How Sugar and Inflammation Can Cause Chronic Disease
It seems like sugar is in everything these days. A close look at a ketchup label, most salad dressings, and even certain snack crackers will reveal hidden sugars that you might not be taking into account.
While we know sugar isn’t an ideal part of a healthy eating plan, it’s more than just empty calories that we should be thinking about. Sugar can spur on problematic inflammation in your body, and if you’re constantly eating it, it can cause chronic health issues.
You need background information to understand the relationship between sugar and inflammation, and how the two could be connected. Let’s take a closer look.
Inflammation and Lifestyle
We know that chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases, most notably, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s. We also know that inflammation levels increase as we gain body weight in the form of fat. And finally, we know that certain lifestyle choices increase the inflammatory response in our bodies, while others can help calm the fires.
What are some of these lifestyle choices? We’ve already mentioned sugar as a major factor, which will be our main focus here, but there are other important factors to consider as well.
For one, we know that smoking, poor dental hygiene, and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to increased inflammation. Chronic stress and poor sleep hygiene are also potential risks (1).
The relationship between sugar and inflammation is still being studied but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that excessive sugar intake triggers an inflammatory response that can lead to serious chronic disease. This excessive intake comes in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates like white bread or pastries, and other junk food.
To combat preventable illnesses, it’s critical to understand the role of inflammation in your body, how it’s connected to your health, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
After learning what we’ve covered so far, it’s tempting to take an extreme view that all inflammation is bad. But the truth is more nuanced than that.
There’s a reason your body has mechanisms to heat things up from time to time, namely to protect you from infection and to promote healing when you injure yourself. Your immune system is a complex collection of cells and signals that send in the defenses when something goes awry. Fever kills bacterial or viral invaders, and protects you from acute infection by turning on inflammation. You need inflammation to kill bacteria in an open wound so that your body can go to work to heal.
But it’s when inflammation runs rampant and becomes chronic that you start to get into trouble. In a healthy, well-functioning immune system, the protective functions turn off when the threat is over, and your body continues functioning as usual. In an overactive or chronically taxed immune system, those signals to turn down the heat don’t fire properly, leaving low-grade inflammation burning long after the threat is over.
This type of low-grade chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on just about every part of your body.
It can eat away at the protective mucus in the gut that keeps bacteria out of your bloodstream and increase your risk of infection and even colon cancer. It can increase insulin levels and lead to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes. Some research is beginning to suggest that this cascade of effects can lead to Alzheimer’s as well (2). And it can create confusion such that the immune system begins to attack healthy tissue (as in the case for autoimmune diseases) (3). Scary stuff!
Sugar and Inflammation
While it might seem obvious that extra dietary sugar could cause weight gain, we don’t always think about the broader health concerns of overindulging, beyond just extra belly fat.
Studies have shown that adding just one regular soda daily increases the inflammatory marker c-reactive protein, shrinks LDL cholesterol particles (not good), and raises fasting blood sugar (1). These types of changes have long-term effects and put individuals at greater risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even many cancers.
Fats vs Fructose
In the 1980s, a body of misleading research led popular nutrition beliefs away from fats and toward more sugar-rich diets. There was no caveat for eating healthy fats. Rather, all fat was bad, so going low-fat and fat-free became all the rage.
But once the fat was removed, the processed foods tasted terrible, and manufacturers needed to continue selling. Added sugar, in the form of sucrose (fructose and glucose) or high fructose corn syrup, became the solution.
As a nation, we jumped from consuming roughly 15 grams of fructose per day in the 1900s to upwards of 55 grams per day for adults and 73 grams per day for children (4). And we collectively raised our blood sugar levels as a nation. In 2017, the CDC reported that two out of every five Americans would be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime (5).
Fructose is metabolized in the liver, which means that every time you consume foods containing fructose (including carbohydrates that break down into fructose), your liver turns on to break them down. By the time the liver is done breaking down fructose, it’s created triglycerides, uric acid, and free radicals. If you eat a lot of sugar, a lot of those three byproducts are made, which can wreak havoc on your health (4).
Triglycerides are a type of fat that can build up in liver cells and create a dysfunctional, fatty liver. They can also float through the bloodstream and stick to artery walls, contributing to the plaque that leads to heart disease (4).
Excessive fat in the bloodstream can also lead to excessive production of advanced glycation end products. These byproducts can lead to increased production of proinflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress (6).
Uric acid is a normal byproduct of your liver and is generally flushed out by your kidneys through your urine. An overload of uric acid can lead to kidney stones and gout, and generally contribute to a low pH (high acid) in your body (7).
Free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species) cause oxidative stress on human cells, which leads to cell damage (4). Sugar isn’t the only cause of free radicals in your body. Processed and fried foods high in trans-fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) are also implicated.
So consuming a low-fat diet turned out to be high-fat in the body. Researchers haven’t yet been able to draw a straight line from fructose to the growing diabetes and obesity epidemics in our country. But the correlation between sugar and inflammation, in addition to the correlation between inflammation and these diseases (and others) definitely bears out in observational studies in humans and rodents as well as epidemiological studies (1, 7, 8, 9).
Steps Toward Health
While we’re still working to understand the causal relationship between sugar and chronic disease, study after study reveals that inflammation is a root cause of nearly every chronic disease we face. There’s a dotted line between sugar and inflammation, which helps us understand the importance of reducing sugary foods and beverages in our diets.
An easy place to start is to replace sugar-sweetened beverages with unsweetened tea or sugar-free carbonated water. Drinking sugar is one of the largest culprits of weight gain and metabolic syndrome. That simple change alone could help jump-start weight loss, which is another step toward greater health.
Healthy foods that help combat inflammation are rich in antioxidants and fiber and low in sugar and trans-fats. Colorful vegetables, fruit (in moderation), complex carbohydrates like brown rice and sweet potatoes, lean meats, and omega–3 fatty acids are all part of a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet.
It’s also important to take care of your teeth and get regular exercise to reduce additional inflammation that might be building up.
Change can be a challenge, so find someone to buddy up with as you take on these new changes in your life. And as always, talk to your doctor before doing anything drastic.
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