DEAR DR. BLONZ: After several years of failed attempts, paying dearly for missteps, I have managed to quit smoking. It was the patch that worked for me, along with counseling. Since quitting, I have relied on sugarless gum and mints to keep my jaw occupied and something flavorful in my mouth, but lately, I've been having episodes of gas and cramps. I don't want the sugared stuff, and have tried a few different sugar-free brands with no change. I realize this could be due to the changes my body is going through, but I was wondering if the mints and gums could be causing it. I would like to continue using them; is there something I need to be eating or taking along with them? -- S.T. Oakland, California
DEAR S.T.: My sincere congratulations on stopping smoking. It must have been a tough hill to climb, but it is hard to imagine another single action that could be a more potent boost to all aspects of your health and well-being.
Please run any troublesome symptoms by your physician, but this problem may have little to do with the habit that is (hopefully) permanently enshrined in your life's rear-view mirror.
A prime suspect in your stomach discomfort is, just as you suspected, the sugarless mints and gums. The sweeteners often used in these products are xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol, all members of the sugar alcohol family. Even though they are indeed sugars, they're referred to as "sugarless" sweeteners because they are not cariogenic -- meaning they don't promote tooth decay. The bacteria in and around our teeth cannot use them as food and then give off enamel-destroying acids associated with tooth decay.
One of the negative aspects of these compounds is that they are not efficiently absorbed, and they tend to attract water as they travel through the digestive tract. This can lead to digestive upset, such as diarrhea and cramping, in some people. Once in the large intestine, they provide food for the normal bacteria that live there, which can lead to an increase in intestinal gas. With small amounts of the sweeteners, the symptoms are negligible. But with larger quantities, as with several mints or sticks of sugarless gum -- particularly on an empty stomach -- the result is the upset you describe.
You may find some measure of relief by limiting your intake of these sweeteners, or only having them with a meal (or soon after). A shift to a different sweetener -- a non-sugar-alcohol, non-cariogenic one -- is another option. Check with your dentist or dental hygienist, but Stevia, a natural sweetener of plant origin, is one to consider.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.