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The Effect of Sugar on Your Health

By: Dr. Krista Brayko, Naturopath

Mary Poppins coined the phrase, “A teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down…” But what effects does sugar have on our health?  Everyone knows that eating too much sugar is associated with tooth decay and weight gain, however, according to scientific research, sugar’s health effects reach well beyond your teeth and belly.

When sugar enters our bloodstream it affects the body’s blood-sugar balance, triggering the release of insulin, a hormone which keeps blood sugar at a constant and safe level. Insulin also promotes the storage of fat, so when you eat sweets high in sugar, you’re making way for rapid weight gain and elevated triglyceride levels, both of which have been linked to cardiovascular disease. A rise in blood insulin also inhibits growth hormones and depresses white blood cells, which in turn depresses the immune system. Sugar also triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in the body that promote chronic inflammation. Inflammation is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, premature aging and even some forms of cancer.  Certain cancer cells have a big appetite for sugar to fuel their rapid growth. These rapidly growing cells have ten times more insulin receptors than non-cancerous cells, allowing them to readily utilize glucose for energy.  Animal studies suggest that normal or, optimally, low-normal blood sugar levels result in improved cancer treatment outcomes and boost immune function.

Another study from the journal Dental Survey investigated sugar’s effect on immune function specifically in relation to neutrophils, the “homeland security” cells of our immune system. This experiment found that consuming 24 ounces of cola depresses neutrophil activity by 50 percent. This occurs thirty minutes after ingestion and lasts for five hours – possibly longer.

Sugar depletes the body of essential vitamins and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, chromium, vitamin E, magnesium, B vitamins and potassium.  [Vitamins B1, B2, and B6 are needed to detoxify and metabolize sugar]. Sugar also increases the magnesium and calcium excretion in our urine and decreases the overall absorption from our food (which predisposes one to osteoporosis).  Just two teaspoons of sugar causes calcium levels to rise in our bloodstream while the phosphorus level drops, forcing all the other minerals in the body to go out of balance as well.

The average American consumes an astounding amount of sugar each year.  At the turn of the century, the average amount of sugar consumption was 5 lbs per person per year.  Today, the average American eats his/her weight in sugar each year.  That is not surprising when considering that a 12 ounce can of regular soda contains an average of 40.5 grams of sugar, which equates to 10 teaspoons of sugar (almost ¼ cup!), which is100% of the recommended daily intake.  That is not to say that diet sodas are any better; some artificial sweeteners commonly used in diet soda may contribute to serious health issues as well.  

If you think about it, it makes sense that our bodies don’t handle refined sugar very well. After all, for the vast majority (99.9%) of our existence as a species, there simply was no such sugar. In our ancestral environment, a “sweet tooth” served to encourage the craving for highly nutritious fruits – that would serve as an immediate fuel source.  But with the advent of processed sugar cane a few centuries ago, the purpose of our formerly adaptive sweet tooth suddenly turned into a curse – causing us to crave foods that we were simply never designed to process.

Sugar addiction is real! When sugar is consumed a neurotransmitter called dopamine (an endorphin) is released – the “pleasure and reward” chemical of the brain. This activation of your reward system is not unlike how bodies process addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine – an overload of sugar spikes dopamine levels and leaves you craving more. Research suggests that sugar can lead to changes in dopamine receptors, such that tolerance develops and more of the substance is needed to get an effect, making it increasingly difficult to break the cycle. When consuming sugar products we are essentially self medicating, by inducing a “sugar high.”  This is also why when one attempts to break the addictive cycle, it can lead to some of the same symptoms of drug withdrawal, such as mood swings, irritability, headaches, anxiety, cravings and even chills.

If your sweet tooth is getting out of hand, here are a few simple steps to take toward sugar-free eating:

  • Wean yourself off sugar, slowly but continuously.
  • Learn the different names for sugar. Read labels, identify foods with sugar in them and avoid buying them.   This omnipresent substance masquerades as sucrose, glucose, dextrose, corn syrup (and high fructose corn syrup), white and brown sugars, and honey among others.
  • Don’t substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar. They’re associated with other health problems and merely feed your craving for more sugar.
  • Shop in the periphery of the grocery store. Most processed foods (to which sugar has most likely been added) are in the middle of the store.
  • Discover the sweetness of nature. Substitute fresh and dried fruits for sugary treats. (Watch out for added sugar to dried fruits). Drink unsweetened fruit juice mixed with seltzer instead of soft drinks.

If you find yourself questioning the detriment that sugar has on your health, try removing it from your diet for a couple of weeks and observe the impacts that this may have.  Some individuals find that they experience withdrawal symptoms, signifying an addictive association.  Others find that in removing sugar that they have increased energy, improved mental clarity and a greater sense of wellbeing.  The bottom line is, restricting your sugar intake can only lead to the improvement of your overall health.  

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Facts:

  • The average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar every day. The average American child consumes 32 teaspoons per day.
  • The American Heart Association suggests that individuals ingest a maximum daily intake of 6 teaspoons of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men. We suggest getting your sugar intake from natural sources like fruit, berries and vegetables.
  • In 1900, Americans consumed about 5 lbs of sugar per person, per year.
  • In 2000, Americans consumed 150 lbs of sugar per person per year, 61 lbs of that being from high fructose corn syrup. In the past decade, sugar consumption jumped 23%
  • A 12oz can of Coke contains 39 grams of total sugar, which equates to 9 ⅓ tsps of sugar. Carbonated soft drinks are the largest source of refined sugar in the American diet, averaging 53 gallons per person every year.
  • Sugar can exacerbate mood swings, personality changes, irritability, insomnia, asthma, arthritis, heart disease, cholesterol, and endocrine problems. According the to the Dietetic and Diabetic Associations, increased sugar consumption is the leading cause of degenerative disease.
  • Sugar is addictive.