A quiet revolution in how we understand the gut has happened since we have been able to map the full diversity of the bugs that live inside us. One recent finding reported in the New York Times is that, while we don’t digest artificial sweeteners, our gut bugs can.
Great, we might think. Calories for my gut bugs but not for my hips.
Except that the kind of bugs that are growing are not the kind we’d like to have growing. We like bugs like lacto- and bifido- bacteria, the smiling junior high kids that make up most of the bugs in yogurt. Instead, we’re growing the delinquent bugs like clostridium difficile, a bacterial cousin to tetanus and botulism. Not only that, artificial sweeteners seem to grow the most depraved delinquents of a bad bunch.
How bad? Following the NYT article back to the study in Nature, mice who had the worst bugs died at three times the rate as other mice. Both sugar and the artificial sweetener trehalose caused the growth of the really bad version of C. difficile. Different artificial sweeteners might vary in their effect because they contain different sugars.
The take home for patients in a hospital setting who’ve been diagnosed with C. difficile is to not get the sugar-free dessert. Better to skip dessert altogether. C. difficile causes half a million illnesses a year in the U.S., and 29,000 people die. That reflects a five-fold increase and puts C. difficile deaths equal to the number of deaths we have from influenza in an average year.
But the bigger picture for all of us is that we cannot predict what our guts will do with what we dump down onto them. None of us have the same gut bacteria, we are literally a unique rain forest habitat within ourselves. For more on this, have a look at my book, Tending Your Internal Garden, which quickly and humorously covers just how amazing we are inside.
If we think for a moment about how our gut bacteria deal with artificial sweeteners, think about what those same bacteria might be doing with your medications? No studies yet exist on gut bacteria and common drugs, but I’m betting our gut bugs make a huge difference in how well our drugs work for or against us. At this point, we know one in four drugs likely slows the growth of one or more of our own bacteria, so they are definitely interacting.