Inflammation is a natural component of the immune system that aids the body through its healing process. However, certain foods, such as sugar, can cause inflammation in the body. While this is normal, over-consumption of sugar can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation, which can contribute to many different health problems.
Let’s further explore the relationship between sugar consumption and inflammation and what you can do to protect your health.
The Connection Between Sugar and Inflammation
When the body senses an injury or infection, it reacts by releasing chemicals that fight off the harmful antigens while also protecting it. This results in inflammation, which can cause warmth, redness, and swelling.
Like a virus or bacteria, sugar can also cause inflammation in the body. Scientists believe that this is because sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver. The compounds that result as the body digests these free fatty acids can then trigger inflammatory processes.
In 2018, a systematic review found several studies that linked the consumption of more dietary sugar, primarily due to sugary drinks, with chronic inflammation. The studies found that those who had a higher sugar diet possessed more inflammatory markers in the blood, especially a marker called C-reactive protein.
Additionally, a 2014 study found that those who reduce their sugary drink intake experienced a decrease in inflammatory markers in the blood.
Findings such as this not only show that sugar can cause inflammation, but that the inflammation caused by sugar can be undone by decreasing sugar consumption. However, it is important to do this sooner than later since, while you can lower inflammatory markers, it is not possible to undo the damage already caused by chronic inflammation.
The Dangers of Chronic Inflammation
Some of the signs of chronic inflammation can include:
- body pain
- anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders
- weight gain
- insomnia and constant fatigue
- frequent infections
- diarrhea, constipation, and acid reflux
Chronic inflammation can also increase the risk of certain health conditions, including depression, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
Detecting Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can be gauged based on the presence of inflammatory markers, some of which include C-reactive protein (CRP), plasma viscosity (PV), and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). These markers are measured through blood tests, and they serve an important role in helping doctors diagnose and monitor inflammatory conditions.
Research has shown that sugar not only increases inflammatory markers but also increases LDL cholesterol and insulin resistance. A study on 29 healthy individuals saw these increases after the participants drank just one can of soda each day, consuming an additional 40 grams of added sugar.
Not only does sugar cause inflammatory markers to spike, but this effect lasts even after the food is consumed. For example, a study on fructose consumption found that a 50 g dose of fructose caused a spike in CRP 30 minutes later, and it remained high for more than two hours.
How Does Sugar Cause Inflammation?
We’ve seen the studies showing that eating sugar causes an increase in inflammatory markers, but why is it that this occurs?
There are many ways that sugar may affect the body and cause inflammation, such as:
Increased Gut Permeability
Consuming too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, two conditions that can increase gut permeability.
The gut is a central part of the body, playing a significant role in the immune system. However, when gut permeability increases, toxins, bacteria, and undigested food can more easily move out of the gut and into the bloodstream. Your body then reacts to these foreign components with inflammation.
With high sugar consumption, the gut is continually “leaky,” leading to chronic low-grade inflammation.
Excess AGE Production
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are harmful compounds that can form when fat or protein combines with sugar in the bloodstream. The more sugar you consume, the more sugar in the bloodstream, and the greater chance of this happening.
When there are too many AGEs in the body, oxidative stress and inflammation can occur.
One of the complications of excess sugar consumption is weight gain, which can lead to inflammation in two ways: excess fat can increase inflammatory markers and may lead to insulin resistance, increasing sugar levels in the bloodstream.
Higher LDL Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol in the body, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Despite there being two types of cholesterol, one is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol (LDL), while the other is referred to as “good” (HDL).
This is because LDL cholesterol contributes to the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. This then narrows the arteries and increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, or other cardiovascular health concerns.
Excess LDL cholesterol has also been associated with higher levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP).
Sugar can increase LDL cholesterol, which then increases inflammation.
Risks of Chronic Inflammation
While sugar is not the only cause of inflammation in the body, it is a contributor, and many health conditions can result from excess sugar consumption and the resultant chronic low-grade inflammation.
One effect that a diet high in added sugar can cause to the body is insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone responsible for turning blood sugar into energy for cells. However, with insulin resistance, the body is unable to use the sugar circulating in the blood, and this sugar can end up building up.
Over time, this insulin resistance can lead to diabetes, a comorbidity factor for many other health concerns.
Multiple studies have reported a strong link between sugary drink consumption and heart disease risk. There are many ways in which sugar can lead to this increased risk, including the increase in LDL cholesterol, increased blood pressure, increased inflammatory markers, insulin resistance, and obesity.
The relationship between sugar and heart disease can be significant, with one study on more than 75,000 women finding that a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates resulted in a 98% greater risk of heart disease.
Multiple studies have shown a relationship between sugar consumption and increased cancer risk.
More research is needed to further examine this relationship, but scientists suspect that the inflammatory nature of sugar is what causes the increased risk of cancer. This is because chronic inflammation may damage the cells of the body and their DNA.
Other scientists believe that chronically high insulin levels play a role in cancer development, something to which excess sugar consumption also contributes.
How to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
You can reduce inflammation in many ways, with one of the biggest being a reduction in sugar consumption. Multiple studies have shown that eating less sugar can decrease inflammation, so this should be a top priority.
As a guide, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that your sugar intake not exceed 10% of your daily energy intake, but aiming for a lower percentage may offer greater health benefits.
Another way to naturally reduce inflammation is by getting enough sleep. Studies have shown that inflammatory markers rise when you don’t get enough sleep. So, to help with your inflammation, make sure that you are spending enough time asleep each night.
To lower inflammation, it is also helpful to avoid other foods that commonly cause inflammation. While sugar can cause inflammation in the body, it is not the only food to be a culprit of this, with some other inflammatory foods including:
- trans fats (fried foods, fast food, donuts, cookies)
- saturated fats (red meat, decadent desserts, full-fat dairy products)
- excess omega-6 fatty acids (sunflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil)
- MSG (soy sauce, prepared soups, deli meats)
- refined carbohydrates (white rice, bread, white potatoes)
Managing your weight is another important way to reduce the risk of inflammation since obesity is a risk factor for chronic inflammation. This is because excess fat in the body can increase inflammatory factors, so weight loss is the most effective strategy for reducing chronic inflammation.
A final way to address inflammation is by correcting any hormonal balances. The sex hormones of testosterone and estrogen can slow the production of inflammatory factors. So, if estrogen or testosterone levels are low, which can occur with age and certain life stages (i.e., menopause), the production of inflammatory factors may increase.
By working with a doctor to test your hormone levels and address any imbalances, you could reduce chronic inflammation.
Sugar and Inflammation
While sugar is a component of many tasty drinks and beverages, consuming it in excess can cause chronic inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Sugar is not the only thing to blame for chronic inflammation, but it does play a key role and limiting sugar consumption has shown significant improvements in inflammation levels.
Other ways to address inflammation and lower it include getting enough sleep and correcting hormonal imbalances. If you are concerned about inflammation in your body, reach out to your doctor to check your inflammatory markers and discuss how to lower them and protect your health.
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About Dr. Mel Irvine
Dr. Mel Irvine, DNP and Clinical Sexologist specializes in sexual medicine and beauty in Fort Myers Florida. She earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice at Florida Gulf Coast University and her master’s degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 2018, she completed a preceptorship at San Diego Sexual Medicine with Dr. Irwin Goldstein and obtained her clinical sexologist certification from STII with Dr. Carol Clark. She is passionate about working with singles and couples to learn and explore their sexuality and sexual health needs through providing a comfortable and nonjudgmental atmosphere. As a provider she offers a balanced and holistic approach that encompasses a multimodal care delivery model.