The Link between Sorbitol and Diabetes

Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, was once widely accepted as a sugar alternative for diabetics. It is also produced in the body when glucose is metabolized. Today, there is controversy over the merits of this popular sweetener. Too much sorbitol in the bloodstream can accumulate and wreak havoc on the eyes, nerves and kidneys of those with diabetes.

What is sorbitol?

Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that is often used to sweeten numerous processed foods, including frozen desserts, baked goods, sugar-free candies and chewing gum. It is also found in a naturally-occurring state in certain fruits, such as apples, pears, peaches, and prunes.

In the body, an enzyme known as aldose reductase converts glucose into sorbitol. This process occurs in everyone to a degree, but in those with diabetes, the conversion of glucose to sorbitol is greatly accelerated.

To make matters worse, sorbitol is not used by the body, so it takes a long time for the body to rid itself of the sugar molecule. As more food items are made with sorbitol and consumed by diabetics, combined with the accelerated conversion of glucose, sorbitol can build up over time.

When it does, it depletes the body of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Excess sorbitol in the bloodstream also attracts water and causes cells to swell, which can eventually result in serious diabetic complications such as vision problems (retinopathy), nerve damage (neuropathy), kidney problems (nephropathy) and blood vessel damage.

How can you prevent the accumulation of excess sorbitol?

The best way to prevent the build up of sorbitol and diabetic complications is to diligently check your glucose levels every day and control your diabetes with a healthy diet, exercise and diabetes medications if prescribed. Sorbitol accumulation is most likely to become a problem for those who do not control their blood sugar and eat too many unhealthy, processed foods.

Drugs that have been tested to prevent the build up of excess sorbitol have not been successful because of severe side effects. However, studies have shown that vitamin C supplementation has been effective in ridding the body of sorbitol. It appears that vitamin C may inhibit aldose reductase, the enzyme that converts glucose to sorbitol. A vitamin C supplement of 500 mg to 1,500 mg may boost levels of red blood cells enough to reduce or slow the production of sorbitol.

In general, you should try to avoid eating or drinking too many products with artificial sweeteners. Opt for those with natural sugar substitutes instead.