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The Sneaky Thing That Might Be Causing Your Stomach Pain

Since starting my nutrition counseling practice (AnneTheRD.com) back in 2013, I’ve had a lot of clients come to me for help with stomach pain and bloating. For some of these clients, solving their problems involves a diet change (for example, the low FODMAPs diet), looking more seriously at stress, or something else entirely that I can’t help them with. But for a few of these clients, the solution was much simpler.

For example, about a year ago, I had a client come to me with severe stomach pain and bloating. She had been dealing with it for about nearly a year, she said, and it usually got worse throughout the day. She had been to GI specialists but no one could figure out what was wrong. She came to me thinking that perhaps diet might be the culprit.

Before taking a look at what she was eating, I asked one question: “Do you chew a lot of sugar-free gum?”

She was surprised, but answered, “Yes, a ton. All day.”

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The more we talked, she realized that she had started chewing sugar-free gum about the same time that her stomach pains had started. I suggested that before we talk further, she cut out the sugar-free gum and let me know how it went. Sure enough, and a few days later she reached out and told me her stomach pain had 100% resolved.

I used to chew a TON of sugar-free gum myself. In college and my early 20’s, I was constantly chewing gum. I always had a pack of it in my purse or backpack; it was strangely addictive. I chewed gum while in class, after meals, before going out, while at my desk job – you name it.

I remember having stomach problems around the same time. Usually sharp pain and bloating that, like my client’s, got worse throughout the day. It didn’t happen every single day and it wasn’t crazy severe, but it started to get more and more frequent when I was in my early 20’s, to the point where I wanted to try to do something about it.

One day, I was looking around online when I came across an article that mentioned sugar-free gum can sometimes cause stomach pain/bloating. “No way,” I thought. Could that be what was making my stomach hurt? I had always assumed it was what I was eating – maybe that I was eating too much, or not the right things. Too little fiber, or too much fiber, or too little water, or too much – as I’m sure you guys know, it’s easy to drive yourself crazy self-diagnosing on the internet, and this was well before I went back to school to study nutrition.

I figured I had nothing to lose, so that day, I quit sugar-free gum cold turkey. Low and behold: away went the stomach pain, pretty much immediately.

It wasn’t until years later, in school to become a dietitian, that I discovered WHY the sugar-free gum was making my stomach hurt so much.

There are two main reasons that sugar-free gum in particular can cause stomach pain. The first is that you naturally swallow a lot of air while chewing gum.

But the second, and arguably main reason, is the presence of sugar alcohols.

If an item is labeled sugar-free, whether it is gum or another product, that usually means it contains either artificial sweeteners or natural low- or no-calorie sweeteners. In the case of sugar-free gum, it usually contains sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols, which are a form of carbohydrate that are not very well digested, are a common cause of upset stomach, particularly when consumed in high amounts. The easiest way to spot sugar alcohols on an ingredient list is to look for the –ol ending – not all end in –ol, but the majority of them do. The names of some of the most common sugar alcohols that you’ll probably recognize from packages are xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltitol, and erythritol.

Sugar alcohols are often used in gum for a number of reasons. First, due to the fact that they are slowly and incompletely absorbed in the body, they contain fewer calories and won’t cause as much of a blood sugar rise and subsequent insulin response as regular sugar. Second, dentists like them better than regular sugar because the bacteria in the mouth don’t act upon them, meaning sugar alcohols aren’t going to contribute to tooth decay/cavities. Xylitol in particular has even been found to inhibit oral bacteria.

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The reason sugar alcohols can lead to stomach issues is due to the fact that they are not very well absorbed/digested by the body. Some of the sugar alcohols will pass into the bloodstream, but the majority will travel on through the intestines unabsorbed. Once in the intestinal tract, the sugar alcohol will meet bacteria that ferment it, releasing gas, which leads to bloating, cramps, pain, and/or diarrhea. It’s similar to what happens when someone who is lactose intolerant eats something with lactose.

Obviously, stomach pain/bloating and GI issues can occur for a multitude of reasons, and if you are struggling with similar issues it may be something else entirely. That said, this is still something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile as I thought it might help some of you. If you’re having stomach issues and consuming a lot of sugar-free products, gum or otherwise, give some thought to cutting them out to see if it helps. Nothing to lose, right? :) Besides sugar-free gum, you’ll also often find sugar alcohols in sugar-free versions of candy, frozen desserts, chocolate, diet/low-calorie packaged products, and baked goods. Sugar alcohols can also sometimes be present in mouthwash, toothpaste, and multivitamins, but those sorts of products generally don’t contain a high enough concentration to cause any issues.

Any other recovering sugar-free gum addicts out there?

Like nutrition-related hot topic posts? Here are some others you might like then, too:

Comments

  1. 1

    Love this! I am an RD also and have found this to be a sneaky little culprit for both my clients and friends.

  2. 2

    NOOOOOOOOOOO! I so didn’t want to read this….I think if I gave it up I would gain 10 pounds lol……

  3. 3
    Nicole W says:

    YESSSS- I gave up chewing gum years ago bc it made my stomach hurt so badly! People look at me like I am crazy when I tell them why I don’t chew gum!

  4. 4

    I wish I’d found this article about 5 years ago — that’s when, after years of chewing sugar-free gum (and eating sugar-free candy), I finally realized the effect sorbitol has on my stomach. I avoid it like the plague these days! Thanks for sharing, though, hopefully you save someone else some pain!

    • 5
      Chere D Thompson says:

      The aspartame in sugar fee gum and candy is also really hard on the stomache. I have found this same problem in sugared gums as well. I have IBS and it makes the IBS worse and causes bad stomache cramps. If I chew one piece. I am okay, more then that, not so much, and found it is not really worth it. My stomach pain came on very suddenly and was really painful. I just blaimed it on the IBS until I realized what it really was. And not only does it cause stomach problems also can give you a headache.

    • 7

      How long did it take to notice a difference?

  5. 8

    CCA – Chain Chewers Anonymous – Hi, I’m Amanda, and I am a chain chewer.

    I gave up gum cold turkey a few months back and really did notice a difference! Though, I do have to admit, it slowly has come back into my life because sometimes it is the exact thing I need when I am craving something sweet at night but don’t really need the food.

  6. 10

    I never would have thought gum could cause so much trouble!

  7. 11

    I recently (like this week) started chewing gum again and my stomach has not been feeling good. Thanks for the reminder of WHY I don’t need gum. Mints to the rescue. Plus, I hate consuming artificial ingredients.

  8. 12

    I was never an addict, but I certainly chewed my fair share! I now chew spree which I buy Whole Foods and use on occassion.

  9. 13
    Gretchen says:

    I used to chew so much gum, too, especially in college and right after. Then I met my husband, who is allergic to aspartame. Several months after we started dating, he finally told me that he didn’t understand how I could be so health conscious but still chew a bunch of gum with artificial sweeteners all the time…and I finally gave it up! For months afterward, I would have these recurring dreams where I would chew gum and not be able to handle the taste of the aspartame anymore…I haven’t actually tried gum since to see if I would notice the taste that much in real life, though!

  10. 14

    My junior year of high school, I could easily go through a pack of gum in two days! I started feeling the adverse effects, though, and when I realized gum could be the culprit, I cut it out cold turkey. I still had (and have) stomach issues, but cutting gum out helped a lot. I still chew it sometimes because it helps me focus, but I definitely find that if I start having more than usual, my stomach feels the consequences. So then I try to cut back a little more :)

  11. 15

    Such a great post which I am going to share with friends and family! I gave up sugar-free gum a few years ago but never realized quite how bad it was. Too bad I chewed it obsessively through college and my 20s!

  12. 16

    I chew several pieces of gum a day but not sugar free. I eat healthy and hardly eat any sweets so for me regular gum is okay,

  13. 17

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. The only low calorie sweetener my stomach can handle is stevia. I know sucraolse (Spelnda) is not a sugar alcohol, but any idea why it bothers my stomach?
    After realizing that artificial sweeteners were upsetting my stomach, I thought long and hard abut what I put into my body. I have switched to a (mostly) whole foods diet and have felt better ever since!

    • 18

      Splenda/sucralose is similar in that it is calorie-free because it doesn’t get absorbed/digested by the body. So the stomach issues are likely for similar reasons I described in this post! Glad you’re feeling better!

    • 19
      Chere D Thompson says:

      I can’t do Stevia at all. I have never had so much pain in my stomach as I did after I ate Stevia, and I didn’t even eat that much. my Chiropractor said I am sensitive to it and need to stay way from it. And it amazes me how many products they are starting to put Stevia into. I am already limited I don’t need any help from these food companies

  14. 20

    Kinda wish I hadn’t just bought an 18 pack of gum from Costco… It would be hard for me to give up gum mostly because I’m so scared of having bad breath. Maybe I had too many teachers with bad coffee breath in my lifetime. I’d be interested in hearing from some of you who quit chewing gum for tips on how to keep fresh breath throughout the day!

  15. 22

    So true, Anne! I recently taught a class on becoming sugar savvy and I used a Quaker Chewy Granola Bar as an example. Not only were there 17 sources of added sugar in one bar (!), but one of those additions was sorbitol. Sugar alcohol use by manufactures may increase as artificial sweeteners become more vilified (ie Pepsi pulling Nutrasweet from their diet soda). Thanks for a great article.

  16. 24
    Gina Maslow says:

    Thanks for getting out the word! I have always known the issue with the alcohols in sugarless gum and they always cause major gas! I have something called Burning Mouth Syndrome and as you might guess, my oral cavity always has a metallic, burning taste. So I chew gum to alleviate. I’ve searched high and low for sugarless gum that does not contain xylitol but no luck. One of those syndromes that will not kill me but certainly affects my quality of life. sigh…..

    • 25

      Oh gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that! I hope they make some xylitol-free gum alternatives for you soon!

      • 26
        gwetoyking says:

        Greetings – and what’s wrong with “regular” gum? The small amount of sugar in regular gum isn’t going to make your teeth fall out (brush your teeth after chewing the gum or, at least, rinse with water), nor is it going to turn you into a blimp (just cut down on donuts, etc.). Cheers, Gary.

        • 27

          I still avoid gum, even the regular kind, because the ingredient list is full of all sorts of not so great additives. It’s your decision though – do what works for you!

        • 28
          Chere D Thompson says:

          They are both hard on your stomach. Trust me I know. Used to only chew sugarless, and to quit chewing gum because it gave me bad stomach aches. Figured out it was the aspartame so switch to double bubble which is just a sugared gum, and just recently the stomach pains started. The other thing I noticed is how rubbery it is. Kinda gross

    • 29

      Hi Gina,

      I don’t know if you will ever see this, but this article indicates a woman with the same syndrome and it was caused by HSV-1 (the virus that causes cold sores, which most people carry but have no symptoms). She had no cold sores, but her saliva was full of the virus particles. Maybe, if you haven’t already, you could have your doc test you to see if that’s the cause. I hope you get some relief!
      http://www.livescience.com/50455-burning-mouth-syndrome-herpes.html

  17. 30

    I struggled with GI upset for YEARS, thinking I had everything form lactose to gluten intolerance, and nothing seemed to make a difference until I cut out sugar alcohols. I am not a gum chewer and never have been, but I consumed sugar alcohols in numerous food and drink items. Since I have made this change my GI issues have virtually disappeared. I actually thought cutting out soy was the key for me, but after reading your post tonight I realize it was the artificial sweeteners!! So THANK YOU!

  18. 32

    Awesome post, I love your posts like this! Would you consider doing one about FODMAPS? I know you mentioned your thesis in grad school was on it

    • 33

      Glad you enjoyed it! Regarding FODMAPs, probably not, because I’m not sure I could boil it down into one post. I thought about writing a post about it after I finished my masters paper, but I was so burned out on it by that point I didn’t want to. ;) Also, I don’t want to encourage people to do the “Dr. Google” kind of self-diagnosis that can happen when reading about things like that… that said, I’ll keep your request in mind! Thanks for reading! :)

      • 34
        Chere D Thompson says:

        I am done some research on FODMAPs. I think it is very over whelming.

        I have IBS, and gluten free, corn free, dairy free and just limited in general, so looking at stuff like that for me is overwhelming. I live on a pretty bland boring diet, but never know what to eat any more. I was doing really good for a while until I started having horrible stomach problems and had my gallbladder removed, then 6 months later needed another surgery. My stomach is just not happy.

  19. 35
    Roadrunner says:

    Very, very interesting. Thanks!

  20. 36

    I am so addicted to sugar free gum and desperately want to quit!!! I have tried so many times but I honestly can’t do it. It’s like going through withdrawal. Any suggestions on how to wean myself? I have tried brushing my teeth after meals, chewing on straws, drinking tea. I am an addict! I would so appreciate any tips. Thank you so much.

    • 37

      For me, it was all about not wanting my stomach to hurt anymore, so that outweighed the addiction, I think! I also stopped buying it/keeping it in my purse, so it would have been a lot of effort to go buy some when I wanted it. Maybe see if Google has any tips? Good luck!!

  21. 38
    Emma Hammond says:

    Love this post! I recently discovered the exact same thing. Bloating & stomach issues & it’s definitely linked to my sugar free gum chewing. Tried cutting back but know I need to stop all together. Has sadly been harder than I thought. Habits!

  22. 39

    Yes! Gum, eating too fast, and anything dairy kills me. I also found out my birth control pill made it hard for me to digest things (once I stopped taking them my stomach problems went away… but then I had to go back on and my issues are back :***( )

    • 40
      Chere D Thompson says:

      Are you serious? I wonder if that could be part of my problem. Interesting I have never heard that before. I will have to look into that.

  23. 41

    Great post. I’m not really a gum chewing person, but I bet a lot of people can relate to this post. Reading this post, I’m trying to get my head around it, can other sugar free products give you stomach pain. If they contain sugar alcohols it will cause bloating, cramps, pain, and/or diarrhea?

    • 42

      Yes, any products containing sugar alcohols, if consumed in large enough quantities, can cause GI issues/stomach pain.

      • 43
        Adam Trainor says:

        That’s very interesting to know because I can now relate to it when I have eaten or drank something suagr free

  24. 44

    Thank you so much! On Tuesday I nailed a tonne of sugar free gum and four days later I’m still in pain and very bloated. The Dr said she could not find anything seriously wrong but I couldn’t think what had triggered it. Im almost certain it was all the gum. I’m never going to touch the stuff again :-)

  25. 45

    I connected my eating sugar-free gum to stomach issues a couple of years ago. It is hard to find gum that isn’t sugar free other than Juicy Fruit. I REALLY appreciated your article/knowledge about this problem and want to know if there are more healthy gums/chewies out there that help with bad breath? I was chewing specifically because I did not want bad breath and in my work as a therapist and supervisor I was talking to many people. Any suggestions about foods to eat that also help with bad breath? There is nothing worse than thinking you might have bad breath but others are too polite to tell you. I don’t eat particularly bad breath foods (garlic) :)

  26. 46

    I’m not a fan of gums, I just chew from time to time, but I’ve too noticed that the really pungent “sugar-free” type of gums give me an irritated stomach, especially if I eat something after I’ve chewed some gum. Another sneaky thing that could give some people stomach discomfort is coffee.

  27. 48
    Annette Reynolds says:

    I use sugar free gum, because I have an extremely dry mouth. Is there anything else I could use instead of the gum?

  28. 50
    Tania Majinski says:

    I can not eat or drink anything with any artificial sweeteners. Period. Almost instant bloating, cramping and unlike most, constipation. My stomach looks like I’m 5 months pregnant for 3-5 days before relief.

  29. 51

    The first ingredient of the candy I’m having right now – isomalt.
    Wikipedia says: “Isomalt is a sugar substitute, a type of sugar alcohol, used primarily for its sugar-like physical properties. It has only a small impact on blood sugar levels and does not promote tooth decay, i.e. is tooth-friendly.”
    Sounds like this could be a cause of my recent abdominal pains. Thanks.

  30. 52
    Dave Biucher says:

    Thanks for article …
    I chewed one whole pack 20 pieces of sugarless gum needless to say it felt like the worse pain I have ever had
    Very close to a kidney stone but worse
    Will never ever chew gum again
    Promise!!!!

  31. 53

    I had same issues! I was chewing sugar-free gum like crazy to keep from eating sugary snacks. Developed severe and I mean severe stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea…to the point of hospitalization at one point. So many tests…and episodes of illness kept occurring. I came across an article such as this and stopped chewing gum immediately. Problems totally stopped…this was approx 3 yrs ago. Sounds crazy until you read about how it can affect your body.

  32. 55

    I’m pretty sure I have IBS-C and 2 days ago at my naturopath’s suggestion I took DGL without looking at the ingredient list….first ingredient other than DGL was xylitol. Unknowingly I took the supplement 3 times and was in pain and spent the day in the washroom. It’s a very high FODMAP food (well, it’s not a food) but it’s on the list. Never again!

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