sugar-free gum

How do you keep yourself awake behind the wheel? This seems like an innocuous question, but it is in fact vitally important. Driver fatigue contributes to traffic accidents and fatalities around the world (Lakartidningen, June 20, 2001; Industrial Health, Aug. 5, 2016). As a result, we have been fascinated by our readers’ reports of their strategies. Some people like to chew on something such as sunflower seeds or sugar-free gum.

Munching Sunflower Seeds or Just Chewing?

Q. A reader recently suggested eating sunflower seeds to stay awake while driving. I too have looked for an antidote to feeling drowsy while driving. When I thought about eating something, I wanted something small. I didn’t want to take in any more calories than I had to.

It occurred to me that maybe the act of chewing would work just as well as actually eating something, so I tried sugar-free gum. It worked like a charm! Whatever the reason, gum almost always keeps that drowsy feeling away, so I keep several packs of gum in the car at all times.

Scientific Support for Chewing Sugar-Free Gum:

A. Thank you for offering an alternative to sunflower seeds. Chewing gum may be an excellent approach.

According to a review of the medical literature,

“many of the studies indicated that chewing exerts a positive effect on attention, and especially on sustained attention, in addition to improved mood and stress relief” (Biomed Research International, May 17, 2015).

Side Effects of Sugar-Free Gum:

We remind those who are not accustomed to chewing gum with sorbitol or maltitol that such sugar substitutes can cause diarrhea if you consume too much of them. Five years ago, we received this report from a reader:

Q. I just ate a bar of sugarless dark chocolate. It was low carb and gluten free, so I assumed it would be a healthy treat.

I suffered severe stomach cramping, gas and diarrhea! What happened?

A. Sugarless candy is often sweetened with maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol. These sweeteners are called sugar alcohols although they are neither sugar nor alcohol. They have fewer calories than table sugar and were originally derived from natural sources such as sweet potatoes, pineapples, birch bark or beets.

These compounds are not absorbed well, so they attract water into the lower digestive tract. This can result in cramping and diarrhea if too much is consumed.

You are not the only one to have experienced an unpleasant result from eating a bit too much sugarless chocolate. EBM noted:

“Sugarfree candies and products usually carry a warning on the label that too much (it may state the amount) can have a laxative reaction. One must read labels, even on candy and gum!

“An elderly friend called and said she was ‘exploding’ after eating half a bag of coffee nips — sugarfree! THIS WAS OVER 10 YEARS AGO, and is old info.”

We have occasionally suggested sugar-free gum or candy to people who are troubled with constipation. You should approach the dosing cautiously, as it may well vary from one person to another.

A final word of caution: if your sugar-free gum contains xylitol, keep it locked away from any dogs that may ride with you because they could poison themselves if they ate it.

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  1. GW

    Be careful about pulling off the road and sleeping. I did that on two occasions and found myself awaking up behind the wheel sleep driving. If I am forced to do it now, I hide the keys under the seat, so I wake up looking for the keys.

  2. Shirley M.
    Huntsville TX

    Yes! I have used sugar-free gum for years to stay awake driving. I just thought it was my idea. I also use it in other situations where I might get sleepy, like taking classes. I’m so happy to see that others have the same results.

  3. Queenie

    I AM the queen of dieting since I received a girdle for my 11th birthday over 6 decades ago!
    And I am still reading labels for contents information. I had to reread the article about sugar-free gum to understand it was the chewing activity that kept one awake. Duh on me! I was concerned that it had a keep-awake component! I indulge in sugar free gum at night when I am reading and really want chocolate!

    My unsolicited advice is to learn about the listed ingredients on processed food labels and moderation in all things, a concept which I have finally grasped! Even with chocolate!

  4. Mardee
    Denver, CO

    I am reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, PhD, who is a sleep scientist formerly at Harvard and now at UC Berkeley. Honestly, any technique that allows you to keep driving when you are that tired is a terrible idea. When your adenosine levels get high enough, your body will “microsleep” and you won’t even be aware of it. If you are tired, switch drivers, get a hotel room, or pull over and take a nap. The rest of us on the road will thank you for it. Being drowsy while driving means that you are not only just as likely to have an accident as someone who is drunk, but the accident is statistically more likely to be fatal both for you and for others.

  5. CharD1215
    Bristol, VA

    As an ex-trucker, I can recommend brushing your teeth as a good way to bring back a state of alertness. Before starting a middle-of-the-night shift, I would put a tiny dab of toothpaste on a brush. When I felt myself getting sleepy, a simple brushing for several minutes would always wake me up. A tiny dab of toothpaste was enough to flavor the brushing, but not enough to need to spit. Some people might say “yuck” to this as being unsanitary, but it was better than ending up in a wreck.

  6. Cindy

    I was taking some over-the-counter medicine with Mannitol and was having horrible problems with diarrhea. I finally figured out what was making me stay so close to the bathroom and have eliminated it from my diet. Recently I have developed a sensitivity to corn and corn products (popcorn, corn, corn syrup, cornstarch, etc.). Do you know how many things have corn in them? I now take an OTC medicine before each meal, and my doctor gave me a prescription medicine to take before I go out to eat and don’t know the ingredients. I wonder how many other people are suffering like this and don’t know what’s causing it. Doctors don’t even seem to know.

  7. Nancy
    New Jersey

    I wish the sugar-free gum my dentist recommended only caused diarrhea. I have permanent intestinal damage. Xylitol is evil and should be banned. I had a colonoscopy within a month of using the gum for dry mouth. After being able to eat popcorn for snacks to having noticeable problems, I wonder how many people missed the correlation? It could just be blamed on old age. BTW, I cannot tell the dentist, she is dead.

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