Some people have reported that stevia, or a sweetener made from stevia, have given them headaches and migraine symptoms. Is this a rare problem? Or is it something we should all be concerned about?
Let’s get one thing straight. Researching stevia will drive you crazy. It’s a political football, an economic hot potato, and a constant source of controversy for health nuts, diet gurus and medical professionals.
Buzzwords and catch phrases abound. Let’s get a few out of the way right now:
- “Natural”: It’s time we all realized that the word natural on a label means almost nothing. Are all the ingredients natural? Is a genetically modified plant “natural”? Is a chemical derived from a plant natural even though it’s been highly processed? Does “natural” mean safe? Seriously, ignore the word “natural”. A walk in the forest might be natural, but it’s highly suspect on a package in the supermarket.
- “Used for centuries”: You’ll hear it over and over – stevia has been used worldwide for centuries. That’s nice. Did people of ancient times use the same manufacturing and packaging techniques? Did they eat it along with the drugs I take? Did they eat the same amount, along with the same diet I’m on? And what clinic trials were done with these ancient peoples to see how they’re health changed when they stopped using stevia? Yes, I’m glad nations weren’t wiped out in the past by stevia use. But I’m really not sure how much this proves about that ingredient in my diet drink.
- “generally recognized as safe”: The GRAS phrase is used by the FDA, but it does not tell us that certain people will not have side effects from eating it. Lots of ingredients are GRAS but cause problems for migraineurs.
Now none of this tells us that stevia is dangerous. It does show that a lot of the hype that we’ve heard and will continue to hear does not necessarily prove that stevia is perfectly safe for everyone.
What is Stevia?
Stevia – all natural if eaten like this. Maybe. (Photo courtesy of hardworkinghippy)
Stevia is a plant. But you might actually be asking, what is this artificial sweetener I’ve heard about that people call “stevia”?
Unfortunately, we run into our first problem here. Stevia is not one thing. Various products are made from stevia, and some are more processed than others. They use various substances. There is no one stevia.
And there’s another problem. Stevia sweeteners often come with “fillers”, and some of those are safer than others.
Are Stevia Sweeteners Safe?
Which ones? Frankly, we could do research into every product that contains a derivative of stevia – except that there is limited research out there. Most researchers seem to agree that stevia derivatives themselves are generally safe in small quantities for short term use.
But what about the other ingredients?
A search online will turn up a number of possible side effects of stevia – but again, stevia in which form? How much per day? Once you start trying to connect the studies with the product on the shelf, things get a little more tricky.
Now there are some people who may have an allergy to stevia products. Some people have found that hay fever translates into a bad reaction to stevia.
The biggest concerns when it comes to stevia are related to sweeteners in general. Again, research specifically on stevia is pretty limited compared to the tidal wave of stevia products that are in the pipeline.
However, there are growing concerns that artificial sweeteners may cause obesity (in some cases even more than sugar itself), and may lead to other imbalances in the body, especially if used regularly.
Stevia and Migraine
At this point, stevia does not seem to be high on the list of migraine triggers. However, migraine affects everyone differently, and it is possible that stevia could, in some cases, trigger migraine symptoms.
But before we blame stevia derivatives, if you suspect it may be a trigger, ask yourself some questions:
- What stevia am I talking about? Which product am I actually using?
- Unless I’m just chewing an organically grown stevia leaf, what “fillers” or other ingredients could be responsible for the migraine symptoms?
- What other changes have I made in my diet that could be causing problems? (including eating less sugar, and any sudden changes, even if you consider them to be good changes)
There are some concerns about stevia and low blood pressure. Stevia may interact with calcium channel blockers and anti-inflammatory medication.
So take a close look at any changes in your symptoms, and talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
This is a bit of an unusual introduction to a possible migraine trigger. The reason is that there really is so little research on how a specific derivative of stevia may affect someone with a specific condition, such as migraine. And stevia is not like a drug, where you would give patients 30mg a day to see how they react. It’s eaten in combination with other things, and it has the potential to drastically change your diet in a short period of time.
Typical advice for migraine patients is best repeated here. Avoid fast, drastic changes. Watch your symptoms carefully. Read labels. Do your own research.
When it comes to stevia, there is good reason to be skeptical of both the “for” and “against” sides of the argument. But for most of us, a little sugar or honey in moderation seems to outshine most other sweeteners.
If you feel that stevia has increased your migraine symptoms, leave a comment. Let’s keep the conversation going.