One of the things they teach you about early in medical school is how food is metabolized. Calories you ingest in the form of food get broken down by enzymes based on the type of food (carbs, fat, or protein), and then absorbed through the rich blood vessel system in the gut into the bloodstream and ultimately different cells in the body.

But what happens to no-calorie foods like artificial sweeteners? How do Splenda, Equal, Sweet&Low, etc. get metabolized by the body? The default assumption is that these chemicals have no calories, therefore don’t get absorbed, and therefore have no influence on the body.

In reality, these chemicals have carcinogenic and toxic effects that we don’t completely understand at this point. What many people don’t know is the reason they are not well studied is because no one stands to profit from such studies if they were to show unfavorable results. And so it’s difficult to get funding for large safety trials to gauge true long-term effects.

What we do know is that artificial sweeteners trick the body. They fool your body into thinking that you have ingested glucose, or regular sugar. So, you get the same insulin spike (the hormone that regulates sugar metabolism and is deregulated in Type II diabetes) through Splenda as you do through sugar. This ultimately promotes hunger and increased calorie intake.

In addition to your stomach not being able to differentiate artificial sweetener from sugar, what’s scarier is that your brain is unable to distinguish between the two either. Normally, before anything can get from your bloodstream to your brain, it gets filtered extensively, so only “good molecules” like glucose (which your brain cells need to function) can get through. The blood brain barrier cannot tell the difference between a Splenda molecule and a sugar molecule – so these chemicals get into brain cells, are broken down, and are deposited there. Who knows what the long term effects of this are on brain functioning and health?

Short term side effects of artificial sweeteners can include anxiety, muscle aches, nausea, foggy thinking, and fatigue. Although these are very non-specific symptoms, I personally noticed that my energy level and clarity visibly improved after cutting back on diet coke and the Equal I was putting in my coffee throughout the day.

Now, I have given up all foods and drinks with artificial sweeteners completely, and although I definitely miss my afternoon diet soda fix, my body is already starting to thank me.