diary that Samuel Pepys was savoring coffee by 1660. The ability of these beverages to deliver quick energy—glucose and caffeine—may have provided innovators, industrialists, and laborers, as well as those engaged in intellectual exchanges at cafés (as opposed to taverns), with an extra edge in self-control, mental acuity, and productivity. While sugar, coffee, and tea had long been used elsewhere, no one had previously adopted the practice of mixing sugar into caffeinated drinks (Hersh and Voth, 2009; Nunn and Qian, 2010). Psychologists have linked the ingestion of glucose to greater self-control, though the mechanism is a matter of debate (Beedie and Lane, 2012; Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007; Inzlicht and Schmeichel, 2012; Sanders et al., 2012). The anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1986, p. 85) suggested that sugar helped create the industrial working class, writing that “by provisioning, sating—and, indeed, drugging—farm and factory workers, [sugar] sharply reduced the overall cost of creating and reproducing the metropolitan proletariat.”

“Mania Americana”: Narcotic Addiction and Modernity in the United States, 1870-1920
by Timothy A. Hickman

One such observer was George Miller Beard, the well-known physician who gave the name neurasthenia to the age’s most representative neurological disorder. In 1871 Beard wrote that drug use “has greatly extended and multiplied with the progress of civilization, and especially in modern times.” He found that drug use had spread through “the discovery and invention of new varieties [of narcotic], or new modifications of old varieties.” Alongside technological and scientific progress, Beard found another cause for the growth of drug use in “the influence of commerce, by which the products of each clime became the property of all.” He thus felt that a new economic interconnectedness had increased both the knowledge and the availability of the world’s regionally specific intoxicants. He wrote that “the ancient civilizations knew only of home made varieties; the moderns are content with nothing less than all of the best that the world produces.” Beard blamed modern progress for increased drug use, and he identified technological innovation and economic interconnectedness as the essence of modernity. Those were, of course, two central contributors to the modern cultural crisis. As we shall see, many experts believed that this particular form of (narcotic) interconnectedness produced a condition of interdependence, that it quite literally reduced those on the receiving end from even a nominal state of independence to an abject dependence on these chemical products and their suppliers.

There was probably no more influential authority on the relationship between a physical condition and its historical moment than George Miller Beard. In 1878 Beard used the term “neurasthenia” to define the “lack of nerve strength” that he believed was “a functional nervous disease of modern, and largely, though not entirely, of American origin.” He had made his vision of modern America clear two years earlier, writing that “three great inventions-the printing press, the steam engine, and the telegraph, are peculiar to our modern civilization, and they give it a character for which there is no precedent.” The direct consequence of these technological developments was that “the methods and incitements of brain-work have multiplied far in excess of average cerebral developments.” Neurasthenia was therefore “a malady that has developed mainly during the last half century.” It was, in short, “the cry of the system struggling with its environment.” Beard’s diagnosis is familiar, but less well known is his belief that a “susceptibility to stimulants and narcotics and various drugs” was among neurasthenia’s most attention-worthy symptoms. The new sensitivity to narcotics was “as unprecedented a fact as the telegraph, the railway, or the telephone.” Beard’s claim suggests that narcotic use might fruitfully be set alongside other diseases of “overcivilization,” including suicide, premarital sex (for women), and homosexuality. As Dr. W. E Waugh wrote in 1894, the reasons for the emergence of the drug habit “are to be found in the conditions of modern life, and consist of the causative factors of suicide and insanity.” Waugh saw those afflictions as “the price we pay for our modern civilization.”24

Though Beard was most concerned with decreased tolerance-people seemed more vulnerable to intoxication and its side effects than they once were-he also worried that the changing modern environment exacerbated the development of the drug habit. Beard explained that a person whose nervous system had become “enfeebled” by the demands of modern society would naturally turn wherever he could for support, and thus “anything that gives ease, sedation, oblivion, such as chloral, chloroform, opium or alcohol, may be resorted to at first as an incident, and finally as a habit.” Not merely to overcome physical discomfort, but to obtain “the relief of exhaustion, deeper and more distressing than pain, do both men and women resort to the drug shop.” Neurasthenia was brought on “under the press and stimulus of the telegraph and railway,” and Beard believed that it provided “the philosophy of many cases of opium or alcohol inebriety.”25

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Also see:

The Age of Intoxication
by Benjamin Breen

Drugs, Labor and Colonial Expansion
ed. by William Jankowiak and Daniel Bradburd

How psychoactive drugs shape human culture
by Greg Wadley

Under the influence
by Ed Lake

The Enlightenment: Psychoactive Globalisation
from The Pendulum of Psychoactive Drug Use

Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire
by Maria Godoy

Some Notes On Sugar and the Evolution of Industrial Capitalism
by Peter Machen

Coffee, Tea and Colonialism
from The Wilson Quarterly

From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation
by Peter Diamandis

How caffeine changed the world
by Colleen Walsh

The War On Coffee
by Adam Gopnik

Coffee: The drink of the enlightenment
by Jane Louise Kandur

Coffee and the Enlightenment
by Stephen Hicks

Coffee Enlightenment? – Does drinking my morning coffee lead to enlightenment?
from Coffee Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Coffeehouses
by David Gurteen

How Caffeine Accelerated The Scientific Enlightenment
by Drew Dennis

How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen
from All Things Considered

Coffee & the Age of Reason (17th Century)
from The Coffee Brewers

Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard
by Colin Marshall

Coffee Cultivation and Exchange, 1400-1800
from University of California, Santa Cruz

Sugar is an Addictive Drug

Sugar is addictive. That is not a metaphor. It is literally an addictive drug, a gateway drug. Sugar is the first drug that most humans ever experience.

For many Americans, the addictive nature of it begins shaping the brain in infancy, as sweeteners are put into formula. And if you didn’t get formula, I bet you didn’t make it past toddlerhood without getting regularly dosed with sugar: sweet baby food, candy, cake, etc.

Addiction is trained into us during the most key years of physiological development. What we eat in the first few years, as research shows, determines what tastes good to us for the rest of our lives. We are hooked.

(I’ve previously written on food addiction: The Agricultural Mind; & Diets and Systems.)

* * *

By H. Theresa Wright, MS, RD, LDN and Joan Ifland, PhD

The addictive properties of sugar are perhaps the most studied.[6]  Rats will choose sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and saccharine over cocaine and heroin. Rats have shown a withdrawal syndrome similar to that of morphine [7]. Sugar activates the dopamine pathway. [8]  Food addiction recovery groups often recommend abstinence from sugar and sweeteners. [8]

Experts Agree: Sugar Might Be as Addictive as Cocaine
by Anna Schaefer and Kareem Yasin

Indeed, research on rats from Connecticut College has shown that Oreo cookies activate more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center than cocaine does (and just like humans, the rats would eat the filling first). And a 2008 Princeton studyTrusted Source found that, under certain circumstances, not only could rats become dependent on sugar, but this dependency correlated with several aspects of addiction, including craving, binging, and withdrawal.

Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution
by David A. Wiss, Nicole Avena, and Pedro Rada

Finally, there is strong evidence of the existence of sugar addiction, both at preclinical and clinical level. Our model has demonstrated that five out of eleven criteria for SUD are met, specifically: use of larger amounts and for longer than intended, craving, hazardous use, tolerance, and withdrawal. From an evolutionary perspective, we must consider addiction as a normal trait that permitted humans to survive primitive conditions when food was scarce. As we evolved culturally, the neural circuits involved in addictive behaviors became dysfunctional and instead of helping us survive they are in fact compromising our health. From a revolutionary perspective, understanding the molecular, and neurological/psychological intricacies of addiction (sugar, drugs of abuse) will permit the discovery of new therapies (pharmacological and non-pharmacological) and possible management of at least one crucial factor in the occurrence of obesity.

The case for treating sugar like a dangerous drug

German Lopez: Walk me through the argument for treating sugar like a controlled substance.

Robert Lustig: The definition of addicted is that you know it’s bad for you and you can’t stop anyway, like heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine. You know it’s bad for you. You  know it will kill you. But you can’t stop anyway, because the biochemical drive to consume is greater than any cognitive ability to restrain oneself.

There are two phenomena attached to addiction: one’s called tolerance, the other is withdrawal. It turns out sugar does both of those as well.

If a substance is abused and addictive and it contributes to societal problems, that’s criteria for regulation.

GL: Is that really grounds for considering it a controlled substance, though?

RL: There are four things that have to be met in order to consider a substance worthy of regulation. Number one: ubiquity — you can’t get rid of it, it’s everywhere. Number two: toxicity — it has to hurt you. Number three: abuse. Number four: externalities, which means it has a negative impact on society.

Sugar meets all four criteria, hands down. One, it’s ubiquitous — it’s everywhere, and it’s cheap. Two, as I mentioned, we have a dose threshold, and we are above it. Three, if it’s addictive, it’s abused. Four, how does your sugar consumption hurt me? Well, my employer has to pay $2,750 per employee for obesity management and medicine, whether I’m obese or not.

GL: The thing that led me to look into your paper is that I wrote an article a couple weeks back about how the three most dangerous drugs in the country are legal: tobacco, alcohol, and prescription painkillers. And a few people mentioned that I forgot sugar. That idea really interested me.

RL: Yeah, that’s right. The Wall Street Journal asked Americans what are the most dangerous of four substances in America: tobacco, 49 percent; alcohol, 24 percent; sugar, 15 percent; and then marijuana, 8 percent. Sugar was doubly worrisome to Americans than marijuana was. How about that?

GL: One potential hurdle is that controlled substances are typically seen as drugs. Do you consider sugar a drug?

RL: Of course it’s a drug. It’s very simple: a drug is a substance that has effects on the body, and the effects have to be exclusive of calories.

So in order to qualify it as a drug, the negative effects of sugar have to be exclusive of its calories. Is 100 calories of sugar different from, say, 100 calories in broccoli? The answer is absolutely.

Can you name another substance of abuse for which the effect of the substance is more dangerous than the calories it harbors? Alcohol. Its calories are dangerous not because they’re calories; they’re dangerous because they’re part of alcohol. Sugar is the same.

Sugar is the alcohol of a child. You would never let a child drink a can of Budweiser, but you would never think twice about a can of Coke. Yet what it does to the liver, what it does to the arteries, what it does to the heart is all the same. And that’s why we have adolescents with type 2 diabetes.

There are some studies of rats that are completely addicted to cocaine. So they have this drip, cocaine just comes out, and so they’re consuming it all the time. This is the crazy part. As soon as they taste sugar, they don’t care about the cocaine anymore and all they care about is a sugar. That is how addictive sugar is. It’s so addictive that rats that are addicted to cocaine, which we all know is an addictive substance, they would prefer the sugar over cocaine.

There is another study where rats are pulling a cord and every time they pull the cord a little bit a little drip of sugar water comes out. So they’re confined into this space and that is all they get. So then they learn to pull the cord so that they can get their drip of sugar. And over time the researchers open the door so that they have access to the outside. They even have access to family and they have access to all these other foods.

And guess what these rats do. They don’t care about anything else, but they just wait and wait and obsessively pull the cord to try to get sugar. This is how scary and addictive sugar is.

Fat Chance: Fructose 2.0 by Dr. Robert Lustig (Transcript)

So the question is, is fast food addictive? What do you think? Yes? No? Okay, so we actually looked at that question.

So everybody familiar with this book? Michael Moss put this out, “Salt, sugar, fat, how the giants hooked us”, right? This is wrong, this is a mistake. Because there is one thing not on the list. What’s missing? Caffeine.

Now we’ve got fast food! Okay, salt, sugar, fat and caffeine, right? So the question is, of these four which are addictive?

Let’s talk about salt. Is salt addictive? No, it’s not addictive. In humans the threshold is physiologically fixed, higher levels are attributable to preference but you can alter that preference, lots of people do especially when they have to go low salt for some reason. And we know because we take care of a disease in endocrinology called salt-losing congenital adrenal hyperplasia where their kidneys are losing salt non stop. But when we give them the salt retaining hormone that works in the kidney called aldosterone, their salt intake goes way down. And if they were addicted that wouldn’t happen.

So when we fix their physiology, their preference gets a lot better. So salt? Not addictive.

Now let’s take fat. Is fat addictive? What do you think? Nope, rodents binge but show no signs of dependence, and humans they always binge on high fat high carb or high sugar items, like pizza and ice cream, you don’t binge on high fat per se, otherwise the Atkins diet would have everybody addicted and they’ll tell you, you know they are losing weight, how could they lose weight if they are all addicted?

Energy density actually has a stronger association with obesity and metabolic syndrome than fat does.

So, fat? Not addictive.

So we are left with these two. Caffeine? Oh man, caffeine is addictive and if you take my Starbucks away from me I’ll kill you. Model drug of dependence, gateway drug in fact, dependence show in children, adolescence, adults, 30% who consume it meet the DSM criteria for dependence and physiological addiction is well established with the headache, and the test performance, and everything else. Mega addictive.

But do you see anybody going out and regulating Starbucks or Pizza or anything like that? Why? Because it’s not toxic. It’s addictive, but not toxic, unless you mix it with alcohol and then you got something called four loco and that we are banning, everybody got it?

So when it’s toxic and addictive we ban it or we regulate it. And so, caffeine and alcohol together that’s a bad deal. But caffeine alone? Keep your hands of my Starbucks.

So caffeine? Yes, addictive.

Okay, that leaves this one. Sugar, is sugar addictive? What do you think? You know, we’ve known this for a long time, because, anybody know what this is? It’s called sweeties. This is a super concentrated sucrose, sugar solution, that you dip the pacifier in and you put in the newborn baby boy’s mouth before you do the circumcision, because it releases opioids and deadens the pain. And this has been known forever. Then you mix it with a little wine and then you got a really good cocktail, eh?

So is there really such a thing as sugar addiction, we have to look for similarities to other drugs of dependence like nicotine, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine. The one I think is most appropriate is alcohol, because after all alcohol and sugar are basically metabolized the same way, because after all where do you get alcohol from? Fermentation of sugar, it’s called wine, right? We do it every day, up in Sonoma. The big difference between alcohol and sugar is that for alcohol the yeast does the first step of metabolism called glycolysis; for sugar we do our own first step, but after that when the mitochondria see it, it doesn’t matter where it came from. And that’s the point, and that’s why they both cause the same diseases. And they do the same thing to the brain.

So for the criteria for addiction in animals are bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and then there is one down here called cross-sensitization with other drugs of abuse, that means that if you expose an animal to one drug of abuse, like cocaine for 3 weeks and addict them, and then you expose them to a second drug they’ve never seen before, like say amphetamine, they’re addicted to the amphetamine even though they’d never seen it before, because the dopamine receptors are already down-regulated because they are the same dopamine receptors, everybody got it?

Okay, and so, does sugar do this? Absolutely. Q.E.D. slammed on, sugar is addictive in animals.

What about humans? Who saw this movie? Right? Did you like it? More or less?

I’ve a big problem with this movie, because if you watch the movie his doctor, Morgan’s doctor keeps saying: “You gotta get off this high fat diet, high fat diet, high fat diet, high fat diet, high fat diet” Not the high fat diet, it’s the high sugar diet, high sugar diet, that’s what caused all the problems.

So, can sugar be addictive? Watch.

“I was feeling bad” “In the car, feeling like…I was feeling really, really sick and unhappy…started eating, feel great…feel really good now… I feel so good as crazy… Ain’t that right baby? Yeah you’re right darling”

This was on day 18, of his 30 day sojourn from McDonald’s. He just described withdrawal, that’s withdrawal, and he needed another hit in order to feel good again. He just described withdrawal, he was a vegan, right? Because his girlfriend was a vegan chef and in 18 days he’s a sugar addict.

So, you tell me. So this is what we are dealing with. We are dealing with an industry that wants us to consume its product, well gee, every industry wants us to consume their product in some fashion or another, the question is what if it hurts you? What if it hurts you?

“Simply, we were dumb.”

Dr. Richard David Feinman*: “Whatever else we know or don’t know about Paleo, we know that our ancestors did not get three squares a day, and evolution must have invested far more in ketogenic metabolism than was reflected in our research interests.

“Simply, we were dumb. We’re trying to fix that now.”

Dr. Robert Lustig**: “The thing is I’m a practicing physician and a scientist and for every one patient I took care of and got better ten more would show up in my door. There was no way I was ever going to fix this.

“And the thing that really really bothered me was I learned virtually everything I know about nutrition in college because I majored in nutrition and food science at MIT. And then I went to medical school and they beat it out of me and told me that everything I’d learned was the irrelevant, it had no place in patient care, it wasn’t necessary, and that really all I had to do was focus on calories. I figured these are the clinicians. I’m gonna be closer. I better listen to them and so I practiced that way for like 20 years.

“And then I started doing research because my patients weren’t getting better and I started doing research to try to figure out what’s going on and it like all came rushing back to me, kind of like post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s like, oh my, I knew this stuff back in 1975. So I got pissed off. So I think part of the passion actually is sort of the the being dumbfounded and the anger of what I see going on in medicine today. So I’m glad it translates in a positive way and that people appreciate the passion but I’m just like really ticked off.”

* * *

*”[Dr.] Richard David Feinman is Professor of Cell Biology (Biochemistry) at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center  in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Feinman’s original area of research was in protein chemistry and enzyme mechanism, particularly in blood coagulation and related processes.

“Dr. Feinman has worked in several scientific areas including animal behavior and he has had a previous life in the visual arts. His friends consider him a Renaissance Man but he has made peace with the term dilettante.

“His current interest is in nutrition and metabolism, specifically in the area of diet composition and energy balance. Work in this area is stimulated by, and continues to influence, his teaching in the Medical School where he has been a pioneer in incorporating nutrition into the biochemistry curriculum. Dr. Feinman is the founder and former co-Editor-In-Chief (2004-2009) of the journal, Nutrition&Metabolism. Dr. Feinman received his BA from the University of Rochester and he holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Oregon.” (from bio on his blog)

Dr. Feinman is quoted by Kathryn Goulding in a Paleo Magazine interview for an article on his book Nutrition in Crisis (June/July 20019).

**Dr. Robert Lustig is a Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. He specializes in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity. He is a leading expert on the obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemics.

His career has included working as a physician, involvement in research (authored 125 peer-reviewed articles and 73 reviews), public speaking (videos of his talks have received millions of views), and authoring books (Fat Chance, Hacking the American Mind, Sugar Has 56 Names, and Obesity Before Birth; also the introduction to John Yudkin’s classic Pure, White and Deadly). He has also been a co-founder, president, director, chairman, member, and consultant of numerous public and private medical, health and dietary task forces, committees, board of directors, institutes, and other organizations.

His focus has been primarily on sugar, not carbohydrates in general. Dr. Feinman has been critical of him on this account. But it appears that he is moving toward the low-carb diet, along with a convergence of his views with those of Gary Taubes. See the discussion on the Ketogenic Forums: Has Lustig moved toward us?

Dr. Lustig is quoted from the below video:


Sweeteners Can Mess You Up!

Sugar, in large doses, is a harmful substance. Many people have warned against sugar going back to the 1800s. The strongest case was made against it by the physiologist, nutritionist, and professor John Yudkin back in 1972 with his book Pure, White and Deadly. For speaking the truth, his reputation was destroyed by Ancel Keys. But more recently, the science journalist Gary Taubes brought the topic back to public attention, in his own book The Case Against Sugar.

Yudkin has been vindicated, as Keys original research that blamed saturated fat for heart disease has since been re-analyzed and shown that sugar is the stronger correlation. We also now understand the science of why that is the true. But it isn’t only about sugar. The sweet taste, whether from sugar or non-nutritive sweeteners, still causes many of the same problems. All sweeteners affect insulin, gut microbiome, cell functioning, neurocognition, mood, and much else. For example, consumption of both sugar and aspartame is associated with depression, at least in one study that was a randomized controlled trial (G. N. Lindseth, Neurobehavioral Effects of Aspartame Consumption).

They do alter serotonin levels, if not dopamine in all cases — some sweeteners affect dopamine and some don’t. This is observable in how people addicted to sugar so easily shift to non-sugar sweeteners and then act in the same addicted way, finding it hard to imagine giving them up. One way or another, addictive pathways seem to be elicited. The brain isn’t fooled and so the body still will hunger for the sugar it thinks it is getting from the sweet taste.

Exchanging one addictive substance, sugar, for another, non-sugar sweetener, is not a benefit. The problem is the addiction itself. A diet high in carbs and sugars is addictive. Throwing in some other kinds of sweeteners doesn’t change this. The best option is to break the addictive cycle entirely by going low-carb or, better yet, ketogenic. And there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners can be used with a ketogenic diet, since they might knock the body out of ketosis in the way sugar does. To be certain, just eliminate all sweeteners and so kill the problem at its root.

On the other hand, that can be easier said than done. I know sugar addiction, as in I was a sugar fiend from childhood to my thirties. And I did for years increase my use of other sweeteners, in an attempt to break free from the hold sugar had over my brain and mood. This wasn’t a particularly successful strategy. And my health was not improved, as the non-sugar sweeteners maintained my high-carb cravings.

I simply had to cut them out strictly. This simple truth is reinforced every time I slowly increase sweeteners in my diet and the cravings creep back in. I just don’t feel good with them. The lesson has been fully learned at this point.

It was amazing what a difference it made once my sweet tooth went away. Only then did my physical health improve and my psychological health soon followed. I can’t emphasize this enough. Carbs, sugars, and other sweeteners will seriously mess you up over time. You might not notice it for decades, but it all catches up with you. The damage is being done, even if you don’t notice it slowly accumulating. And realize the consequences won’t be limited to sickliness of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, as neurocognitive and mental health can also decline (e.g., Alzheimer’s is now called type 3 diabetes by some).

An occasional sweet at a birthday party or holiday gathering is one thing. Maybe you can have that and immediately go back on a healthy low-carb diet. Maybe or maybe not. If you were ever a sugar addict, as most Americans are, you are tempting fate. It’s like a recovering alcoholic taking that first sip of whiskey, vodka, or beer; like the recovering druggie getting that first shot of heroin or puff of the crack pipe.

Sugar is a drug, as research shows, that elicits the same reward pathway in the brain as other drugs and all sweeteners can elicit the same or similar pathways. You’ll hunger for more. And even if other sweeteners don’t have all of the problems of sugar, they still have plenty of potential problems that could do serious harm to your health over time.

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Sucralose Promotes Food Intake through NPY and a Neuronal Fasting Response
by Qiao-Ping Wang et al

The truth about artificial sweeteners – Are they good for diabetics?
by Vikas Purohit and Sundeep Mishra

Consuming low-calorie sweeteners may predispose overweight individuals to diabetes
by Jenni Glenn Gingery and Colleen Williams

Not So Sweet: Metabolic Problems Caused by Artificial Sweeteners
by Serena Cho

Artificial Sweeteners Impact Metabolic Health Even on Cellular Level
by Kristen Monaco

Artificial Sweeteners Could be Sabotaging Your Microbiome, Says Study
by Amel Ahmed

Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials
by Francisco Javier Ruiz-Ojeda et al

Sugar Substitutes or Sugar: What’s Better for Diabetes?
by Kathleen Doheny

Artificial sweeteners linked to diabetes and obesity
by James Brown and Alex Conner

Artificial Sweeteners: Agents of Insulin Resistance, Obesity and Disease
by Loren Cordain

The Unbiased Truth About Artificial Sweeteners
by Chris Kresser

How Artificial Sweeteners Wreak Havoc on Your Gut
by Chris Kresser

Artificial Sweeteners Can Lead to Diabetes In Overweight People
by Gundry MD Team

Artificial Sweeteners Could Be Ruining Your Gut Health
by Gundry MD Team

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for the Brain and Gut
by Siim Land

Artificial Sweeteners Don’t Fool Your Brain
by Joseph Mercola

Tricking Taste Buds but Not the Brain: Artificial Sweeteners Change Brain’s Pleasure Response to Sweet
by Caitlin Kirkwood

Artificial Sweeteners: Why You Should Completely Avoid Them to Stay Healthy
by Elizabeth Lyden

Aspartame: 11 Dangers of This All-Too-Common Food Additive
by Rebekah Edwards

Aspartame Side Effects: Recent Research Confirms Reasons for Concern
by University Health News Staff

The Effects of Aspartame on Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
by Adrienne Dellwo

Are Artificial Sweeteners Damaging Your Blood Vessels?
by Michelle Schoffro Cook

Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain
by P. Humphries, E. Pretorius, and H. Naudé

Effects of repeated doses of aspartame on serotonin and its metabolite in various regions of the mouse brain.
by R. P. Sharma and R. A. Coulombe Jr.

Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?
by Arbind Kumar Choudhary and Yeong Yeh Lee

The debate over neurotransmitter interaction in aspartame usage
by Arbind Kumar Choudhary and Yeong Yeh Lee

The Connection between Aspartame (Artificial Sweetener) and Panic Attacks, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Memory Problems, and Other Mental Symptoms
by Betty Martini

Side-Effects of Aspartame on the Brain
by Michael Greger

Migraine Triggers: Artificial Sweeteners
by Jeremy Orozco

Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward
by Magalie Lenoir , Fuschia Serre , Lauriane Cantin, and Serge H. Ahmed

Diet Soft Drinks Linked to Depression
by Naveed Saleh

Why is Diet Soda Addictive?
by Edward Group

Neurobiology of Addiction
by George F. Koob, Michel Le Moal
pp. 448

Accumulating evidence also suggests that dopamine is not required for nondrug reward. In a study in which dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens core and shell was measured with precise voltammetric techniques during self-stimulation, it was shown that if dopamine activation is a necessary condition for brain stimulation reward, evoked dopamine release is actually not observed during brain stimulation reward and is even diminished (Garris et al, 1999). Also, mice completely lacking tyrosine hydroxylase, such that they cannot make dopamine, demonstrated the ability to learn to consume sweet solutions and showed a preference for sucrose and saccharin. Dopamine was not required for animals to find sweet tastes of sucrose or saccharin rewarding (Cannon and Palmiter, 2003; Cannon and Bseikri, 2004).

* * *

I wrote this post as a response to a video, Keto & Beverages, by the LCHF advocate Dr. Westman.

Below is an amusing and irritating (and, sadly, all too common) dialogue or miscommunication I had with Dr. Eric Westman or someone writing on his behalf at his Youtube channel, Adapt Your Life. The most frustrating part is that I’m mostly in agreement with Dr. Westman, as I too adhere to LCHF. For that reason, I don’t want to be harshly critical nor do I want to be polarized into a stronger position than I actually support, but I must admit that my emotional response was a bit negative.

To stand back from the disagreement, I don’t even have a strong opinion on what others do in terms of sweeteners. I don’t recommend sweeteners, sugar or otherwise, based on personal experience. But if artificial sweeteners help some people to transition to a healthier diet (or if they believe this to be true, and I won’t dismiss the placebo effect), then more power to them. Anyway, here is the interaction that rubbed me the wrong way:

Me: “Wasn’t there a recent study that showed even artificial sweeteners can lead to diabetes? The body still responds to the sweet taste as if it were sugar and over time messes with insulin sensitivity.”

Other person: “Hi Ben Steele, I’m not sure we have seen this study.”

Me: “I decided to write a post about it. I found the info I was looking for. At the end of the post, I share links to it and other info about the problems with non-sugar sweeteners.

“As a recovering sugar addict who followed that up with addiction to other sweeteners, I personally would recommend against such substances. But each individual has to decide for themselves.”

[I then linked to this post.]

Other person: “Hi Ben Steele, we opened a couple and didn’t find an actual “study”. Just peoples opinion and thoughts. We would be interested to read a study, preferably a RCT as this is the gold standard of studies. Thanks for this 😊”

Me: “Multiple links were to “studies”. The first two links are papers on studies, the third is the press release of a study, the fourth is a Yale report about a Yale study, five more links further down are papers on studies, and the last is a quote from an academic book from a university press. So, about a third of them linked to studies and academic material. As for all the rest, they directly reference and discuss numerous other studies.

“If you are interested to read a study, then do so. But if not, then don’t. I can’t force you to read anything.”

To further respond, I’m not sure how much of the research is randomized controlled trial. But after doing a casual research that as easily could’ve done by Dr. Westman or his staff, I found info on RCT research. I noticed it briefly mentioned in a few links above, but I didn’t check all the links. I did find RCTs on the topic elsewhere in doing a web search.

I still find it irritating, though. It feels hypocritical. Dr. Westman or his representative was acting with condescension, intentional or not.

Why is this person demanding RCTs of me when they don’t hold themselves to this same standard? Dr. Westman offered no RCTs to back up his recommendations. And these artificial sweeteners were approved by the FDA without any RCTs proving their safety. So, why is it that critics have to prove they are unsafe? Why would we allow invented chemicals to be put on the market and then have doctors recommend them to patients without knowing their long-term safety or side effects?

Just to prove my point, I will share some RCT evidence (see below). And to be fair, I will admit that the results are mixed and, one might argue, inconclusive — consider aspartame that has been researched more fully (see: Travis Saunders, Aspartame: Cause of or Solution to Obesity?; and Michael Joseph, Is Aspartame Safe Or Is It Bad For You?). But based on a familiarity with the available research, without more and better research, no sane and reasonable person would give artificial sweeteners a clean bill of health and proclaim them safe for general mass consumption, especially on a regular basis as a preferred flavoring. Whether or not artificial sweeteners cause weight gain, those might be the least of our worries, in terms of potential side effects seen in some of the studies. Some precautionary principle is in order.

Still, yes, it is hard to state a strong opinion about present evidence, beyond a note of caution. But every individual is free to dismiss such caution and use artificial sweeteners anyway. They might or might not be helpful in losing weight, even if used long enough might lead to detrimental outcomes in other areas of health. Maybe that risk seems worthwhile, assuming short-term weight loss is all that concerns you, and assuming that short-term use won’t lead to long-term use and won’t sabotage a long-term healthy diet. Individuals should make a decision with eyes wide open with the knowledge of potential risks that could be quite serious.

I understand. There are also potential benefits. For those addicted to sugar, they are dealing with a highly destructive substance. Artificial sweeteners may seem like the only choice. And who am I to judge. That is what I did. While transitioning off sugar, I spent a number of years consuming my fair share of laboratory-invented sweeteners. It did get me off sugar, but then all that happened was I was addicted to these other sweeteners. It maintained my sweet tooth and so encouraged me to continue eating a diet high in carbs and sugar. There was no obvious benefit. It did eventually lead me to give up all sweeteners. I just don’t know that the artificial sweeteners were more of a help or a hindrance in that process.

Whatever your decision, know that these substances aren’t without risks. It is dietary Russian roulette. Maybe there will be no serious harm and maybe there will. We shall all find out decades from now when the children and young adults raised on these chemicals reach older age. Here is my perspective. Why take any risk at all when it is completely unnecessary? We already know how to stop sugar cravings in their tracks. With a ketogenic diet, you won’t need to exchange addiction to sugar with an addiction to artificial sweeteners. It’s the simplest solution and, for such people, the only solution with a guaranteed net positive health outcome.

As a quick note, I’d point out a few things about the research. First, all sweeteners affect the body and so aren’t neutral substances, but it is unknown if the effects are a net benefit or net loss. Also, different sweeteners have different effects and the reason for this is not entirely understood. There are still other concerns.

The worst effects in animal studies were seen with high doses, which makes one wonder what is the effect of artificial sweeteners combined with the effect numerous other chemicals, additives, toxins, and pollutants, along with other physiological and environmental stressors that most people are exposed to, as the interaction of multiple factors is an area that mostly remains unexplored and, more importantly, rarely controlled for. And as far as I know, no study has ever been done with various sweeteners in relation to low-carb, zero-carb, and ketogenic diets; whereas most of the studies that have been done are using subjects on the severely unhealthy standard American diet, and so maybe for those people an artificial sweetener is better than the alternative of a high-sugar diet.

Basically, we are in a state of far greater ignorance than knowledge. It’s anyone’s guess. As always, you are taking your life into your own hands. Whatever a journalist, doctor, or health expert may say, it is in the end your life that is at stake, not theirs.

* * *

Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings
by Qing Yang

[C]onsensus from interventional studies suggests that artificial sweeteners do not help reduce weight when used alone [2,25]. BMI did not decrease after 25 weeks of substituting diet beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages in 103 adolescents in a randomized controlled trial, except among the heaviest participants [26]. Adouble blind study subjected 55 overweight youth to 13 weeks of a 1,000 Kcal diet accompanied by daily capsules of aspartame or lactose placebo. Both groups lost weight, and the difference was not significant. Weight loss was attributed to caloric restriction [27]. Similar results were reported for a 12-week, 1,500 Kcal program using either regular or diet soda [28]. Interestingly, when sugar was covertly switched to aspartame in a metabolic ward, a 25 percent immediate reduction in energy intake was achieved [29]. Conversely, knowingly ingesting aspartame was associated with increased overall energy intake, suggesting overcompensation for the expected caloric reduction [30]. Vigilant
monitoring, caloric restriction, and exercise were likely involved in the weight loss seen in multidisciplinary programs that included artificial sweeteners [31,32].

Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies
by Meghan B. Azad, Ahmed M. Abou-Setta, Bhupendrasinh F. Chauhan, Rasheda Rabbani, Justin Lys, Leslie Copstein, Amrinder Mann, Maya M. Jeyaraman, Ashleigh E. Reid, Michelle Fiander, Dylan S. MacKay, Jon McGavock, Brandy Wicklow, and Ryan Zarychanski

Evidence from small RCTs with short follow-up (median 6 mo) suggests that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners is not consistently associated with decreases in body weight, BMI or waist circumference. However, in larger prospective cohort studies with longer follow-up periods (median 10 yr), intake of nonnutritive sweeteners is significantly associated with modest long-term increases in each of these measures. Cohort studies further suggest that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners is associated with higher risks of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease events; however, publication bias was indicated for type 2 diabetes, and there are no data available from RCTs to confirm these observations.

Previous reviews12,65 concluded that, although data from RCTs support weight-loss effects from sustained nonnutritive sweetener interventions, observational studies provide inconsistent results. Building on these findings, we included new studies14–24 and found that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners was not generally associated with weight loss among participants in RCTs, except in long-term (≥ 12 mo) trials with industry sponsorship. In addition, we found that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners was associated with modest long-term weight gain in observational studies. Our results also extend previous meta-analyses that showed higher risks of type 2 diabetes32,33 and hypertension66 with regular consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners.

Sucralose decreases insulin sensitivity in healthy subjects: a randomized controlled trial
by Alonso Romo-Romo, Carlos A. Aguilar-Salinas, Griselda X. Brito-Córdova, Rita A. Gómez-Díaz, and Paloma Almeda-Valdes

We performed a randomized controlled trial involving healthy subjects without comorbidities and with a low habitual consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners (n = 33/group). […]

Individuals assigned to sucralose consumption showed a significant decrease in insulin sensitivity with a median (IQR) percentage change of −17.7% (−29.3% to −1.0%) in comparison to −2.8% (−30.7% to 40.6%) in the control group (P= 0.04). An increased acute insulin response to glucose from 577 mU · L-1· min (350–1040 mU · L-1· min) to 671 mU · L-1· min (376–1010 mU · L-1· min) (P = 0.04) was observed in the sucralose group for participants with adequate adherence.

Sucralose may have effects on glucose metabolism, and our study complements findings previously reported in other trials. Further studies are needed to confirm the decrease in insulin sensitivity and to explore the mechanisms for these metabolic alterations.

Neurobehavioral Effects of Aspartame Consumption
by Glenda N. Lindseth, Sonya E. Coolahan, Thomas V. Petros, and Paul D. Lindseth

Despite its widespread use, the artificial sweetener aspartame remains one of the most controversial food additives, due to mixed evidence on its neurobehavioral effects. Healthy adults who consumed a study-prepared high-aspartame diet (25 mg/kg body weight/day) for 8 days and a low-aspartame diet (10 mg/kg body weight/day) for 8 days, with a 2-week washout between the diets, were examined for within-subject differences in cognition, depression, mood, and headache. Measures included weight of foods consumed containing aspartame, mood and depression scales, and cognitive tests for working memory and spatial orientation. When consuming high-aspartame diets, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests. Aspartame consumption did not influence working memory. Given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level of 40–50 mg/kg body weight/day, careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health.

Artificial Sweeteners: A Systematic Review and Primer for Gastroenterologists
by Marisa Spencer, Amit Gupta, Lauren Van Dam, Carol Shannon, Stacy Menees, and William D Chey

Artificial sweeteners (AS) are ubiquitous in food and beverage products, yet little is known about their effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and whether they play a role in the development of GI symptoms, especially in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Utilizing the PubMed and Embase databases, we conducted a search for articles on individual AS and each of these terms: fermentation, absorption, and GI tract. Standard protocols for a systematic review were followed. At the end of our search, we found a total of 617 eligible papers, 26 of which were included. Overall, there is limited medical literature available on this topic. The 2 main areas on which there is data to suggest that AS affect the GI tract include motility and the gut microbiome, though human data is lacking, and most of the currently available data is derived from in vivo studies. The effect on motility is mainly indirect via increased incretin secretion, though the clinical relevance of this finding is unknown as the downstream effect on motility was not studied. The specific effects of AS on the microbiome have been conflicting and the available studies have been heterogeneous in terms of the population studied and both the AS and doses evaluated. Further research is needed to assess whether AS could be a potential cause of GI symptoms. This is especially pertinent in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a population in whom dietary interventions are routinely utilized as a management strategy.

Association between intake of non-sugar sweeteners and health outcomes: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials and observational studies
by Ingrid Toews, Szimonetta Lohner, Daniela Küllenberg de Gaudry, Harriet Sommer, Joerg J Meerpohl

In one randomised controlled trial,85 total cholesterol concentration decreased strongly in sucrose groups but increased in the aspartame group (mean difference 0.44 mmol/L, 95% confidence interval 0.33 to 0.56; n=45). […]

In one crossover non-randomised controlled trial,83 researchers found a significantly higher increase in blood glucose in children of preschool age receiving aspartame compared with sucrose (mean difference 0.24 mmol/L, 95% confidence interval 0.09 to 0.39; n=25), a significantly higher increase in blood glucose in children of school age receiving saccharin compared with sucrose (0.65 mmol/L, 0.44 to 0.86; n=23), and a significantly lower increase in blood glucose in children of preschool age receiving aspartame compared with saccharin (−0.75 mmol/L, −0.95 to −0.64; n=23, very low certainty of evidence). In overweight children involved in active weight loss, blood glucose decreased less strongly in those receiving NSSs compared with those not receiving NSSs (0.3 mmol/L, 0.2 to 0.4; n=49, very low certainty of evidence).

Systematic review of the relationship between artificial sweetener consumption and cancer in humans: analysis of 599,741 participants
by A. Mishra, K. Ahmed, S. Froghi, and P. Dasgupta

The statistical value of this review is limited by the heterogeneity and observational designs of the included studies. Although there is limited evidence to
suggest that heavy consumption may increase the risk of certain cancers, overall
the data presented are inconclusive as to any relationship between artificial sweeteners and cancer.

Evidence suggesting artificial sweeteners may be harmful should give us pause
by Leslie Beck

The study, a randomized controlled trial, investigated the effect of daily sucralose consumption on insulin sensitivity in 66 healthy, normal-weight adults who didn’t regularly use artificial sweeteners. […]

This finding is provocative because it suggests that regular consumption of sucralose can lead to insulin resistance in healthy, normal-weight people.

Sucralose may affect blood sugar control by activating sweet taste receptors in the gut, triggering the release of insulin. Artificial sweeteners are also thought to disrupt the balance of good gut bacteria in a direction that can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?
by Daniel Engber

Perhaps more to the point, researchers have tested the effects of diet soda on people trying to lose weight, and gotten positive results. A randomized, controlled trial published in May compared the efficacy of artificially sweetened beverages and water in a 12-week weight-loss program. Both treatment groups ended up with smaller waists, and the people taking diet drinks appeared to lose more weight. That study’s lead authors are consultants for Coca-Cola, so perhaps we shouldn’t take this as the final word. But another randomized trial from 2012, this one funded by a bottled-water company, came to a similar conclusion. When overweight and obese adults switched to diet beverages or water for a six-month stretch, both groups shed 1 inch of girth, on average, and 5 pounds.

Health outcomes of non-nutritive sweeteners: analysis of the research landscape
Szimonetta Lohner, Ingrid Toews, and Joerg J. Meerpoh

Finally, we included 372 studies in our scoping review, comprising 15 systematic reviews, 155 randomized controlled trials (RCTs), 23 non-randomized controlled trials, 57 cohort studies, 52 case-control studies, 28 cross sectional studies and 42 case series/case reports.

In healthy subjects, appetite and short term food intake, risk of cancer, risk of diabetes, risk of dental caries, weight gain and risk of obesity are the most investigated health outcomes. Overall there is no conclusive evidence for beneficial and harmful effects on those outcomes. Numerous health outcomes including headaches, depression, behavioral and cognitive effects, neurological effects, risk of preterm delivery, cardiovascular effects or risk of chronic kidney disease were investigated in fewer studies and further research is needed. In subjects with diabetes and hypertension, the evidence regarding health outcomes of NNS use is also inconsistent.

Early-Life Exposure to Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and the Developmental Origins of Childhood Obesity: Global Evidence from Human and Rodent Studies
by Alyssa J. Archibald, Vernon W. Dolinsky, and Meghan B. Azad

Non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) are increasingly consumed by children and pregnant women around the world, yet their long-term health impact is unclear. Here, we review an emerging body of evidence suggesting that early-life exposure to NNS may adversely affect body composition and cardio-metabolic health. Some observational studies suggest that children consuming NNS are at increased risk for obesity-related outcomes; however, others find no association or provide evidence of confounding. Fewer studies have examined prenatal NNS exposure, with mixed results from different analytical approaches. There is a paucity of RCTs evaluating NNS in children, yielding inconsistent results that can be difficult to interpret due to study design limitations (e.g., choice of comparator, multifaceted interventions). The majority of this research has been conducted in high-income countries. Some rodent studies demonstrate adverse metabolic effects from NNS, but most have used extreme doses that are not relevant to humans, and few have distinguished prenatal from postnatal exposure. Most studies focus on synthetic NNS in beverages, with few examining plant-derived NNS or NNS in foods. Overall, there is limited and inconsistent evidence regarding the impact of early-life NNS exposure on the developmental programming of obesity and cardio-metabolic health. Further research and mechanistic studies are needed to elucidate these effects and inform dietary recommendations for expectant mothers and children worldwide.

Noncaloric Sweeteners in Children: A Controversial Theme
by Samuel Durán Agüero, Lissé Angarita Dávila, Ma. Cristina Escobar Contreras, Diana Rojas Gómez, and Jorge de Assis Costa

On the other hand, three transversal studies, including 385 and 3311 children, showed positive association between the intakes of NCS and BMI [53]. Similar results were obtained with pregnant woman who ingested NCS, showing more probability of having babies with increased risk for later obesity or overweight. However, the limitation of the studies is that these were of observational type, and the findings do not necessarily imply a significant correlation between the intake of artificial sweeteners and weight gain [54, 55]. In a meta-analysis of intake of NCS that included 11.774 citations, 7 trials, 1003 participants, and 30 cohort studies (adults and adolescents) it was concluded that there is not enough evidence from randomized controlled trials to demonstrate the positive effect of NCS on controlling body weight. Findings of observational studies suggest that the continuous ingestion of NCS could be associated with BMI and cardiometabolic risk increase [56].

Diet Soda May Alter Our Gut Microbes And Raise The Risk Of Diabetes
by Allison Aubrey

While the findings are preliminary, the paper could begin to explain why studies of diet soda point in opposite directions.

“All of us have a microbiome” made up of trillions of organisms. “[It’s] extremely complex. Everybody’s microbiome is a little different,” Blaser says.

And the ways our microbiomes respond to what we eat can vary, too.

In the study, the Israeli researchers find that as mice and people started consuming artificial sweeteners, some types of bacteria got pushed out, and other types of bacteria began to proliferate.

It could be that for some people who responded negatively to the artificial sweetener, the bacteria that got crowded out were helping to keep glucose in check.

How it’s happening isn’t clear, and Blaser says a lot more research is needed.

“So that’s the next step,” Blaser says. “Firstly, for [researchers] to confirm this, to see if it’s really true.” And the next challenge is to understand the mechanism. “How does the change in the microbial composition — how is it causing this?”

Lots of researchers agree they’d like to see a large-scale study.

“It’s much too early, on the basis of this one study, [to conclude that] artificial sweeteners have negative impacts on humans’ [risk for diabetes],” says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado.

He points to a randomized controlled trial published in 2011 that found artificial sweeteners helped to limit the rise in blood sugar in a group of slightly overweight people, compared with sugar.

Hill also points to a study of people on the National Weight Control Registry that found successful long-term dieters tend to consume artificially sweetened foods and beverages at a higher rate compared with the general population.

So expect the debate over diet sodas to continue — and also anticipate hearing more about the role of our microbiomes.

Study links artificial sweeteners and weight gain
by Staff

Azad said what her team was most struck by was the lack of good, rigorous studies on artificial sweeteners.

“Surprisingly, given how common these products are, not many studies have looked at the long-term impact of their consumption,” Azad told CTV News Channel from Lisbon, Portugal.

She noted that only seven of the 37 studies they reviewed were randomized controlled trials (RCTs), and all were relatively short, following participants for a median period of only six months.

The other 30 studies were longer and followed the participants for an average of 10 years, but they were observational studies – a form of research that is not as precise as a controlled trial.

“A lot of the studies we found were observational, meaning they could show a link but they can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship,” she said.

Among the seven RCT’s, regular consumption of sweeteners had no significant effect on weight loss. From the other studies, the team found that regular use of sweeteners was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, and modest increases in weight and waist circumferences.

“What we found was that at the end of the day, from all of this research, there really wasn’t firm evidence of a long-term benefit of artificial sweeteners. And there was some evidence of long-term harm from long-term consumption,” Azad said.

As for why artificial sweeteners seem to be linked to weight gain, not weight loss, Azad says no one knows for sure but there are lots of theories.

One theory is that the sweeteners somehow disrupt healthy gut bacteria. Another theory is that the sweeteners confuse our metabolisms, causing them to overreact to sugary tastes.

It could be that those who regularly use artificial sweeteners over-compensate for the missed calories from sugar, or they could have otherwise unhealthy diets in conjunction with sweetener use.

Azad would like to see a lot more research on the long-term use of sweeteners, in particular studies that could compare the different sweeteners, to see if one is any better than another.

In the meantime, for those trying to cut down on their sugar consumption, Azad says it’s important not to switch from one harmful food item to another.

“I think the takeaway for Canadians at this point is to maybe think twice about whether you really want to be consuming these artificial sweeteners, particularly on an everyday basis,” Azad said, “because really we don’t have evidence to say for sure whether these are truly harmless alternatives to sugar.”

Another Way

Health is a longtime interest of mine. My focus has been on the relationship between mental health and physical health. The personal component of this is my depression as it has connected, specifically in the past, to my junk food addiction and lack of exercise at times. When severely depressed, there isn’t motivation to do much about one’s health. But if one doesn’t do anything about one’s health, the symptoms of depression get worse.

It’s for this reason that I’ve sought to understand health. I’ve tried many diets. A big thing for me was restricting refined sugar and simple carbs. It’s become clear to me that sugar, in particular, is one of the most addictive drugs around. It boosts your serotonin which makes you feel good, but then it drops your serotonin levels lower than before you ate the sugar. This creates an endless craving, once you get into the addictive cycle. On top of that, sugar is extremely harmful to your health in general, not only maybe resulting in diabetes but also suppressing your immune system.

Most addictive behavior, though, isn’t necessarily and primarily physical. The evidence shows that it’s largely based on social conditions. That has been shown with the rat park research, with inequality data, and with Portugal’s model of decriminalization and treatment. Humans, like rats, are social creatures. Those living in optimal social conditions have lower rates of addiction, even when drugs are easily available. I’m sure this same principle applies to food addictions as well. It also relates to other mental illnesses, which show higher rates in Western industrialized countries.

This occurred to me a while back while reading about the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted that they didn’t worry much about food. They ate food when it was there and they would eat it until it was gone, but they were fine when there was no food to eat. They live in an environment of great abundance. They don’t lack anything they need.

Yet it’s common for them to skip eating for a day because they have something better to do with their time, such as relaxing and socializing. Everett had seen Piraha individuals dance for several days straight with only occasional breaks and no food. Hunger didn’t seem to bother them because they knew at any moment they could go a short distance and find food. A few hours of a single person hunting, fishing, or gathering could feed the entire extended family for a day.

The same thing was seen with their sleep patterns. The Piraha rarely slept through the entire night. There were always people awake and talking. They didn’t worry about not getting enough sleep. They slept sporadically through the night and day, whenever they felt like it. According to Everett, the Piraha are a happy and relaxed people. They don’t seem to fear much, not even death, despite living in a dangerous environment. They have a low anxiety existence.

Modern Westerners also live amidst great abundance. But you wouldn’t know it from our behavior. We are constantly eating, as if we aren’t sure where our next meal is coming from. And we obsess over the idea of getting a full night’s rest. Our lives are driven by stress and anxiety. The average Westerner has a mindset of scarcity. We are constantly working, buying, consuming, and hoarding. The only time we typically relax is to escape all the stress and anxiety, by numbing ourselves with our addictions: food, sugar, alcohol, drugs, television, social media, etc.

That has been true of me. I’ve felt that constant background of unease. I’ve felt that addictive urge to escape. It’s not healthy. But it’s also not inevitable. We have chosen to create this kind of society. And we can choose to create a different one. Addiction makes us feel helpless, just as it makes us feel isolated. But we aren’t helpless.

As Thomas Paine wrote at the beginning of this country, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Imagine a society where we could be at peace with ourselves, where we could have a sense of trust that our needs will be taken care of, to know that there is enough abundance to go around. A world where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, and the poor lifted up. All of that is within our means. We know how to do it, if only we could imagine it. That would mean creating a new mindset, a new way of being in the world, a new way of relating.

* * *


I was thinking about a particular connection to addiction, mental illness, and other health problems. This is part of the isolation and loneliness of a hyper-individualistic society. But American society adds another dynamic to this in also being highly conformist — for various reasons: the entrenched class hierarchy, the strictly oppressive racial order, the history of religiosity, the propagandistic nature of national media, the harsh Social Darwinism of capitalist realism, etc.

Right before this post, I was writing about authoritarian libertarianism. There is a weird, secret link between the extremes of individualism and the extremes of collectivism. There is a long history of libertarians praising individualism while supporting the collectivism of authoritarians.

Many right-wing libertarians are in love with corporatism which was a foundation of fascism. Corporations are collective entities that are created by the public institution of government through the public system of corporate charters. A corporate charter, by government fiat, doles out special privileges and protections. Business often does well under big government, at least big business does.

This dynamic might seem strange, but it has a certain logic. Carl Jung called it enantiodromia. That is a fancy word for saying that things taken to their extreme tend to become or produce their opposite. The opposite is never eliminated, even if temporarily suppressed into the shadow and projected onto others. It’s a state where balance is lacking and so the imbalance eventually tips the other direction.

That is the nature of the oppositional paradigm of any dualistic ideology. That is seen in the perceived divide of mind (or spirit) and matter, and this leads to Cartesian anxiety. The opposition is false and so psychologically and socially unsustainable. This false ideology strains the psyche in the futile effort to maintain it.

This has everything to do with health, addiction, and all of that. This condition creates a divide within the human psyche, a divide within awarenesss and thought, perception and behavior. Then this divide plays out in the real world, easily causing dissociation of experience and splintering of the self. Addiction is one of the ways we attempt to deal with this, the repetitive seeking of reconnection that the can’t be satisfied, for addiction can’t replace the human bond. We don’t really want the drug, sugar, or work we are addicted to, even as it feels like the best substitute available to us or at least better than nothing. The addiction eases the discomfort, temporarily fills the emptiness.

It is worth noting that the Piraha have little apparent depression and no known incidents of suicide. I would see this as related to the tight-knit community they live within. The dogmatic dualism of individual vs collective would make no sense to them, as this dualism depends on a rigidly defended sense of identity that they don’t share with modern people. Their psychic boundaries are thinner and more open. Social hierarchy and permanent social positions are foreign to them. There is no government or corporations, not even a revered class of wise elders. Inequality and segregation, and disconnection and division are not part of their world.

You might argue that the Piraha society can’t be translated into lessons applicable to Western countries. I would argue otherwise. They are human like the rest of us. Nothing makes them special. That is probably how most humans once lived. It is in our nature, no matter how hidden it has become. Countries that have avoided or remedied the worst divides such as inequality have found that problems are far fewer and less severe. We may not be able or willing to live like the Piraha, but much of what their lifestyle demonstrates is relevant to our own.

This can be seen in the Western world. Lower inequality states in the US have lower rates of mental illness, obesity, teen pregnancies, homicides, suicide, etc as compared to higher inequality states. Countries with less segregated populations have greater societal trust and political moderation than countries with highly segregated populations. In modern societies, it might be impossible to eliminate inequality and segregation, but we certainly can lessen them far below present conditions. And countries have shown when social conditions are made healthy the people living there are also more healthy.

The world of the Piraha isn’t so distant from our own. We’ve just forgotten our own history. From Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich discusses how depression becomes an increasing issue in texts over the centuries. If you go far back enough, anything akin to depression is rarely mentioned.

She puts this in the context of the loss of community, of communal lifestyle and experience. During feudal times, people lived cheek to jowl, almost never alone. As family and neighbors, they lived together, ate together, worked together, worshipped together, and like the Piraha they would wake up together in the night. They also celebrated and danced together. Festivals and holy days were a regular occurrence. This is because most of the work they did was seasonal, but even during the main work season they constantly put on communal events.

Like the Piraha, they worked to live, not lived to work. Early feudal villages were more like tribal villages than they were like modern towns. And early feudal lords very much lived among the people, even joining in their celebrations. For example, during a festival, a feudal lord might be seen wrestling a blacksmith or even playing along with role reversal. The feudal identity hadn’t yet solidified into modern individuality with its well partitioned social roles. That is partly just the way small-scale subsistence lifestyles operate, but obviously there is more going on than that. This involved the entire order and impacted every aspect of life.

Let’s consider again Paine’s suggestion that we begin over again. This was stated in the context of revolution, but revolution was understood differently at the time. It implied a return to what came before. He wasn’t only speaking to what might be gained for he had a clear sense of what had been lost. The last remnants of feudalism continued into the post-revolutionary world, even as they were disappearing quickly. Paine hoped to save, re-create, or somehow compensate for what was being lost. A major concern was inequality, as the commons were stolen and the public good was eroded.

Even though it wasn’t how it typically would’ve been framed at the time, the focus in this was public health. Paine on occasion did use the metaphor of health and sickness — such as when he wrote, “That the king is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.” The monarchy wasn’t just about the ruler but about the whole social order that was ruled over, along with its attendant inequality of wealth and power. The sickness was systemic. As with the human body, the body politic could become sick and so it could also be healed.

It never occurred to the American revolutionaries that the problems they faced should be blamed on isolated individuals. It wasn’t limited to a few malcontents. A growing unease spread across colonial society. Even as we think of our society having progressed much over the centuries, we can’t shake the mood of anxiety that continues to spread. Surrounded by abundance and with greater healthcare than our ancestors could have dreamed of, we manage to lead immensely unhealthy and unhappy lives. We are never fully content nor feel like we like we fully belong.

As individuals, we hunger for our next fix. And as a society, we are rapacious and ravenous toward the world, as if our bountiful wealth and resources are never enough. Early colonial trade was strongly motivated by the demand for sugar and now we find present neo-colonial globalization being driven by the demand for oil. Sugar and oil, along with much else, have been the fuel of restless modernity. It’s an addictive social order.

The corrupt old order may have ended. But the disease is still with us and worsening. It’s going to require strong medicine.