We are all familiar with the connection between sugar and tooth decay. The link between sugar and type 2 diabetes is fairly accepted too. But what about the relationship between excessive sugar and heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, eczema and other chronic diseases?
There are 2 steps along the sugar-inflammation-disease pathway:
- Excessive sugar intake creates inflammation
- Inflammation underpins all chronic disease
Sugar and inflammation – the science
In my blog on keeping blood sugar in balance, I describe 2 ways in which sugar can create inflammation: excessive sugar intake leading to insulin resistance, and the impact of fructose on blood vessels. Actually, there are several ways that we know about, and probably more that haven’t been studied yet. Here’s an outline of some of the ways sugar may be creating inflammation in your body:
- Insulin resistance
When you have too much sugar into your bloodstream, your levels of a hormone called insulin rise. Insulin tells cells to open their doors to sugar and use it for energy – and they do this by slotting into an insulin receptor on the cell wall.
Insulin resistance is when these receptors stop working, which can happen with excessive long term sugar intake, vitamin D deficiency and other causes. With insulin resistance, you end up with excess insulin and sugar in your bloodstream. You can store much of this sugar, for example as fat, but in the meantime, the excess sugar and insulin creates inflammation and damage. This inflammation might be in your blood vessels, your nerves, your liver, your kidneys or elsewhere.
- Fat cells and inflammation
The sugar you have stored as fat – in particular your visceral or abdominal fat – may trigger further insulin resistance and chronic inflammation. This is because your fat cells (aka adipose cells) are not just larders, but also part of your hormone system. They can trigger hormones that regulate your appetite, and they can send out other hormones that influence inflammation.
- Fructose malabsorption
Sweet things are made up of different kinds of sugar complexes, and these are made up largely of the simple sugars glucose and/or fructose. Your small intestine breaks them down to these simple sugars. From there, the glucose slips easily into your bloodstream, and it takes fructose with it.
If you have more fructose than glucose, for example in fruit juice, agave syrup and high fructose corn syrup, then you can end up with excess fructose hanging around your gut.
Some people find it especially difficult to absorb fructose, and this can be an increased problem.
The excess fructose in the gut can contribute to inflammation there, not least by overfeeding any pathogenic bacteria and other microbes. This is often an issue with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), causing abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhoea.
- Sugar, inflammation and the microbiome
Inflammation in the gut contributes to the overgrowth of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes in the gut. These in turn create more inflammation – not just in the gut, but throughout the body.
There are several ways this can happen. One is when these microbes create a leaky gut, and can slip past your body’s natural defences into your bloodstream, and then be carried around your body. Wherever they spread, they can create more inflammation.
Another is due to how your gut bacteria communicates directly with your immune system, and can trigger immune responses, including inflammation.
- Fructose, fat and inflammation
Fructose, once absorbed, is sent to the liver to be mostly converted into fat, in the form of triglycerides. Much of this will join the stores in your fat cells – and as we have seen, these have the potential to create insulin resistance and trigger inflammation.
They are carried in a form of transport called VLDL, and high levels of VLDL in the blood are associated with increased inflammation, which means a higher risk of heart disease.
Inflammation and chronic disease
Whereas heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular events were for a long time thought to be caused by high cholesterol, it is now becoming increasingly clear that the main culprit is inflammation. Inflamed blood vessels lose their integrity and are at risk of bursting, and your body will do everything it can do protect you from this. It now seems that arterial plaque – made of a little cholesterol and quite a lot of calcium – is a form of plaster cast or scaffolding, holding things in place and keeping you alive, at least in the short term. Surely the sensible approach is to reduce the inflammation, not the cholesterol?
And it’s not just strokes. Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, gout and Alzheimer’s disease have all been associated with insulin resistance and inflammation. In fact all chronic diseases feature inflammation as a key player.
In the simplest terms, this is because inflammation is there to solve health problems. If something is damaged or out of balance, inflammation will enable a rapid response team of nutrients and immune cells to help sort things out. In the short term, this may cause disruptions to normal service, but it’ll be worth it if your life is saved.
In the long term, however, inflammation can be as problematic as the situation it’s trying to resolve. And if you continually invite situations that create inflammation – excess sugar being one of them – then you may be putting your health at risk.
Should I give up sugar completely?
At Bloom Holistic Retreats, we believe in an approach to nutrition founded on self-love and self-care, rather than fear. We also want to avoid the common cycle of using food to deprive, punish and judge ourselves, and beat ourselves up when we “fail.” It’s often difficult to remove such emotions and judgements from eating, but we’re going to do everything we can to help.
Besides, it’s not sugar that’s the problem, it’s an excessive intake of it. There are also many other processes that contribute to inflammation, so it’s not all just about the sugar.
So we rarely encourage anyone to create a rulebook of what not to eat. Instead, we teach you ways to keep sugar in balance, choose healthier sources of sweetness and address root causes of excessive sugar cravings. That way, you find you naturally reach for the sugar less, and it’s much less of an issue when you do.
So how can I reduce my sugar intake?
- Give sweet foods a welcome place in your diet, and savour every mouthful when you have it
- Add a little more protein to your breakfast, and avoid skipping lunch
- Keep hydrated
- Read labels – you may be surprised at the levels of added sugar in even so-called health foods
- So instead of having fruit yoghurt, for example, buy plain, unsweetened yoghurt and add some fresh fruit of your choice
- Make your own sweet snacks, using just a little fruit, raw honey or blackstrap molasses to sweeten (you may find you don’t need as much as many popular recipes include!)
- Include naturally sweet vegetables such as carrots, squash and beetroot
- Spend time in nature, connecting to the Earth element, feeling grounded
- Come to the Bloom Weekend Retreat on Sugar! I’ll talk you through all this and more, and Hayley will journey you into the kitchen and onto the yoga mat. So you’ll get a chance to fully experience this holistic approach, and see how simple it is to make changes at home.
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