How Sugar Causes Inflammation in the Body
Since high-sugar diets have been linked to increased joint pain, how does sugar cause inflammation in the body? To know, we have to understand in simple terms the role of sugar in your diet.
It’s Baked In—Literally
When we talk sugar, we’re referring to simple sugar, the element manufacturers place in processed foods. A partial listing of foods that contain sugar include:
- bread, including hot dog and hamburger buns
- yogurt and other dairy products
- fruit juices and smoothies
- soft drinks
- sweets and candies
- soups, sauces, and salad dressings
- tea and coffee drinks
- alcoholic beverages
A study by the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics found that soft drinks and juices not only introduce 36 percent more sugar into the average person’s diet, which causes more inflammation, but they offered no caloric or nutritional benefit. In other words, you’re drinking empty calories. The research also indicated that people don’t know how much sugar is in the food they consume.
“Sugar is in just about anything that's processed or packaged. Especially diet foods,” says Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS, a board-certified clinical and integrative nutritionist at Complete Health in North Texas.
“With diet foods, they take out all the flavors, so they have to replace it with something. They do this with sugar. The FDA allows for products to be labels sugar free or no sugar is there is 1/2 g or less sugar per serving.”
An easy starting point to reducing or eliminating sugar is learning to read food labels. A rule of thumb when looking for sugar content on food labels is to know the 61 common names for sugar (i.e., high fructose corn syrup or other -ose endings), and where you find them on the label. If one or more shows up within the first three ingredients, it's to be avoided.
“Sugar is also tricky as a listed ingredient. There are upwards of 50 names for sugar on labels. Many people are just looking for the word sugar,” says Brigham. “Really, they should be looking for sugars, syrups, nectars, and anything ending in -ose. I've seen foods have as much as six different sugars.”
Now that you know a little more about how sugar finds its way into your diet, how does sugar create inflammation in the body?
The Chemistry of Sugar-Related Back Pain
Your pH level is the measurement of how acidic or alkaline your body is. Researchers believe our bodies perform better when we have more alkaline. The balance between the two is 7, and your body’s natural pH balance is between 7.35 to 7.45.
When you consume sugar, it’s broken down in small intestine and rapidly pushed into blood stream. Insulin, produced in the pancreas, is responsible for taking sugar from the blood stream and storing it in the cells. Sugar is acidic, unlike many fruits and vegetables which are alkaline. The more sugar you consume, the higher your pH will swing out of healthy balance. When your body is overly acidic, it creates stress on vital organs, weakens your immune system, and creates inflammation in your joints. In your back, your soft tissue, facet joints, sacroiliac joints, and vertebrae can become inflamed causing chronic pain.
“Sugar causes inflammation by multiple pathways. The most important is that when you eat simple sugars, your blood glucose spikes—especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic,” says Dr. Kyle Varner, a physician specialized in internal medicine with extensive professional and personal experience with healthy dieting.
“When this happens, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system) gets activated. In addition to raising your blood pressure and heart rate, pro-inflammatory cytokines get released throughout your body. Then, your body produces insulin which itself is a pro-inflammatory hormone that promotes the formation of arachidonic acid which is a building block for pro-inflammatory cytokines. The more sugar you eat, the more you rev up your body's inflammatory response.”
Back Conditions Brought on by Inflammation
- ankylosing spondylitis
- low back pain (muscular)
- sacroiliac joint pain
- facet syndrome
Tips to Regulate Sugar Intake
Following these tips to reduce your sugar intake will lower your chances of inflammation:
- You should choose foods with a low Glycemic (sugar) index.
- You should choose good carbs that have a lot of fiber such as fruits and avoid bad carbs such as bread, cake, etc.
- You should drink a lot of water to help your body flush excessive sugar from the body.
- Stay active, avoid poor sitting habits and do some exercise such as going to the gym, doing some yoga or taking a walk to strengthen your core muscles and ensure that your body utilizes the sugar you take in.
- Do stress management- Stress triggers the release of hormones that can lead to a spike in sugar levels.
- Make dietary changes and avoid alcohol, chocolate, and caffeine.
With the increased pain caused by excess sugar in the body, limiting your sugar intake can be the healthiest dietary decision you make. It could the difference between living a long healthy life and avoiding costly and constant trips to the doctor.
“My biggest piece of advice is that you should avoid processed and packaged foods. Food that comes from a factory is probably tainted by processed sugars,” says Varner.
“Sugar in your diet should come from natural sources such as fruits, where it will automatically be mixed with fiber and thus absorbed slower causing less of an inflammatory response. Skepticism towards processed and pre-packaged foods can go a long way to making you healthier!”