What is Sorbitol?
Many are becoming increasingly conscious about what they eat. Carbohydrates, in particular, are major culprits when it comes to issues such as unhealthy weight gain and heart problems. As such, scientists have developed an assortment of sugar alcohols as alternatives to regular carbohydrates.
Despite the name, sugar alcohols do not contain methanol. They look and taste the same as sugar, but they contain fewer calories and have fewer health effects. Some studies claim that some of these sugars are actually beneficial to one’s health (x). For the most part, they are extracted and processed from other sugars.
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that is naturally present in some fruits and vegetables, including apples, blackberries, strawberries, apricots, raspberries, avocados, peaches, plum and cherries. It is also processed from glucose and other sugars. While it is 60 percent sweeter than sugar, it contains about 60-66 percent of the calories found in it (x). Global health organizations including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consider it a healthy sugar substitute.
Sorbitol is particularly popular for the cooling sensation it causes in the mouth. It also leaves no aftertaste.
How Does it Work?
Once ingested, sorbitol triggers the body to produce an enzyme called sorbitol dehydrogenase. The enzyme, in turn, breaks down sorbitol to fructose. The sugar then triggers the liver to produce chemicals that break it down further to glucose, glycogen, lactate, and carbon (IV) oxide (x, x).
Glucose, which is among the simplest forms of sugar, breaks down in the body to produce energy. The body then converts excess glucose to glycogen, which is basically a complex compound made up of glucose molecules. Finally, glycogen breaks down to produce glucose for energy when sugar is in low supply (x, x, x, x).
Sugar Control in Diabetics
Diabetes, in any form, results from the presence of too much sugar in the blood. Whatever type one is suffering from, it is clear that they need to control their sugar intake to avoid further complications. Sorbitol may help with this.
Type 1 Diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces minimal amounts of insulin or none at all. Insulin helps body cells use glucose produced from carbohydrates that have been ingested. Without it, they accumulate in the blood and rise to dangerous levels.
A test conducted with sorbitol did not show any significant impact of the sugar alcohol on Type 1 diabetes patients. Nine patients with the condition had their blood sugar levels measured before and after they had breakfast sweetened with both table sugar and sorbitol. There wasn’t much difference in the end (x).
Type 2 Diabetes and Prediabetes
Prediabetes is the onset of diabetes where the blood sugar levels are high, but not enough to bet termed as diabetes. It is also referred to as impaired glucose tolerance. Most of the time, it shows no symptoms.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is more advanced. The body is either not producing enough insulin, or the cells resist it. Typically, the presence of insulin in the body stimulates the cells to absorb the glucose present in the blood. With type 2 diabetes, the body cells develop insulin resistance and do not absorb glucose regardless of insulin production, which results in a gradual rise in blood sugar levels. It could be chronic and have symptoms, but in some cases, it does not.
As part of treatment, many use sorbitol in place of table sugar. This is because it does not increase glucose levels as much as the latter (x).
A study was performed on diabetic rats to show its effect on glucose absorption. It increased the absorption of glucose in the gut and muscles, regardless of the presence of insulin. It was also clear that rats that consumed pure glucose had a more noticeable increase in sugar levels compared to those that took both glucose and sorbitol. The researchers, therefore, concluded that sorbitol could increase glucose absorption and consequently lower its levels in the blood for diabetic people even after they consume sugary foods (x).
Sorbitol for Constipation
Constipation refers to a digestive condition where stool is dry and hard to pass. Bowel movements are less frequent and are generally uncomfortable or even painful. Constipation becomes more prevalent as one ages. It is not always a sign of an underlying condition and could be a side effect of a particular medication, poor eating habits and dehydration.
To ease constipation, many people tend to use laxatives. However, a sorbitol laxative is osmotic, which means that it draws water into the colon. This softens up the stool and helps ease constipation (x, x).
It is a well-known fact that too much sugar is bad for the teeth. Bacteria in the mouth easily break down sugar into acids that erode the enamel and lead to cavities and tooth decay. Sorbitol, on the other hand, is harder to ferment. This slows down tooth decay and the formation of cavities (x).
In the case of a drug overdose or swallowed poison, one should make a mixture of activated charcoal and sorbitol. The charcoal will bind all the poisonous compounds while sorbitol prevents them from being absorbed into the body. It also helps to pass out the poison quickly, which reduces damages to the body (x, x). Sorbitol for poisoning also works in animals, particularly dogs (x).
Sorbitol Side Effects
Using sorbitol also comes with a myriad of side effects. Most of these, however, only occur in the event of an overdose. They include:
- Dry mouth
- Excessive bowel relieving
- Edema or swelling due to fluid retention
- High blood sugar levels
- Lactic acidosis
- Stomach cramps
It is advisable to avoid sorbitol if you are breastfeeding. An experiment performed in a lactating rat showed that the alcohol was passed to the offspring through milk, and they displayed symptoms of toxicity. They were noticeably underdeveloped, and their livers and bone marrows might have been damaged (x). While the same study has not been conducted on human babies, it is ideal to stay away from the supplement when pregnant.
Be sure to test for sorbitol intolerance before taking it. Many children and adults have it, and the effects of taking sugar alcohol can be severe. In a study, 32 percent of the participants showed symptoms after ingestion (x). They include dizziness, diarrhea and abdominal pain. They are actually quite similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and it is very easy to confuse the two.
If you are suffering from IBS, be sure to steer clear of this supplement. Sorbital powder is poorly absorbed and will worsen your symptoms. A study found that IBS patients had reduced symptom severity when hard-to-absorb sugars, including sorbitol, were removed from their diets (x, x).
If you are sorbitol intolerant or are suffering from IBS, avoid the following foods:
- Dried fruits
- Sugar-free candy and gum
- Food made for diabetics
- Diet drinks and sodas
These contain high levels of sorbitol and may increase the severity of your symptoms (x).
Sorbitol Dosage and Instructions
When supplementing with sorbitol powder, take around 3,000 mg per day. Taking more than 50 grams a day can produce a laxative effect. Dosage may, however, differ depending on individual factors and situations. Please be sure to get a proper prescription from your doctor after examination and full disclosure of your medical history.
When administered with kayexalate (treatment for hyperkalemia), one is likely to suffer some severe damage to their intestines. As research continues, it is essential to stay away from the supplement if you are taking the drug (x).
Sorbitol is a laxative, so when taken with other laxatives, the side effects may intensify. It also reduces the absorption of other drugs, so be sure to make it a good while before taking other medicines (x). If you are taking ARVs (anti-retroviral medication), be sure to avoid sorbitol. It reduces the effects of the drugs (x).
The Bottom Line
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol. It is naturally present in some fruits and vegetables, but is commercially processed from other sugars such as glucose. Sorbitol is 60 percent sweeter than sugar, but contains 40 percent fewer calories, which makes it a common ingredient in the food processing, beverage and condiment industry.
Those with diabetes tend to use sorbitol instead of sugar to increase the absorption of glucose in the body, effectively reducing its levels in the blood. It can also ease constipation and treat poisoning.
The supplement is approved by world health bodies including WHO and FDA. There are recommended dosages, but it is always advisable to seek a personalized one from your doctor. It has quite a number of side effects, mainly when overdosed or used by sorbitol intolerant people. It slows down the absorption of drugs and may interact harmfully with others, so seek your doctor’s advice before taking the supplement.
By: Valentine Kagwiria