Does Sugar Really Suppress the Immune System?
Our understanding of how food affects our bodies is constantly unfolding. Sometimes, that means giving up an old belief in light of newer evidence. In the 80’s medical professionals and nutritionists believed sugar from an apple was no different in the body than sugar from a snickers bar. So, hog it down right? We also thought all fats were bad and that they were the culprit escalating heart disease.
Now we know better.
And new science is revealing how misinformed we once were about the role of dietary sugar in suppressing the immune system to prepare the body for sickness and “dis-ease” of every kind.
At the same time my friends and I were dancing our puffy side ponytails and leg warmers all over the dance floor, researchers were uncovering the next decade of research in immunosuppression by elevated blood sugars.
The Sugar Coma
See, when you eat a big dose of sugar like a bottle of Coke or a candy bar, you temporarily tamp down your immune system’s ability to respond to challenges. The effect lasts for several hours, so if you eat sweets several times a day, your immune system may be perpetually operating at a distinct disadvantage.
Where do we get such a crazy idea?
Well, it’s based largely on research done in the 1970s in which study subjects donated blood before and after consuming a large dose of sugar (honey and orange juice were also tested). The blood was then placed in a petri dish and inoculated with a common strain of bacteria. Under a microscope, researchers could see that after a dose of simple sugars, certain white blood cells called neutrophils or phagocytes were far less aggressive in gobbling up the bacteria.
It was a vivid demonstration that served as a powerful cautionary tale about the harmful effects of sugar. But it’s striking that in the intervening 50 years, this study was never replicated or built upon. There is no research showing that consuming more sugar makes you more susceptible to colds or flu, for example. Why in heaven’s name not?
Well, there’s a big blatant reason for that. What came to light in 2016 through a whistleblowing publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association JAMA, is 50 years of the Sugar Industries sweet little lies about what scientists were REALLY finding out about dietary sugar and human health. In addition, the Sugar Industry paid top dollar, $50,000 to be exact to point the finger of scorn at dietary fat instead.
The Big Sugar Coverup
A committee known as the Sugar Research Foundation, funded by all the collective sugar growers and producers in the US, paid a couple of Harvard scientists to do a comprehensive review of all the research to date that implicated sugar in human health problems. And internal documentation reveals they were “very pleased with the results”. Basically, the Harvard scientists suggested there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar, and concluded that cutting fat out of American diets was the the best way to address coronary heart disease which is still the number threat to Americans health today. Super smart move for the Sugar Research Foundation, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to direct the scientific discussion …for years to come. Because this lobby group was so influential, research into the damaging effects of sugar became a dead end for scientists. Which is exactly what the Sugar Research Foundation wanted…and it continued for 50 more years.
But the immune response is a very complex system. Sending a neutrophil to gobble up an offending pathogen is just one of many different ways that the body defends itself.
Your Internal Law Enforcement, The Immune System
I love this explanation of immunity given by Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS.
“There are arms of the immune system that function like beat cops, roaming around and arresting (or gobbling up) suspicious looking characters. But there are other arms that function more like the CIA, surveilling and keeping dossiers on known criminals so that they can be quickly apprehended should they attempt to strike again. Once identified, our immune system also has many methods for detaining, disarming, or destroying these criminal elements. We can heat them up, beat them up, poison them, dismember them, isolate, immobilize, or deport them.”
Different threats activate different arms of the immune system and elicit different responses. Other departments of the immune system aren’t that good at spotting or apprehending offenders but instead react to signs of criminal activity, dispatching first responders to secure the area and deal with the wounded. Different threats activate different arms of the immune system and elicit different responses.
So to look at a petri dish full of neutrophils in a sugar-induced coma and say that “eating sugar suppresses immune response” is a bit of an over-simplification.
However, we do know that there are many other downsides to over-consuming sugar, everything from weight gain to diabetes to tooth decay. So, while I think we may have been guilty of over-simplification and over-interpretation of a single, small study, I still think the advice to limit your intake of added sugar is good advice.
Of all the reasons to curb your intake of simple sugars, immunosuppression is one to keep in mind as we approach the next looming flu season.
Dietary Sugar May Increase Your Risk of Cancer
Eating excessive amounts of sugar may increase your risk of developing certain cancers.
Here’s a National Institutes of Health study showing that a diet rich in sugary foods and beverages can lead to obesity, which significantly raises your risk of cancer.
Furthermore, diets high in sugar increase inflammation in your body and may cause insulin resistance, both of which increase cancer risk. Read about that government funded study here.
A study in over 430,000 people found that added sugar consumption was positively associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer, pleural cancer and cancer of the small intestine.
Another study showed that women who consumed pastries and cookies more than three times per week were 1.42 times more likely to develop endometrial cancer than women who consumed these foods less than 0.5 times per week. Pastry Cancer Study.
In a nutshell, too much sugar can lead to obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cancer.
Another associated Cancer connection comes from increased alcohol production in the body’s microbiome when fed simple sugars. Alcohol feeds cancer. This we already know. Read Cancer, Candida and Alcohol here.
Research on the link between sugar intake and cancer is ongoing, and more studies are needed to fully understand how all the complex mechanism works. But there’s plenty of fingers pointing at sugar to create a plan now to cut way back.
If you or a loved one are dealing with cancer, it could be a matter of life and death to consider not only the impact of dietary sugar on cancer growth but the impact of high carbohydrate eating on your trillions of tiny hitchhikers (your microbiome). Bringing the microbiome back into balance will be key to your sustained recovery. To understand just why, Read Cancer, Candida and Alcohol here.