Jun 112012
 

In 2008 I started having bouts of fatigue and brain fog. The brain fog became so bad that I stopped reading and writing. I simply couldn’t maintain my thoughts from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes I’d feel better for a while, but it never lasted.

The fatigue increased over the years, along with body aches and back pains. After a few years of this I started getting full-on dizzy spells. A few times on work gigs I felt so groggy and out-of-it I feared my clients would think I was stoned.

From the start I thought it was digestive. At the same time the brain fog started the Lactase enzyme pills I took to avoid headaches when I consumed uncultured dairy stopped working. My digestion had become very sluggish. I would often get a sharp stabbing pain just under my right ribs.

I went to the doctor and explained that it felt like I had the flu without the fever, or like I was intoxicated.  At my request, he sent me to a gastroenterologist. The man knocked me out and did the old tube inspections from above and below and declared it was not a digestive issue. Move on boy. Stop bothering me with your imagined digestive problems. I looked at the surface of your emptied guts and it all looks fine to me, so your symptoms must be in your mind. By the way, there’s no such thing as food intolerance. There’s no such thing as gluten intolerance., that’s all just mass hysteria, including all the science behind it. Lactose intolerance can’t cause headaches, so that’s also psychosomatic. Stomach aches, the sluggish digestion, the fatigue and headaches? All psychosomatic.

My primary physician retired soon after all this started. He handed his practice over to another doctor. After a year or so with the new guy, I decided his temperament just wasn’t a good match for me. I found myself another new primary physician. Over those years all three doctors said my blood tests showed I was healthy. All three stated that lactose intolerance didn’t cause headaches, so the headaches must have been tension headaches, even though I got them only when I ate dairy. I was frequently grilled about drug and alcohol use, and then ironically would be prescribed addictive narcotics as pain relievers. All three said I was perfectly healthy and my symptoms were psychosomatic.

With the new doctor I asked to see a different gastroenterologist. The moment I sat down with this new guy, without any real discussion, as he spent the entire time on the phone discussing another case, the doctor said I was fine and my symptoms were psychosomatic and to go home. Apparently there were notes in my medical record from the previous gastroenterologist, so I was on my own.

In the middle of December of 2011 things took a turn for the worse. I started having fairly non-stop intense headaches. The grogginess increased. The brain fog doubled. I felt jittery and anxious. It was my prior symptoms multiplied by ten. Luckily I was about to have a breakthrough.

A few week after the headaches started I developed a numbness in my right foot. I went to a podiatrist first. He said this symptom was typically found in alcoholics. I went to my primary physician. He once again prescribed narcotics to calm my nerves, as the gastroenterologist had informed him the symptoms were psychosomatic. I talk to a neurologist just in case, who said it sounded like alcoholism or toxic neuropathy. The fatigue and joint pains increased.

After six weeks of nearly daily headaches and other body pains I started a Pain Log. Every day I wrote down a short description of all the pain I was in along with trying to define how bad it felt. By the end of a month every day had some notes. Doing this helped me focus on each day: how stressed I felt, what I was eating, what the weather was like, etc. The hope was that something would jump out as a trigger. While snacking on a square of chocolate, I suddenly had a realization. It got so much worse in December. I’d ordered a big batch of these chocolate bars off Amazon at the beginning of December. I’d been having little pieces fairly regularly. I bought them because I was keeping low sugar to keep my triglycerides down. They were milk free, gluten-free, 70% dark, and sweetened with Stevia. They should have been innocuous. I examined the ingredients more closely, only to realize these bars had not been sweetened with Stevia like it claimed on the front, but instead were primarily sweetened with Erythritol and Inulin. Only the very last ingredient was a highly processed ingredient derived from Stevia.

Erythritol is a fermented corn sugar. The body cannot digest it, so it is sold as a low calorie sweetener. I get headaches from Lactose, why not another indigestible sugar? Inulin FOS is a prebiotic. It’s purpose is to feed the bacteria in your gut.

I stopped snacking on those chocolate bars. The headaches stopped and have not returned. I did some research and found that undigested sweeteners pass through the colon, often feeding all the bacteria that naturally exists there. Toss in a prebiotic substance like Inolin and you’re just asking for trouble.

That’s when I had my second realization. Back in 2008 my wife had brought home a new sweetener that was marketed as “Stevia without the bitterness” called Truvia. For four years I’d been using it just in my coffee. I’d commented to my wife many times that I often felt a bit off by my second cup of coffee, both decaf and caffeinated, and wondered if I had a mild coffee tolerance issue. Since my wife “needed” her coffee each morning, and it always smelled so good, I continued to drink just one cup most mornings.

The ingredients in Truvia were not listed on the sugar packets themselves, so I looked them up on the Internet. It turns out Truvia is also mainly Erythritol with a tiny amount of highly processed Stevia, just like those chocolate bars. I stopped using Tuvia. The fatigue and dizzy spells are gone. The lactase enzyme pills work again. I’m reading for enjoyment again. I’m writing again. I’m more alert and focused than I’ve felt in years. It appears that putting that tiny amount of low calorie sweetener in my coffee on occasion had been messing me up.

Looking at the symptoms, my guess is that the undigested sugar was overfeeding either yeast or bacteria in the gut, thus causing a natural fermentation. This would explain the feeling of intoxication, along with having physical ailments typically found in an alcoholic. All I truly know is the symptoms are gone.

As of today I still have some numbness in my right foot. The neurologist said it might take up to a year for the nerves to heal after toxic neuropathy. Luckily, it’s not crippling, just mildly annoying. Otherwise, I’m doing much better.

The other week my wife handed me one of her women’s magazines, pointing out an article called “I fought fatigue – and won!” It was about a woman that had a similar experience with Sucralose, noting that a recent study by Duke University found that Sucralose decreased total intestinal bacteria and slashed the number of beneficial bugs by up to 67 percent, thus worsening gastrointestinal symptoms. This had caused the woman to experience brain fog and fatigue.

This got me to wondering how many other people are having similar symptoms from the many new sweeteners that have been added to our diets over the past thirty years. My wife and I also both react very badly to aspartame. She gets migraines from it.

So, if you decide to try the low carb and no sugar diet I suggested in my post about triglycerides and cholesterol, I’d personally recommend being careful of all those low-cal artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners like saccharin have been scientifically linked to weight gain anyway.

The knowledge I’ve gained about various forms of sweeteners over the years has proven that it’s also not as simple as only using natural sweeteners instead of synthetic. Each of us has a tolerance level for each of the various forms of sugar, in both high and low glycemic forms. This tolerance also changes with age. Some natural sugars, including agave and honey, which are too often marketed as healthy, can be just as problematic as synthetic sweeteners for a large percentage of the population. I’ll discuss this topic in the near future.

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  22 Responses to “Sweet Pains: Headaches, Fatigue and Brain Fog”

  1. I do wish we’d known this about saccharine when I was drinking Tab by the gallon ;o) There are so many chemicals out there that it’s scary!

    But I’m glad you’ve found your culprit!

  2. Glad you were able to figure this out! And thanks for posting about it, it’s really useful info.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! I too am experiencing these awful symptoms and all my lab work says I am the picture of health. I work out and eat right, concerned about how bad sugar is, I have been using Truvia!!!!! I am going to stop immediately and see if I notice a difference. I only use Truvia in my 2 cups of coffee each day, if I am in fact sensitive to whatever is in this, is there any thing else I should avoid? You mentioned milk???

    • Watch out for any sugar alcohols. Those would be any sweeteners that end in -ol, like malitol, sorbitol, etc. If you are reacting to erythritol you might react to those as well. They are all hard to digest, which is why they are low calorie.

      I find that I don’t appear to react to pure Stevia, but as I understand it the Stevia plant is related to ragweed. I know someone with asthma that reacts badly to it because it triggers her allergies.

      The majority of adults react to lactose to some degree. Lactose is milk sugar. So, it’s always a good idea to watch for reactions to dairy. If you are reacting to lactose you might be able to eat hard cheese and possibly yogurt, but react to non-fermented milk products. That’s because the fermentation process that creates hard cheese and yogurt eats most of the lactose sugar.

      If cutting those don’t help, you might want to investigate your fructose absorption versus glucose, as discussed here:
      Who has Heard of Fructose Malabsorption?

      I don’t react to Sweet ‘n Low, but it’s such a “chemical” sweetener that I don’t like the idea of using it.

      Oddly, my immune system reacts badly to cane sugar, but not beet sugar. Luckily I live in the US Midwest where beet sugar is made, so it’s readily available.

      I just signed up for the uBiome Microbe Sequencing Project which should be interested. I’ll report back on it.

  4. […] Sweet Pains: Headaches, Fatigue and Brain Fog […]

  5. Thank you so much for posting this! I have chronic Lyme Disease, and as part of my treatment, I have cut way back on my sugar consumption. I found some great sugar-free chocolate that contains erythritol and oligofructose (billed as ‘a prebiotic fiber’). It took me until two days ago to realize that the return of brain fog, short-term memory issues, anxiety, muscle fatigue, general fatigue, and aches and pains might be related to eating this chocolate. Thank goodness I put the pieces together; I am already feeling better after just 48 hours without eating any of this chocolate. Your description of your symptoms confirms that I am not dealing with a return of Lyme symptoms, but with a reaction to the erythritol and oligofructose.

  6. I’ve been through exactly the same for seven years, being a couple of them a total nightmare (not being able to work). I finally did the low fodmap diet which helped, among other things I discovered that inulin acts a a real poison in my body. BTW I’ve always had lactose intolerance. Finally the only way I got (I am getting) better was by cutting ALL sugars including alcohol and grains. I still have occasionally the cat purring on my right foot as I call it…. The scd 24h yogurt works amazing to improve the sluggish digestion.

    Good luck to all of us in the same boat!

  7. I Googled “erythritol sleepy” and ended up here. Lately I’ve been feeling brain foggish and sleepy, even after coffee, and I’ve been puzzled by it. I realized that lately I’ve been enjoying chocolate chips made with Stevia and Erythritol. I’m beginning to think that, in my own body at least, there’s a connection between Erythritol and feeling sleepy or groggy. I’m a 62 yr old male in otherwise good health. So I will stop consuming that chocolate.

    • Back when I was consuming erythritol I felt as if I was always inebriated. I wondered if it was fermenting in the gut. Hopefully cutting out the chocolate does the trick.

  8. I’m so glad I ran into this. I’ve been eating Lillys chocolate. “Stevia sweetened.” Same thing on the ingredients, inulin and erythritol. I’m so sluggish today from the chocolate I ate yesterday.

    • Glad to have helped.

      It’s a shame, as I’ve tried real Stevia and didn’t have any bad reactions. Seems to be the sugar alcohol, erythritol, that causes the problems. All the so-called “stevia” products must be using Truvia instead of Stevia.

  9. Stevia gave both myself and my wife excruciating headaches immediately after consumption; we tried several forms: highly refined, natural, etc. They all caused the same horrible effect.

    • It’s likely there is a subset of the population that is Stevia intolerant.

      Evidence seems to show that all sweeteners pose a risk of side effects. Honey, cane sugar, artificial and natural low calorie sweeteners. Humanity has never in the history of the earth had so much access to so many forms of sugar and sweeteners, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that our bodies are not able to handle unusual new chemicals or high sugar loads.

      While our cravings for sweetness served us in the past when sweet foods were seasonal, it seems to be an unhealthy addiction now. I always seem to feel much better when I keep sweets in general as a special event rather than a daily treat.

  10. Hi Al…thanks for this post. I am an insulin dependent diabetic, and almost 15 years ago, I discovered a correlation between my peripheral neuropathy and artificial sweeteners. As such, I avoid them altogether, but I was at a friends place last night for dinner and cards with my gal. Her guy is diabetic but just on oral meds and diet, and they are both using the ‘keto diet’, you may have heard of it. In any case, she tries to come up with all kinds of options for both of them, but also for me, when I visit, and where dessert is concerned, last night she used erythritol, saying that it is perfectly fine for me. Within minutes of getting home, though, my PN went nuts, and both my feet felt on fire with electrical pain. Because I know that I am particularly sensitive to artificial sweeteners, I can only surmise that I am sensitive to these sugar alcohols as well. I know full on insulin diabetics that have no problems with Aspartame, which is that worst one for me, so that leads me to think it’s more my sensitivity than anything else, but still, my research brought me to this post, amoung (pardon the Canadian spelling) other websites as well…thx again

    • Thanks for sharing your observation. Hopefully your comment will help someone else with a similar reaction.

      With all our scientific knowledge and abilities, it’s too bad we don’t have research assistance available (working alongside medical assistance) to help figure out what’s actually happening in situations like these. Seems there’s likely valuable information waiting to be discovered.

  11. I’ve been searching bad side effects from erythritol for 6 mos now. Extreme lethargy is my main problem. I’m 61 and have been sugar free since I was 29. I switched to stevia 7 years ago. Recently I suspected erythritol and switched back to equal and felt normal again. Then I got paid and bought more stevia and the extreme lethargy returned. In all my research I learned that erythritol is made from fermented alcohol. Anything fermented feeds my latent yeast overgrowth. Thank you for writing this. There is a new stevia sweeter I found at walmart called Zing that does not have erythritol. I had no side effects from this one when I can find it.

  12. I’ve been searching bad side effects from erythritol for 6 mos now. Extreme lethargy is my main problem. I’m 61 and have been sugar free since I was 29. I switched to stevia 7 years ago. Recently I suspected erythritol and switched back to equal and felt normal again. Then I got paid and bought more stevia and the extreme lethargy returned. In all my research I learned that erythritol is made from fermented alcohol. Anything fermented feeds my latent yeast overgrowth. Thank you for writing this. There is a new stevia sweeter I found at walmart called Zing that does not have erythritol. I had no side effects from this one when I can find it.

    • Yes, I’ve had no issues with Stevia, only the erythritol mixtures. We’ve been using “Stevia In The Raw” and have no issues with it either. Glad you figured it out.

  13. I’m amazed and delighted to find this article because I worked out a year ago that “stevia-sweetened chocolate” that actually contained erithritol was giving me brain fog but all the other reviewers of this product rated it highly. I was getting seriously worried and thought I might not be able to continue working but, within a short time of cutting it out, I was back to normal. I’ve had difficulty convincing anyone of this so this article is of great interest to me. I assume some of us are just much less tolerant of erithritol than others but there really ought to be some sort of warning on the packaging.SL

    • I totally agree about the warning! It was awful what that sweetener did to me and how much I lost during that period of time.

  14. Thank you for your article, now I know I’m not going insane.

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