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Can Sugar Cause Back Pain? Find Out if Your Sweet Tooth is Giving You a Sour Back

Published April 11, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff   | Medically Reviewed by Bridgit Kin-Charlton, CPT
Tags:  Nutrition Sugar
If you have chronic back pain, you might reach for comfort foods like candy or ice cream whenever your pain flares up. While these kinds of foods can offer short-term emotional relief, they may also be contributing to your pain by causing inflammation in your body.

The good news is that cutting back on sugary foods can reduce the inflammation and may also reduce your back pain. On top of that, you will feel healthier overall, which is another great way to manage your pain.

Inflammation and back pain

Inflammation is a normal response of your body to injury or infection. Cells in damaged tissues release chemicals that trigger the immune system to help heal the body. Once the injury is repaired or the infection gone, the inflammation stops.

However, sometimes inflammation can occur even when there is no injury or infection. Over time, this kind of low-level chronic inflammation can damage the brain, heart and other tissues. It may even be involved in conditions like cancer, obesity, asthma and aging.

Chronic inflammation can cause symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, constipation, diarrhea, and weight gain. Another common sign of chronic inflammation is body pain.

Some people with chronic inflammation experience pain as a general body ache. Others may have pain in one or more joints. For some people, though, the pain is mainly in the spine and sacroiliac (SI) joints of the lower back.

Causes of chronic inflammation

Several things can cause chronic inflammation, including:
  • An untreated injury or infection
  • Air pollution
  • An autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells
  • Repeated episodes of short-term (acute) inflammation

Scientists don’t fully understand why some people develop chronic inflammation and others don’t. However, certain factors increase your risk of developing chronic inflammation, including:
  • Aging
  • Obesity
  • Diet
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Sleep disorders

Added sugars and inflammation

So how much of an effect does diet have on inflammation and pain?

“There is no doubt that the food and beverages we put in our bodies affect our health and well-being,” says Michelle Zive, RD, PhD, a researcher at University of California, San Diego, and co-author of NASM’s Certified Nutrition Coach course. “This is also true of the relationship between what you eat and drink and inflammation and pain.”

In particular, diets that are high in fat, trans fats or added sugars have been linked to chronic inflammation. Eating lots of these foods causes the body to produce molecules that promote inflammation, especially in people who are overweight or have diabetes.

A high-fat, high-sugar diet also increases your risk of obesity. This can cause pain by promoting inflammation in the body. But extra weight increases the load on the spine, which can lead to pain in the joints of the back.

Foods high in added sugars

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. It occurs naturally in whole, unprocessed food like fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and some grains. These foods contain other healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber.

Many processed foods and drinks contain added sugars. This sugar enhances the taste or texture of the food, but provides little or no nutritional value. These foods include:
  • candy
  • cakes
  • cookies
  • pies and cobblers
  • doughnuts, pastries, sweet rolls
  • ice cream and yogurt
  • sugar sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and juice drinks

Added sugar may also show up in smaller amounts in certain sauces, spices, and canned soups.

In addition, highly processed grains like white flour and white rice are easily converted to simple sugars in the body. These are known as high-glycemic foods because can cause spikes in blood glucose levels. They also lack some of the nutrients found in the whole-wheat versions.

Reduce the sugar, reduce your pain

Research has found that men and women who have a healthy lifestyle are less likely to develop low back pain. This includes many things such as not smoking, exercising regularly, and eating lots of whole fruit and vegetables. But eating fewer added sugars is also part of a healthy lifestyle.

Of course, everyone’s body responds differently to added sugars. But reducing the amount of sugar in your diet can also reduce the inflammation in your body. Some people with chronic back pain even find that when they cut back on sugary foods, their pain subsides. Just as importantly, they feel healthier overall.

If you are looking for a place to start improving your health—and reducing your back pain — try cutting back on how many sugary foods your eat each day. For some people, this will be enough.

But if your pain is more severe, you might want to try a diet known to reduce inflammation, such as the anti-inflammatory diet or Mediterranean diet. These have very few added sugars, but they also include lots of foods that fight inflammation.

The bottom line: “Eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate, etc. can not only reduce inflammation and pain,” says Zive, “but can also prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
Updated: May 13, 2020

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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Contributors and Experts

Bridgit is the owner of Bdefined. She's certified as a Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Level I USA Weightlifting Coach, Level I Precision Nutrition Coach, and a Functional Aging.