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There’s no denying that people love their sweets. From candy to cakes, cookies to soda, sugary treats have long been a staple of many people’s diets. 

However, as the low-carb and sugar-free movements have gained popularity in recent years, many people have turned to artificial sweeteners like sucralose to satisfy their sweet tooth without the negative health effects associated with sugar.

But what if we were to tell you that there’s a growing concern that sucralose, one of the most popular artificial sweeteners, may be linked to a devastating neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s?

In this article, we’ll explore the latest research on the potential link between sucralose and Alzheimer’s disease, and what it could mean for your health. 

But first, let’s understand some basics about Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

human brain
Image Credit: scitechdaily.com

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder characterized by a decline in cognitive function, memory loss, and behavioral changes. 

It is the most common form of dementia, affecting millions of people worldwide, particularly in older age. 

The disease is characterized by the buildup of two types of proteins in the brain: beta-amyloid and tau.

These proteins form sticky clumps called plaques and tangles that damage brain cells and disrupt communication between them. 

Over time, this damage can lead to the death of brain cells and the loss of brain tissue.

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can vary from person to person and may include difficulty remembering recent events, learning new information, and performing daily tasks. 

As the disease progresses, individuals may experience confusion, disorientation, and difficulty with communication, language, and problem-solving. 

They may also exhibit changes in mood, personality, and behavior, such as agitation, aggression, and depression.

While age is a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s, the exact mechanisms behind the disease’s onset and progression still remain complex.

Researchers have explored various factors that may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, including genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices, and environmental influences. 

However, despite extensive investigations, no definitive cause, other than genetics, has been established with absolute certainty for Alzheimer’s. 

One potential contributor to the development of Alzheimer’s that has gained attention in recent years is sugar. Let’s explore some of the dangers of sugar and how it may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s.

Dangers of Sugar

In the modern era, sugar has become a pervasive part of the Western diet, with Americans consuming an average of around 140 pounds of sugar each year. 

This often takes the form of refined sugar, a substance that is 99% pure calories and devoid of essential nutrients. 

The consumption of refined sugar initiates a series of events in the body, causing blood sugar levels to rapidly rise and prompting the release of insulin. 

However, the subsequent drop in blood sugar leads to cravings for more sugar, creating a cycle of dependence akin to the cravings experienced by those addicted to substances.

Beyond the issue of addiction, refined sugar has been implicated in various health concerns, including inflammation, erratic brain cell firing, depression, and a decline in cognitive abilities. 

Brain imaging studies have revealed that sugar can lead to increased “slow brain waves,” and many studies have shown that sugar consumption can impact memory and learning.

Furthermore, studies have linked higher intake of sugary beverages to markers of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. 

Research indicates that heightened sugar intake and elevated blood glucose can contribute to the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain, a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

To avoid the risks associated with sugar, many individuals turn to artificial sweeteners as an alternative. However, artificial sweeteners come with their own set of problems.

Usage and Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, often referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners (NSS), have gained popularity as sugar substitutes due to their ability to mimic the taste of sugar without the added calories. 

Widely used in various products such as diet sodas, sugar-free gum, and low-calorie desserts, these synthetic compounds are designed to provide sweetness without the drawbacks of traditional sugars.

In May 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued updated guidance discouraging the use of non-sugar sweeteners

The recommendation was based on a systematic review of available evidence, indicating that the long-term use of NSS does not provide substantial benefits in reducing body fat for adults or children. 

Moreover, the review suggested a potential increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.

Beyond these concerns, artificial sweeteners have also been implicated in negative effects on memory and cognitive function. 

One of the most widely used artificial sweeteners is sucralose, also known as Splenda. Let’s see what the research has to say about the effects of sucralose on memory and cognition.

What is Sucralose?

Sucralose is an artificial sweetener used widely in foods and beverages worldwide. 

Through a patented process, sucralose molecules are structurally modified from sugar (sucrose) by replacing three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three chlorine atoms.

This chemical alteration makes sucralose 600 times sweeter than sugar. As a result, just 1/600th the amount of sucralose is needed compared to sugar to achieve equivalent sweetness. 

This low-calorie property makes it an appealing sugar substitute.

Discovered through collaborative research between Tate & Lyle and Queen Elizabeth College London, sucralose underwent extensive safety testing before gaining regulatory approvals in the 1980s. 

Unlike sugar, sucralose is not readily metabolized by the body. Not being absorbed or providing calories, sucralose poses less risk for blood sugar spikes in conditions like diabetes. 

This is a key reason why it is commonly added to foods and drinks marketed as low-calorie or sugar-free options. 

However, some emerging research has raised questions about its effects in the body that warrant further exploration.

What Happens When You Consume Sucralose?

When sucralose is ingested, it was long believed that the chlorinated molecule passes through the digestive system unchanged, as human bodies lack the ability to break it down. 

However, recent research has challenged this assumption.

Some studies show that under certain conditions in the gut, sucralose can be transformed by intestinal bacteria into a compound called sucralose-6-acetate, which has raised health concerns. 

Researchers have found that sucralose-6-acetate damages DNA when exposed to human blood cells in vitro. 

This molecule activates genes linked to inflammation, oxidative stress, and cancer when applied to human intestinal tissue.

Furthermore, both sucralose-6-acetate and pure sucralose can disrupt tight junctions between gut cells that normally form a protective barrier. 

This can cause “leakiness” of the intestinal wall and allow unwanted molecules to pass into the bloodstream, provoking inflammatory conditions like IBD, liver disease, and possibly neurological disorders over time.

Can Sucralose Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

sugars
Image Credit: everydayhealth.com

Although there is limited specific research on the direct link between sucralose and Alzheimer’s disease, artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, have been extensively associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

For instance, one longitudinal study spanned from 1971 to its publication in 2017, involving 5124 volunteers. 

This study revealed a connection between a higher intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and an increased risk of ischemic stroke, all-cause dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease dementia.

Sucralose, in particular, has also been implicated in memory loss and cognitive deficits. 

For example, a research study published in 2022 examined the effects of sugar, sucralose, and stevia.

It found that sucralose had adverse effects on overall memory, encoding memory, and executive functions such as judgment.

Animal studies have also supported these findings, linking artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, to memory loss. 

While it’s important to note that a definitive causal relationship between sucralose and Alzheimer’s has not been established, the available evidence strongly suggests that sucralose can have a negative impact on cognitive function and memory, potentially causing dementia

What is a Better Choice: Sugar or Sucralose?

The debate over sugar versus sucralose in terms of their impact on cognitive health raises concerns about both options. 

Both sugar and artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, have been associated with cognitive problems, dementia, and potential links to Alzheimer’s disease.

However, among sugar substitutes, stevia emerges as a natural and potentially healthier alternative. 

Derived from the leaves of a plant, stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar but doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. 

Some scientific studies suggest that stevia may have additional benefits, such as stabilizing blood sugar levels, improving glucose tolerance, and reducing blood pressure. 

A 2022 study comparing the cognitive effects of sugar, sucralose, and stevia found that stevia had a neutral impact, with no significant differences in neuropsychological or qEEG testing results before and after consumption. 

In contrast, both sugar and sucralose were associated with increased daydreaming brain waves on qEEG

Considering these findings, when seeking a sweetener that minimizes potential harm to the brain and body, stevia appears to be a preferable choice.

Reducing the Intake of Sweets

While stevia may emerge as a better alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners, it’s important to emphasize the significance of moderation in sweet consumption. 

Even with a seemingly healthier option, excessive intake of sweets, whether sugar or substitutes, can have adverse effects on overall health.

Here are some practical tips to reduce sweets intake:

1. Gradual Reduction: Instead of opting for drastic changes, consider gradually reducing the amount of sugar and sweeteners in your diet. This approach allows your taste buds to adjust over time.

2. Read Labels: Be mindful of hidden sugars in processed foods. Check nutritional labels for ingredients like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweetening agents. Opt for products with lower sugar content.

3. Natural Sweetness: Embrace the natural sweetness found in fruits. Fresh fruits can satisfy your sweet cravings while providing essential vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.

4. Mindful Eating: Consider portion sizes and savor each bite mindfully. This practice can enhance your appreciation for flavors and help prevent overindulgence.

5. Home Cooking: Prepare meals at home whenever possible, allowing you to have better control over the ingredients and sweetness levels in your dishes.

6 Healthy Snacking: Opt for nutritious snacks that are low in added sugars. Nuts, seeds, and yogurt with fresh fruits can be satisfying alternatives to sugary snacks.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while direct studies on sucralose and Alzheimer’s are limited, the collective research on artificial sweeteners hints at adverse effects on memory and cognitive functions. 

The prudent approach is to exercise caution in the consumption of sugar substitutes and prioritize natural alternatives like stevia. 

This caution also extends to overall sugar intake, emphasizing the need for moderation and a balanced lifestyle to safeguard long-term brain health.

FAQ’s:

1. How does Alzheimer’s affect the brain?

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, leading to the gradual loss of cognitive function and memory.

2. Is there a safe level of sucralose consumption?

Determining a universally safe level is challenging. Individuals may react differently to sweeteners, and factors like overall diet and health should be considered. 

3. Are there other lifestyle factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s?

Yes, several lifestyle factors, including diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress management, play roles in cognitive health.
Maintaining a holistic approach to well-being is essential.

4. Can sucralose affect other aspects of health?

Yes, sucralose has also been associated with potential adverse effects, including disruptions in gut microbiota and metabolic changes. 

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