Does Sugar Cause Inflammation? Here’s What We Know

Is there a link between sugar and inflammation? Learn the best and worst foods to reduce inflammation and optimize your health.

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by
Rebecca Washuta
— Signos
MS, CNS, LDN
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Reviewed by

Rebecca Washuta
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 17, 2024
September 13, 2023
— Updated:
September 14, 2023

Table of Contents

Everyone knows eating too much sugar can cause weight gain, but can it harm your health in other ways? The average American consumes an estimated 17 teaspoons of sugar daily, which adds up to a whopping 57 pounds annually.1 

As sugar consumption has increased, so have rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.2,3,4  Interestingly, these diseases and other conditions like cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s are largely associated with chronic inflammation. 

Could our increased sugar intake be responsible for the rise in chronic inflammation? Are some sugars better than others? What about natural sugars found in fruit? Keep reading for answers to these questions and more.

Sugar: Too Much of a Good Thing

While eating sugar in small amounts can help fuel our brains and bodies, eating too much of it can negatively impact our hormones, metabolism, nervous system, and overall health. 

Table sugar, or sucrose, is comprised of glucose and fructose. These molecules are naturally found in foods containing carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, so our bodies have a way of processing them for energy. In fruits, as opposed to processed foods, sugar is packaged with fiber and phytonutrients, which help slow absorption. 

This promotes balanced blood sugar and insulin levels and prevents our liver from being flooded with too much glucose. However, packaged foods like donuts, cereals, cookies, and candy are absorbed quickly, causing a sharp rise in blood sugar. Over time, high blood sugar can significantly damage our health. 

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What Is Inflammation and Why Is It Bad?

Inflammation is our bodies' natural (and often helpful) immune response. When you fall and twist your ankle, for example, your body triggers an inflammatory process that dilates the blood vessels, allowing cells like neutrophils to repair damaged tissue and begin healing. This type of rapid, short-term inflammation typically happens in response to tissue damage or infection and is referred to as acute inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a slow, long-term process that may last months or even years.5 In chronic inflammation, neutrophils are replaced by other immune cells like macrophages and lymphocytes. These cells release molecules called cytokines that perpetuate the inflammation process.5  

Chronic inflammation very often goes undiagnosed, as the symptoms can vary from person to person. Here are some common signs:

  1. Body pain

Pain in your muscles and joints may be caused by long-term, low-grade inflammation. Research shows that patients with chronic inflammation have higher rates of pain disorders.6

  1. Fatigue

Inflammation may be a cause of persistent fatigue. Experts have found that patients with increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines have an increased risk of chronic fatigue.7

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  1. Insomnia

Chronic inflammation has been shown to interfere with normal circadian rhythms and reduce sleep quality.7 

  1. Frequent infections

Repeated or long-term infections can be both the cause of and result of chronic inflammation.8

  1. Constipation or diarrhea 

Gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, are believed to be triggered by chronic low-grade inflammation.9

  1. Depression and anxiety

It’s common for mood disorders to develop due to chronic inflammation.5

If you suspect you may be suffering from chronic inflammation, talk to your doctor.

Does Sugar Cause Inflammation?

High blood glucose caused by excess sugar intake causes oxidative stress in the body, which leads to inflammation.10 Oxidative stress occurs when the body cannot neutralize free radicals. Left unchecked, free radicals can damage cells and tissues and trigger a cycle of chronic inflammation. 

Obesity and intestinal dysbiosis are widely believed to be causes of low-grade systemic chronic inflammation, and sugar plays a role in each of these.11 Obesity alone can increase proinflammatory compounds, driving up inflammation in the body.12 Obesity can also cause fatty liver disease, contributing to diabetes and putting you at risk for heart disease.

Additionally, research has shown obesity can lead to harmful changes in the gut microbiome. Alterations in the composition of gut flora can increase intestinal permeability, which in turn causes even more systemic inflammation in the body.11

Can Other Foods Cause Inflammation?

Diet can be important in increasing or decreasing inflammation in our bodies. Dietary patterns that are high in omega-6 fatty acids are believed to increase the body’s inflammatory response. Omega-6 fatty acids are precursors to proinflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. 

Like the inflammation process, omega-6’s aren’t inherently harmful; instead, it’s about maintaining a balance along with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.13 The typical Western diet contains too few omega-3s and too many omega-6s. This high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio has been linked to chronic inflammation.14 

The following ingredients (often found in fried and processed foods) have the highest omega-6 content and should be limited:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Peanuts/Peanut oil
  • Corn/Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Olive oil
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A diet focusing on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can help reduce damage from oxidative stress and lower inflammation. Aim for an anti-inflammatory diet of colorful whole foods, wild-caught or pasture-raised sources of proteins, and healthy fats. 

A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Other Ways to Reduce Inflammation?

Inflammation can be the result of many different factors. In addition to cutting back on sugar, here are some other ways to fight inflammation:

  1. Stop Smoking 

Cigarette smoke contains free radicals, which cause oxidative damage and inflammation.

  1. Stay Active

Physical activity helps in two ways: it supports weight loss and helps your lymphatic system remove toxins from the body. 

  1. Manage Stress

Chronic stress raises cortisol levels, leading to elevated blood pressure and other health complications. Over time, this can lead to widespread inflammation. 

  1. Try Anti-Inflammatory Foods

A fiber-rich diet, polyphenols from colorful fruits and vegetables, and omega-3s from wild-caught fish can help lower inflammation. 

  1. Add Some Spice

Herbs and spices are excellent sources of antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Add turmeric, ginger, oregano, basil, and rosemary to your meals. 

Tips for Reducing Sugar Intake

Added sugar is everywhere nowadays, so it can be hard to avoid. Here are our top tips for reducing your sugar intake: 

  1. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. These sugary drinks, like fruit juice and soft drinks, will spike your blood sugar fast. Opt for water, sparkling water, or tea
  2. Check the labels. Sugar has many different names (sucrose, maltose, fructose, cane syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc.), so it’s important to read nutrition labels carefully. 
  3. Pay attention to serving sizes. For example, the nutrition label on a chocolate bar is typically only for ¼ of the bar - meaning you need to take the grams of sugar listed and multiply by four if you eat the whole bar. 
  4. Try natural low-calorie sweeteners like stevia or monkfruit.
  5. Cook and bake at home. Preparing meals and snacks at home is the best way to avoid added sugars. 

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice.

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References

  1. Know Your Limit for Added Sugars. (2021, November 28). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html
  2. Faruque, S., Tong, J., Lacmanovic, V., Agbonghae, C., Minaya, D. M., & Czaja, K. (2019). The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States - a Review. Polish journal of food and nutrition sciences, 69(3), 219–233. https://doi.org/10.31883/pjfns/110735
  3. Prevalence of Both Diagnosed and Undiagnosed Diabetes. (2022, September 30). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/diagnosed-undiagnosed-diabetes.html
  4. Teng, M. L., Ng, C. H., Huang, D. Q., Chan, K. E., Tan, D. J., Lim, W. H., Yang, J. D., Tan, E., & Muthiah, M. D. (2023). Global incidence and prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Clinical and molecular hepatology, 29(Suppl), S32–S42. https://doi.org/10.3350/cmh.2022.0365
  5. Pahwa, R., Goyal, A., Jialal, I,. (2023, August 7). Chronic Inflammation. StatPearls- NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
  6. Zhou, W. B. S., Meng, J., & Ji, Z. (2021). Does low grade systemic inflammation have a role in chronic pain? Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnmol.2021.785214
  7. Lacourt, T. E., Vichaya, E. G., Chiu, G. S., Dantzer, R., & Heijnen, C. J. (2018). The High Costs of Low-Grade Inflammation: Persistent Fatigue as a Consequence of Reduced Cellular-Energy Availability and Non-adaptive Energy Expenditure. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 12, 78. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00078
  8. Hormaechea-Agulla, D., Matatall, K. A., Le, D., Kain, B., Long, X., Kus, P., Jaksik, R., Challen, G. A., Kimmel, M., & King, K. Y. (2021). Chronic infection drives Dnmt3a-loss-of-function clonal hematopoiesis via IFNγ signaling. Cell Stem Cell, 28(8), 1428-1442.e6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2021.03.002
  9. Ng, Q. X., Soh, A. Y. S., Loke, W., Lim, D. Y., & Yeo, W. S. (2018). The role of inflammation in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Journal of inflammation research, 11, 345–349. https://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S174982
  10. Albert-Garay, J. S., Riesgo-Escovar, J. R., & Salceda, R. (2022). High glucose concentrations induce oxidative stress by inhibiting Nrf2 expression in rat Müller retinal cells in vitro. Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-05284-x
  11. Furman, D., Campisi, J., Verdin, E., Carrera-Bastos, P., Targ, S., Franceschi, C., Ferrucci, L., Gilroy, D. W., Fasano, A., Miller, G. W., Miller, A. H., Mantovani, A., Weyand, C. M., Barzilai, N., Goronzy, J. J., Rando, T. A., Effros, R. B., Lucia, A., Kleinstreuer, N., & Slavich, G. M. (2019). Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nature medicine, 25(12), 1822–1832. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0
  12. Ellulu, M. S., Patimah, I., Khaza'ai, H., Rahmat, A., & Abed, Y. (2017). Obesity and inflammation: the linking mechanism and the complications. Archives of medical science : AMS, 13(4), 851–863. https://doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2016.58928
  13. Innes, J. K., & Calder, P. C. (2018). Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 132, 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2018.03.004
  14. Simopoulos A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & pharmacotherapie, 56(8), 365–379. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0753-3322(02)00253-6

About the author

Rebecca Washuta is a licensed dietitian with degrees in neuroscience and nutrition and helped individuals develop long-term health habits and achieve various wellness goals.

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