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Can sugar increase inflammation levels?

21 September 2016 No Comment

In this first article of a series on how sugar impacts your health, I’m going to start by looking at the role a high sugar diet plays in inflammation. I first developed an interest in this link when patients would mention in passing that they had noticed an improvement in their pain levels after doing a sugar detox. They were doing the sugar detox for other reasons, but found this added benefit occurred as well.

After hearing this a bunch of times, I started looking into it, and it didn’t take long to find out what was going on. Several studies have found a relationship between high sugar consumption and a variety of musculoskeletal pain complaints. These include arthritis, joint pain, fibromyalgia, and other inflammatory conditions.

Australian Dietary Guidelines1 state that you should limit high glycaemic index (GI) carbs (such as sugars, bread, cereals, packaged foods) as these can “spike inflammation”. This is because the GI rating of different foods has been shown to affect blood levels of things like C-peptide and serum lipids, both of which directly affect inflammation levels2.

Inflammation is your body’s reaction to things like injury or infection, and it creates redness, swelling and pain. Now, that’s fine when you actually have an injury, because this is part of your body’s natural healing process. But if you’re getting inflammation from eating sugar, well, that’s a problem. That tells you there’s something really wrong with eating a high sugar diet; your body essentially reacts to sugar in a similar way to how it reacts to an injury or infection.

If you happen to have a pre-existing injury, like a headache or a sore neck from sitting at a computer all day, or if you’re sick, you’ve probably got a bit of inflammation in your system already. You pour a little sugar on that and things will escalate fairly quickly, a bit like pouring petrol on a fire.

In 2014, a study was conducted to compare the effects of fructose and glucose on inflammation3. It is worth noting that they were only given a single 50g dose of fructose. This one dose of fructose produced significantly higher levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein. The spike in inflammation was evident as quickly as 30 minutes after consuming the fructose, and those levels were still elevated 2 hours later when they stopped measuring. 50g of fructose would be roughly the equivalent of 2 cans of soft drink.

Fructose has been shown to have a direct, and dose-dependent impact on inflammation4. This means that the more you have of it, the more of an effect it will have. On the flip side, if you eat well you can quickly reduce your inflammation levels. This is great news for anyone suffering with pain or illness who is reluctant to just take medications and painkillers. A 2009 study showed that just 10 days of cutting out foods contained in an “American diet”, such as refined cereals and “energy-dense nutrient-poor foods”, resulted in reduced glucose sensitivity, lipid profiles and insulin secretion, all of which we know are related to inflammation levels5.

More specifically, scientists set out in 2012 to examine whether just cutting your consumption of fructose could reduce your inflammation levels6. They found cutting fructose led to significant improvements in 2 key inflammatory markers, with these levels improving nearly 30%.

So if you are looking for another reason to quit sugar, think about the impact it can have on your musculoskeletal system.




  1. http://www.hnehealth.nsw.gov.au/Pain/Documents/Nutrition%20and%20pain_March%202014.pdf
  2. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/76/1/266S.full.pdf+html?cnn=yes
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290803/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518440/
  5. http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v63/n8/full/ejcn20094a.html
  6. http://ndt.oxfordjournals.org/content/27/2/608.full

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