Is Sugar Bad For Your Health?
Sugar is not inherently bad. In fact, sugar naturally occurs in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating whole foods that contain natural sugar is healthy for your body.
Plant foods and plant-based supplements like Root'd also have high amounts of fiber, antioxidants, and essential minerals, while dairy foods contain calcium and protein. Since the human body digests these foods slowly, the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells.
So, it's important to keep in mind that when health experts warn us about the adverse effects of sugar on our bodies, they're actually referring to "refined sugar" that manufacturers add to cookies or soda to make them sweet.
Does Sugar Cause Inflammation?
Don't freak out if you had a soda or candy bar earlier. One sugary snack isn't going to make your body go haywire. But when sugar becomes a regular part of our diets, things start to get problematic. One good example is when you take gummy vitamins (that are loaded with an unhealthy amount of sugar) daily as part of your “healthy regimen.” 🙄
Eating too much added sugar can damage the body on a cellular level. Diets high in refined or added sugar trigger the body to produce pro-inflammatory molecules, which could create an environment of chronic, low-grade inflammation.
What is Inflammation?
Though it's often talked about in a negative light, inflammation is not always a bad thing. It's a natural and vital part of the body's immune response. Essentially, inflammation is the body's way of protecting itself from infection, injury, or disease. When you cut your finger, for example, the area may become red, warm, and swollen—these are signs of inflammation working to heal your wound by sending nutrients and immune cells to the affected area.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation is the body's immediate and short-term response to an injury, infection, or other foreign invaders. Consider it an army of immune cells mobilizing against a threat. Inflammatory cytokines are the first soldiers to respond, signaling other immune cells to take action. This mechanism helps the body ward off diseases and heal injuries. And once the issue is resolved, the troops go home.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation (also known as systematic inflammation) is like an army that never stands down. Instead of responding to immediate threats, this prolonged inflammatory process continues even without foreign invaders. The immune cells and inflammatory cytokines remain on heightened alert, often misidentifying the body's own tissues as threats and attacking them. This can lead to autoimmune disorders where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells and tissues, which can significantly damage organs, tissues, and cells.
Several factors can trigger this systematic inflammation, such as aging, alcoholism, cigarette smoking, lack of exercise, and —you guessed it—too much added sugar. But how exactly can sugar fire up chronic inflammation?
The Not-So-Sweet Connection Between Sugar and Inflammation
Observational data will show us that higher sugar intake is correlated with higher levels of inflammation. Some of these clinical trials and nutrition research found that:
- Young children who drink more sugary beverages have higher levels of inflammation.
- A study involving 44 healthy women found that a high glycemic diet was linked to elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, a marker of non-specific inflammation.
- A study conducted in 2018 found that consuming only 40 grams of added sugar from just a 375-ml can of soda daily led to an increase in insulin resistance, LDL cholesterol, and inflammatory markers. Those who consume 17-21% of calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
- The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in America declined from 1999 to 2010, and C-reactive protein (CRP) also decreased during the same period.
While these correlations are not enough to pin sugar as a culprit that directly triggers inflammation, the case grows stronger when combined with mechanistic data. With that said, here are eight ways sugar may drive inflammation.
8 Ways Sugar Can Cause Inflammation
1. By Sabotaging Oral Health
Every time you indulge in sugary treats, you feed pathogenic oral bacteria called Streptococcus mutans (or S. mutans), which leave acid behind and wear away your tooth enamel. These harmful bacteria promote cavities, can sneak into the bloodstream, and trigger inflammation throughout the body, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease.
2. By Disrupting the Gut Microbiome
Your gut is home to billions of bacteria – both good and bad. Consuming too much sugar can throw off this balance, allowing harmful bacteria to thrive. This imbalance can increase intestinal permeability, known as 'leaky gut,’ which allows food particles and toxins like sugar to enter the bloodstream and sneak into other parts of the body, leading to an inflammatory immune response.
3. By Increasing Insulin Levels
Excessive sugar intake can cause rapid spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels, leading to mood swings, fatigue, and headaches. Over time, these fluctuations can make cells more resistant to insulin, requiring your body to produce more insulin to stabilize blood sugar levels. This insulin resistance and the constant spike in insulin levels from a diet high in refined sugars can trigger chronic inflammation. This heightened inflammatory state not only increases the risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes but also exacerbates other health complications.
4. By Increasing Fat Production in the Liver
The liver plays a vital role in metabolizing sugar by converting it into energy or storing it for later use. However, consuming too much sugar overwhelms the liver's ability to process it efficiently. To cope with the excessive sugar intake, the liver starts converting the excess sugar into fat (known as lipogenesis). The liver then releases these fats into the bloodstream in the form of triglycerides, which can be stored in adipose tissue throughout the body. This increased fat production in the liver can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). As fat accumulates in the liver, it can disrupt normal liver function, leading to inflammation.
5. By Elevating Oxidative Stress
Excessive sugar consumption can mess up our cells' powerhouses (mitochondria), making our cells ignore the insulin that helps control sugar levels. This leads to the production of harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) and triggers inflammation. Sugar also lowers our body's defense system (antioxidants) and activates stress signals in our cells, making things worse.
6. By Increasing Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs)
When sugar reacts with proteins or fats in the bloodstream, it creates harmful molecules known as Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs). These AGEs play a role in aging and the development of diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cardiovascular disease. They are also potent drivers of inflammation. As the body accumulates more AGEs, the risk for inflammation and related diseases also increases.
7. By Disrupting Hormonal Balance
Excessive sugar intake can interfere with hormones in the body. For example, too much sugar can result in increased levels of cortisol, a hormone that is known to trigger inflammation. Elevated cortisol can also disrupt sleep, increase weight gain, and negatively affect mood and mental well-being.
8. By Promoting Weight Gain and Obesity
A diet high in sugar often contributes to obesity and weight gain. Excess body fat, particularly in the abdominal area (belly fat), acts as an active endocrine organ, releasing inflammatory mediators into the bloodstream. As a result, obesity is considered a state of chronic low-grade inflammation. The inflammatory chemicals released by adipose tissue can lead to insulin resistance, heart disease, and other obesity-related health issues.
How can you avoid the sweet danger of sugar?
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help you live a long and healthy life. Cutting back on added sugar is a big step (especially for the sweet tooth), but we must remember it's just one piece of the puzzle. Exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting quality sleep and adequate amounts of essential nutrients are extremely important, too.
Also, reducing sugar intake doesn't mean you have to totally eliminate treats from your diet. Some sugar substitutes, such as monk fruit and erythritol, can still satisfy your taste buds without empty calories. We love these natural sweeteners as they don't raise blood sugar levels and may help decrease the calories you consume.