The Serious Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

artificial sweeteners

We’ve already done a deep dive into how sugar impacts your health, and the verdict on that one is pretty clear (spoiler alert: it’s bad). So those of us with a sweet tooth might naturally turn to artificial sweeteners, which give you that sugary flavor without any of the sugar or calories. But are the effects of artificial sweeteners on the body and your weight any better than those of sugar? In this guide, we’ll answer that question, exploring the types of artificial sweeteners, the side effects of artificial sweeteners, the link between artificial sweeteners and diabetes, and more.

You can listen to an audio version of this guide on The WellBe Podcast.

Types of Artificial Sweeteners

As the name suggests, artificial sweeteners are substances that add sweetness to food or drink with a whole bunch of chemicals, rather than sugar itself. They generally have zero calories and, of course, zero grams of sugar. Because many Americans want to cut down on sugar without actually changing their diets significantly, the artificial sweetener industry is huge, and there are lots of different kinds to choose from.

Here are the most common brands and types of artificial sweeteners you’ll see:

  • Saccharin: This is the ingredient used in the brand Sweet’N Low. It is made from the chemicals o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride in a lab and is 300-400 times as sweet as sucrose (sugar), and can have a metallic aftertaste.
  • Aspartame: This is the ingredient used in the brand Equal. It consists of the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and is 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
  • Sucralose: This is the ingredient used in the brand Splenda. It is made of sucrose that has been chlorinated, and it is 320-1,000 times sweeter than sucrose. 
  • Stevia: Stevia is a plant-based artificial sweetener that is used in various brands. It is derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana and is 30-150 times sweeter than sucrose.

There are other types of artificial sweeteners that you’ll see on the market (you’ll know it’s an artificial sweetener because it’s marketed as being zero calories or containing zero sugar), but the four above are the most common.

Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

So you get a kick of sweetness without any extra calories or any of the negative effects of sugar — win-win, right? Not so fast. Unfortunately, the list of side effects from artificial sweeteners is long. This makes sense, given that artificial sweeteners are made of chemicals in a lab, which are not things that your body recognizes or knows what to do with. The specific side effects of artificial sweeteners vary from brand to brand, but here’s a rundown:

  • Increased appetite: While many people turn to artificial sweeteners to lose weight, they can actually have the opposite effect, as studies have shown that artificially sweetened food and drink can leave people feeling hungrier and craving sugar. This may be because they confuse your brain with a sweet taste but lack of calories. Increased appetite is a health risk because it can lead to overeating, which can in turn lead excessive weight gain or obesity, both of which increase risk of diabetes among other health issues. 
  • Cancer risk. There’s an ongoing debate on whether or not artificial sweeteners can increase your risk of developing cancer, with different studies coming to different conclusions: However, given that at least one study has associated saccharine with bladder cancer, we think that’s reason enough to steer clear. 
  • Depression: Research suggests that the sweetener aspartame can cause depression in some people, especially those with pre-existing mood disorders. 
  • Headaches: Several studies have shown that aspartame can cause headaches in some people, with those who suffer from migraines more susceptible. 

One of the other serious side effects of artificial sweeteners is their impact on your gut health, which in turn can increase diabetes risk. We’ll explore this one more closely. 

The Relationship Between Artificial Sweeteners, the Gut, and Diabetes Risk 

People with diabetes often turn to artificial sweeteners to get the taste of sweeteners without throwing their insulin levels out of whack. Doing this has its own health risks, which we outlined above, but the real issue here is for those who don’t have diabetes yet: ironically, for those without diabetes, using artificial sweeteners can actually increase the risk of developing the condition. 

To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand how artificial sweeteners impact gut health. “A study came out that was pretty profound and was a big splash in the media, showing that artificial sweeteners actually destroy and injure the microbiome,” says Dr. Gerard Mullin, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the study, researchers found that artificial sweeteners disrupted gut bacteria balance in healthy participants who weren’t used to consuming artificial sweeteners. This is a big deal, since the makeup of our gut bacteria is what informs our gut health, and our gut health impacts basically every system in our body. 

In the case of artificial sweeteners, the shift in gut bacteria seems to make it far likelier that a person will develop diabetes. In the study, those whose gut bacteria had changed showed poorer blood sugar control just five days after consuming the artificial sweetener. In another study out of Europe, researchers found that chronic consumption of artificial sweeteners increased their risk of type 2 diabetes, regardless of other risk factors. 

This is also true in non-humans, with one study showing that mice who consume artificial sweeteners are at higher risk for developing diabetes. “In animals, they can actually induce diabetes just by the shifts in the microbiome that are performed with artificial sweeteners,” says Dr. Mullin. 

For those who are already diabetic, Dr. Mullin concedes that sometimes an artificial sweetener is the right choice if a person is struggling to control their blood glucose levels through other lifestyle changes. “For the person who’s stuck and needs to find a way to make some swaps, I encourage stevia,” says Dr. Mullin. 

While stevia is certainly not side effect-free, Dr. Mullin explains that it doesn’t have the known deleterious effect on the gut microbiome, and it’s certainly a better choice for diabetics than synthetic sweeteners, like aspartame. “Aspartame has been clearly shown in animals to be diabetogenic, which is a catch-22 because they’re diabetic already and they’re taking things to improve their diabetes and lessen their sugar load, but they’re making their diabetes worse because their microbiome is taking a hit,” says Dr. Mullin.  

Of course, the best way for diabetics to reduce their sugar load and to manage diabetes is to choose natural, whole, low-sugar foods, and stay away from processed foods with added sugars. A more natural artificial sweetener like stevia can be a good temporary option to help someone get things under control, but the real answer path to health comes with implementing sustainable lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, many practitioners who treat diabetic patients are not communicating that message. 

Perpetuating the Artificial Sweetener Myth

While the research exists on the side effects of artificial sweeteners and their negative impact on gut health and diabetes risk, there is a disconnect between that research and doctors, and between doctors and patients. 

“Who’s going to really elucidate this type of information? Most of the doctors aren’t very aware of it and would say it’s all about calories in/calories out, it’s all about energy, drink diet soda by the gallon,” says Dr. Mullin. “Some people actually do, and it’s a shame because they ultimately gain more weight because of what they’re doing to themselves.”   

The answer here is for doctors to become more educated on the long-term effects of these fake sweeteners, and pass that education onto their patients. Unfortunately, in our quick-fix medical culture, this isn’t generally the approach. Artificial sweeteners offer an easy, affordable way for people to feel like they can be healthy without making any sacrifices — but the research indicates that that’s not really the case.

More research is needed on the topic, as well as more coverage of the research to bring awareness to the issue. However, Dr. Mullin points out that with any forthcoming studies, we should be wary of the source. “There’s more and more data coming out about the effect of artificial sweeteners,” he says. “But there’ll be some studies that contradict that, which will be well-funded, and then others aren’t, so it confuses the masses.” 

By well-funded, we believe Dr. Mullin is talking about studies paid for by the sugar or soda lobby, with skewed data. This is a common move from large food industries (like sugar, snack, alcohol, meat, or dairy) to confuse people after research is published showing the products they sell can be harmful to human health. 

Conclusion: The Sweet & Low-Down on Artificial Sweeteners

There are a lot of different types of artificial sweeteners, and a lot of contradictory information on how they impact your health. Here’s what you need to remember on the topic:

  • Artificial sweeteners are a class of substances that create a sweet taste without any calories or sugar. Most are derived from chemicals in a lab, but some (like stevia) come from plants. 
  • The most common types of artificial sweeteners in the United States are: saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and stevia. 
  • While artificial sweeteners lack many of the negative health effects of sugar, they have their own set of issues. The side effects of artificial sweeteners include: headache, depression, increased risk of cancer, and weight gain due to increased appetite, as well as the two issues below (impact on gut health and increased diabetes risk). 
  • Research has shown that artificial sweeteners significantly alter the makeup of bacteria in the gut microbiome, which hurts your gut health. 
  • One of the impacts of this altered microbiome is poorer blood sugar control, which in turn increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Many doctors are not aware of the health risks of artificial sweeteners and so do not communicate that risk to patients. Additionally, studies funded by vested interests may emerge that allegedly “prove” the safeness of artificial sweeteners.
  • Instead of sugar or an artificial sweetener, try a healthier sweetener like honey or real maple syrup . To find out if the sweetener you’re using is WellBe-approved (and get product and brand recommendations if it’s not) write to us through the WellBe Holistic Health Concierge!

At the end of the day, remember that if anything seems too good to be true, it is. The best way to reduce your sugar consumption is to wean yourself off of sweet things, pure and simple. If you are having sugar cravings, it is likely an imbalance in your gut of bad microbes that are doing the craving, not you! The only way to stop cravings is to not give into them, or to slowly reduce your consumption until the cravings are gone. If you are going to have some sugar, make it a healthier sugar like the options above, have just a tiny bit, savor it, and make it just a rare treat!

Have you experienced the side effects of artificial sweeteners firsthand? Share your story in the comments below.



  1. Suez, J. et al. Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota. Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521):181-6.
  2. Fagherazzi, G. et al. Chronic Consumption of Artificial Sweetener in Packets or Tablets and Type 2 Diabetes Risk: Evidence From the E3N-European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition Study. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70(1):51-58.
  3. Hoffman, B. et al. The Influence of Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners on Vascular Health during the Onset and Progression of Diabetes. Experimental Biology, 2018. 
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  1. I have ben using Equal for several years im experiencing stomach pains with some vomiting. I can’t find anyone to help me as I’m new to this state I live in.

  2. Thanks for addressing this topic. I have been told to eliminate all sugars and artificial sweeteners by my weight management nurse. I am facing constant wishes for my Splenda sweetened drinks. So I googled effects of artificial sweeteners because I need some hard data to cooperate with this change.  Came up with this article (among others). This gives me some more points of inquiry to help my resolve. Also, I am interested in glucose control and maple syrup and honey. God has placed sweetness in foods and it seems like a shame to paint fruits and honey with the same brush as pastries and white bread. I am intending to read the bibliography and delve deeper into this. Also, having been trained in clinical microbiology, I am very interested in the specific changes to the microbiome. Are bacteria metabolizing these substances? Looking forward to seeing more research!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing you insight with us, Jennie! This is definitely a topic that warrants additional research and understanding, especially when it comes to the gut microbiome. And what great training to equip you to dive deeper into this topic! Xx Adrienne and Team WellBe

  3. Have you noticed a huge increase in vertigo?  I   am among those who suffered from it for several years, seeking treatment from physical therapists, and other experts in the field, and not finding permanent relief from the dreaded dizziness. Finally, a friend from Brazil said she also had vertigo, and gave up sweeteners like stevia, and that permanently solved my problem. I had been using stevia and other sugar substitutes everyday, thinking it was better than sugar. Now I read your article that artificial sweeteners are made from chemicals!!!  Duh!!  Wallah!  Problem solved!  I got rid of all artificial sweeteners, and no longer  have the dreaded vertigo!  I hope this will help others who’s lives suffered from vertigo, trying everything possible to get rid of it, and there it was, staring me in the face everday with no relief!!

    1. Hi Kay! Thanks so much for sharing and we are glad to hear that you were able to figure out the root cause of your vertigo! It’s so interesting how the body has so many different ways to tell us that something is not right, vertigo being one. Xx Team WellBe

  4. I have stayed clear of sweetners for 40 years after I discovered they gave me migraines I now find that nearly all fizzy drinks have sweetners eg sprite vimpto fanta the whole range so now I just have cocacola hopefully they won’t introduce sweetners to this

  5. Articial sweeteners cause me almost immediate abdominal pain then loose stools/diarrhoea for some hours.
    Hospitals use artificial sweeteners unlabelled in custards and puddings etc
    My diet while in hospital was reduced.Surely hospital dieticians should be more aware.I can’t be the only person severely affected.

  6. I’m suffering from gastritis (caused by taking methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis) but have found I can’t eat things with artificial sweeteners in them.  It causes reflux and excessive mucus in my mouth.  Trouble is, how do you know where these sweeteners are used?  I find toothpaste is awful and sets me off, (I didn’t expect that) but also fruit juices, most cakes and bread, sweets of course, etc etc.   I know to look at the labels, but somethings have sweeteners added that I would think we’re ok!  It’s very confusing!  Anyone else come across this? 

    1. Thank you for sharing, Marian, and we are so sorry to hear about your RA and the challenges it brings when it comes to artificial sweeteners! It definitely can be confusing and so frustrating, especially because there are so many different names for sweeteners that can appear in the ingredient lists. Hoping you are able to find products and foods that do not cause symptoms!! Xx Team WellBe

  7. I get confused sometimes – so is monk fruit better than stevia? I read an article on Healthline that said stevia is natural (via plant) but it’s then highly processed after. A naturopathic nutritionist told me that monk fruit isn’t kind on the gut. I’m looking specifically for a protein powder that does not include gums, it’s clean and not much (if any ) sugar but a lot have stevia and/or monk fruit. None with honey! Any recommendations?

  8. Hi
    I have been suffering with allergies, terrible red hives on both sides of my face , all my food is gluten and wheat free ,lactose free and I have also stopped eating eggs and milk , and I still have the problem , today I will stop having sweeteners and hope that is the problem , its not life covering your face because of embarrassment.

    1. We are so sorry to hear of your struggles!! We hope that GetWellBe has provided you with resources and knowledge to help aid you on your journey to wellness. Hang in there! <3

  9. Today I had a bowl of watermelon cut at the store. It had a strange aftertaste that was familiar from having tasted my daughter’s sugar free soda. I am guessing that the watermelon from which my cut melon came, was one of those injected with colour and sweetener. Well, within a short time after having the melon chunks, I suddenly felt dizzy, became nauseated and I felt like I was drugged. I laid down and waited out til I felt better. Now, hours later, I have cramps and terrible gas and my intestines are gurging. I had looked up side effects while I was laying down this afternoon. I went back to your web site and found the part of persons not used to artificial sweeteners and thought to share my findings of today. I am going to have my watermelon tested to find what “they” put into it. I am done with common watermelon and will buy at a natural products seller. Until I read all the responses on your website I felt like I was getting paranoid. So I am relieved to know others have had issues similar to mine. 

    1. Hello Helga. I’m sorry you experienced that but glad that you were able to find some clues as to why you were reacting on our website. I hope you were able to figure out what the issue was! xx Team WellBe

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