It’s in the majority of protein shakes. It’s now in tea. It’s in certain chocolates. It’s even now in Coca-Cola Life. Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener that comes from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana which naturally grows in Brazil and Paraguay. It is 150-300 times sweeter than sugar (depending on the site you read…) so just a few drops can go a long way. However, we must remember that cocaine also comes from a plant (coca leaves). Just because stevia comes from a plant, does not mean it is good for you. The stevia we have in our American market is highly concentrated and processed.
Back in 2013 I was throwing back several protein shakes a day and my brand of choice at the time was Vega. I was by no means vegetarian and in fact was following closely the Paleolithic diet. I just enjoyed the taste and the ample amounts of stevia.
One day in the gym I began jump roping. This was a great way to rapidly increase my heart rate and metabolism by means of a cardiovascular activity which I rarely did. I was healthy, about fifteen percent body fat, had a personal trainer there with me, and we were doing a regular training session. Like a bolt of lightning, I got what is called a thunderclap headache, which the Mayo Clinic describes as so: “Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, grabbing your attention like a clap of thunder. The pain of these sudden, severe headaches peaks within 60 seconds and can start fading after an hour. Some thunderclap headaches, however, can last for more than a week.
- Strikes suddenly and severely — sometimes described as the worst headache ever experienced
- Peaks within 60 seconds
- Lasts anywhere between an hour and 10 days
- Can occur anywhere in the head, and may involve the neck or lower back
- Can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or loss of consciousness”
This headache lasted months. I was depressed, confused, and terrified. Much later I got an MRI which showed normal activity. As I noticed the headache was worse after drinking Vega protein shakes, I began to research if anyone else was experiencing similar things from this new “natural” sweetener.
Here is what you need to know:
- The chemicals steviol glycosides are what make stevia sweet. There are at least ten forms of steviol glycosides in the plant, but because of the way it is manufactured and processed today, often only one or two steviol glycosides are used. The stevia plant has been used for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil, and for decades in Japan. However, in those cases it is often used as a whole leaf or powdered form.
- Stevia can trick the body into hypoglycemia because your body believes it is about to receive glucose due to the taste. Read about the extensive explanation in the sources below.
- It can tax the adrenal glands by increasing cortisol and adrenaline.
- It is structurally similar to, and synthesized in our bodies like the plant proteins (gibberellin and kaurene). Dr. Sarah Ballantyne states steviol glycosides therefore have a hormonal structure which can affect our production of progesterone and estrogen, can act as a mutagen, and possibly lead to cancer.
- In 1991 stevia was banned by the FDA in the United States because studies conducted with rats exposed to high amounts of stevia proved toxic results and possible carcinogenic effects. In 1995 the FDA allowed stevia to be used as a supplement but not as a food additive.
- “The FDA still harbors concerns that pure leaf stevia products may have adverse effects on blood sugar control, kidneys, cardiovascular functioning and reproductive system.” (Livestrong)
All that said, I have read studies showing no adverse affects in rats given high doses of stevia. The studies I found though were on stevia.net. Go figure. I don’t intend on convincing you one way or another, or creating a hypothesis through supporting evidence. Just please, please, take my thunderclap story into consideration. Ever since that summer, I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to the “natural” sweetener. Whenever that very particular feeling headache returns, I look at the ingredients of what I just consumed, and there it is, stevia.
Sources and articles for further reading: