The Truth About Sugar

May 24, 2020


Heather Maddox, MD

I think we would all be hard-pressed to say we have never craved sugar, gotten excited about having a freshly baked cookie, or looked forward to getting a taste of birthday cake! In fact, sugar has been a part of people’s lives for centuries.

Let’s face it. When we are stressed, down, or just want a quick pick me up, sugar definitely fits the bill.

However, with the rise of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, more attention has been given to studying whether the amount and types of sugar we consume could be playing a role in chronic disease development. One thing we know for sure is that sugar causes an inflammatory reaction in our body when consumed. Over time, this can lead to a system-wide immune response.

Why does this happen? How does sugar affect our immune system and cause inflammation?

When we eat a donut, cookie, candy, sticky bun, etc, enzymes in our small intestine start to break down the sugars into fructose and glucose that get absorbed into the blood. Even though we need these simple sugars for energy, harmful compounds can form in the bloodstream when proteins and fats combine with these sugars, especially if large numbers are present after a heavy intake. What gets formed is something called advanced glycation end products or AGEs for short.

What AGEs do is increase inflammation and produce free radicals. This combination causes damage to surrounding tissues and starts to make them look foreign to our immune system.

While all of this is starting to occur, our immune systems gatekeepers called dendritic cells are roaming through the bloodstream looking for any signs of trouble. They spot the damaged tissue and start sending concerning signals to the rest of the immune system. What they also do is act like a server handing out appetizers, so to speak, and bring a sample of these AGE products to your immune cells to decide whether this is a stranger danger situation and if there is a need to sound off the alarm bells.

Unfortunately, when your immune cells sample AGE’s, the alarms are sounded off…big time. Within the immune cell, something called NF kB, which is usually in a resting state or asleep, gets woken up and activated. It leaps into action and tells your cells to produce lots of inflammatory markers to try to take care of the problem and deal with the damaged tissue, or free radicals, so they don’t do more damage.

This process actually starts as soon as 1 hour after eating and remains active for over 3 hours. Maybe if we ate a donut every once in a while, we could handle it. However, many people feel dinner is not complete without a dessert. Some take it a step further and desire dessert after lunch. Others crave sugar all the time and may snack on candy, or substitute sodas for water throughout the day.

Now you have a set up of inflammation present all day long. To some, this may feel like pain, migraines, irritability or maybe it presents more as rashes or allergies.

A key point is that if we frequently consume high sugary foods and liquids, NF kB stays chronically turned on and does not have a chance to rest. We start to become chronically inflamed. This process can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, depression, and aging.

What about our Microbiome?

If that isn’t enough, another problem with diets high in sugars is actually a change in our gut bacteria or microbiome. Sugar tends to foster the growth of some bacteria while inhibiting others. In animal models, the bacterial species inhibited by sugar is what helps regulate our weight and metabolism. Too much sugar actually prevents this certain species from making a key protein it needs to grow and thrive and hence may contribute to the development of obesity.

We have normal amounts of yeast that need to remain balanced with the other species in our gut. However, yeast loves sugar, so eating too much can lead to yeast overgrowth. This can contribute directly to leaky gut, more inflammation, and also activate the immune system.

How about our energy levels?

You may be thinking, I seem to have more energy when I eat sugary foods. When sugars are first being broken down, they are an immediate resource for energy. However, if you eat high sugary foods like a donut, you may notice a let down several hours later whether it be fatigue, irritability, or maybe decreased motivation.

There is a significant energy expenditure that the body has to endure when we eat sugary foods. It takes a lot of energy, vitamins, and other nutrients to make the inflammatory chemicals and clean up the free radicals produced by the impact of those AGE compounds I mentioned earlier. The worst part is that little to no gains are made when we eat cookies and brownies, for example. It is like making a large withdrawal out of your checking account with no deposit ever coming in to fill the void. Over time, we can get depleted in key nutrients we need for normal functioning. This can lead to fatigue, muscle pain, brain fog, and a whole host of other symptoms.

What now? Can I ever enjoy a cookie again?

Even though what I have just talked about sounds scary, it is not feasible for most of us to never indulge in sweets. However, if you are craving something sweet, it is always better to go for real foods that contain sugars like fruits and some starchy veggies. They at least also contain fiber which helps feed and nourish your good gut bacteria. Choosing natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, raw unpasteurized honey, or even coconut sugar instead of refined sugars can offer a yummy sweetness and calm cravings. In addition, avoiding refined sugar and artificial sweeteners can help mitigate the negative effects on your gut bacteria and in making AGE products.

Sugar cravings and addiction can be very challenging to deal with. Working with a functional medicine practitioner, dietitian, and health coach can be extremely helpful in trying to tackle this and manage factors that are contributing like stress, poor sleep, and financial challenges to making healthier choices.

Please schedule your complimentary 20-minute phone call today if you are struggling and want help dealing with too much sugar in your life.