Ayurveda is defined by its holistic outlook and embrace of natural medicine and herbs. It should therefore come as no surprise that Ayurvedic physicians and researchers have shown keen interest in the potential applications and health benefits of the stevia leaf. In fact, some researchers point out that the herb, which we think of as South American, was long used in India by indigenous groups such as the Guarani Indians (1). Origins of the herb notwithstanding, it has gained prominence worldwide as a natural sugar substitute with zero calories. But, is stevia good for health or is it mostly hype? Let’s take a closer look.
Botanically described as stevia rebaudiana, organic compounds in the plant called steviol glycosides give it its sweetness. One type of this glycoside – Reb-A is in fact 200 times sweeter than regular sugar (2). What is interesting to Ayurvedic experts is not just the sweetness of the leaf but its potential benefits in terms of weight management and blood glucose regulation as it contains zero calories (3). As a sugar substitute, it could help reduce sugar intake, which is associated with all of these health problems, as well as systemic inflammation. Looking solely at this aspect of stevia as a sugar substitute, if one were to ask ‘is stevia healthy’, the answer would be yes. However, Ayurveda takes a broader approach looking at all of the health implications and the manner of consumption.
The stevia that most of us consume as a sugar substitute is not really natural and is in fact highly processed. The steviol glycosides that we mentioned are extracted and highly refined to create stevia sweeteners. In most cases, the extracted steviol glycoside is combined with other artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols including erythritol, aspartame, maltodextrin, sodium saccharin, and sodium cyclamate. This makes it important to read the labels closely. Some stevia products even contain added artificial flavors. In Ayurveda, we are advised against the consumption of highly processed foods and it appears that most store-bought varieties of stevia would fall into this category. But, is stevia safe to use or is stevia harmful. While the weight management and blood sugar regulation benefits are clear, it would help to look at the potential side effects of stevia.
There is growing evidence to support Ayurveda’s emphasis on the consumption of natural foods while avoiding highly processed foods. When it comes to stevia, although the herb is a natural product, stevia products available in the market are highly processed. We’re now learning about the potential side effects of stevia.
Due to the combination of stevia with sugar alcohols like erythritol, many individuals can experience digestive disturbances with symptoms of indigestion, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Regular intake can also adversely affect the natural balance of gut microbiota (4).
Some individuals may be hypersensitive to stevia itself, and in such cases the consumption of stevia products would result in a severe allergic reaction (5). In most cases, this risk is low, but there could also be reactions to the synthetic ingredients that are added to such products.
Stevia is known to help in the management of high blood sugar levels in diabetics and is generally regarded as a safe sugar substitute to manage sugar levels. However, people who already have low blood sugar levels can face a threat of severe hypoglycemia or a further drop in levels due to stevia intake.
With vasodilatory effects, stevia can help widen the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure. While this feature is beneficial to many it can cause complications in individuals who suffer from low blood pressure conditions.
Steviol glycosides are a type of natural steroid and this means that they can alter endocrinal functions, interfering with hormones. In fact, research that appeared in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology found that that progesterone production increased in sperm cells exposed to steviol (6).
With all of these contradictory findings, it is clear that stevia offers a variety of benefits, but is not without risks. If you use the sweetener in moderation, as per the recommendations of Ayurveda, there should be little risk of side effects. However, it may be better to limit the use of sweeteners and stick with traditional choices like honey or jaggery instead. You should also consult your physician before using stevia if you suffer from any preexisting condition or are taking medications for any condition.