Stevia: Sweet Treatment for Blood Pressure

December 01, 2010

Topic:  Stevia: Sweet Treatment for Blood Pressure 

 Competency: # 5 The Way to Eat; #7 Sugar Reference:  Current Therapeutics, Hsieh MH, Chan P et al Sept 2003, 25 p 2797

 Stevia is now on the commercial market as a sweetener.  It has been blocked in America for many years by the competition who make other sweeteners, while Japan has been using stevia for over 30 years with no complications or side effects noted.  It is 40% of the sweetener market in Japan.  Stevia comes from a plant that grows in South America and was used by indigenous peoples for centuries as a sweetener.  You can grow it yourself, as garden centers sell it in the spring as "sweet leaf".  

There are five or six active ingredients in stevia, each of which has its own natural sweetening profile.  But all are based on a basic "glycoside" molecule that is slightly related to digitalis, another glycoside.  That raises the question, does this natural product have an effect on the heart like digoxin?  

Is it safe, helpful and useful? Dr. Hsieh, Chan et al from the Taipai Medical University in Taiwan decided to find out.  They recruited 174 folks with mild hypertension and gave them stevia three times a day in a randomized, blinded, controlled trial for two years.  That's good design for credible research.  And what they found is pretty interesting. Turns out that stevia does affect your heart and your blood pressure, all to the good side.  The folks who got the stevia had a 10 point reduction in systolic blood pressure and a 6 point reduction in diastolic pressure.  That's about as much beneficial effect as a drug.  And it happened within a week of starting and persisted throughout the two years.  After two years, only 6 of the stevia group developed LVH (left ventricular hypertrophy) compared to 17 of 50 in the control group.  LVH means you are developing damage from the high blood pressure and are on your way to congestive heart failure.  (Statistically very significant) The problem with high blood pressure is that it is silent.  

Taking a pill to reduce something for which you have no immediate symptoms is hard to maintain.  Compliance is an issue in many patients.  But how about a product that is natural, plant-based, has no toxicity, and makes food taste sweet?  The only downside is that the flavor sweet encourages you to eat more.  An important finding of this study was that the stevia folks did not gain weight compared to the controls.  And Chinese have a tendency to like natural herb-based products.  The idea of using an herb fits well with their sensibilities.  Sounds like the Chinese are onto something smart here! 

 WWW.  What will work for me?  I get asked all the time, "What sweetener should I use?"  The yellow stuff is a chlorinated hydrocarbon, not too far off from DDT.  There are no natural chlorinated hydrocarbons.  The blue stuff is associated with some neurological concerns.  But stevia has a very wide safety profile and decades of use without toxicity found.  I've switched completely to stevia-based sweeteners.  You can get it at the grocery store, where it is still pretty expensive. It's much cheaper if you get it off the internet in packets, or in liquid.  I like the liquid stuff.  It's easy to put a dropper in a cup of tea......and it lowers my blood pressure.  The lower my blood pressure, the longer I live.   Natural product, completely digestible.  Sweet!

Column written by Dr. John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. 262-784-5300