The Love-Hate Relationship Between Sugar and the Immune System
The COVID-19 pandemic has made immune health a priority for almost everyone. One thing you may not have considered, though, is the relationship between sugar and the immune system. In small amounts, certain types of sugar may actually offer some immune-strengthening benefits. Unfortunately, modern diets are loaded with low-quality sugar that can harm your health.
Here’s a brief guide to the benefits and downsides of sugar for your immune health, as well as how to minimize the negative impacts of sugar.
Sugar and the Immune System: It’s a Love-Hate Relationship
Most people consume more than 300 calories per day from added sugars, not including natural, healthy sugars from food and drinks like fruit and milk. The majority of this sugar is coming from sources such as soda and fruit juices, cereals, grain-based desserts and candy.
While the Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting your intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of your calories per day, children are getting about 14 percent of their calories from added sugar, and adults are getting 17 percent.
With recent evidence showing many negative health effects associated with added sugar, the World Health Organization suggests limiting added sugars to less than 5 percent of your calorie intake. Bottom line, most people are eating too much sugar, with much of it coming from low-quality sources like fructose-rich, highly-refined corn. Fructose, which is found naturally in fruits, is not harmful in small amounts from natural sources. However, processed fructose is detoxified from your body the same way alcohol is and may damage the liver.
Excessive added sugar intake is also linked to being overweight and to obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and chronic systemic inflammation.
Sugar and Immunity: A Love-Hate Relationship
Sugar and the Immune System
In small amounts, sugar may be a stress-relieving treat. Because we know chronic stress can suppress the immune system, there may be some benefit to occasionally enjoying something sweet after a long day. Additionally, one natural sugar that may provide some immune-strengthening benefits is honey. It’s rich in pollen, propolis and antioxidants and offers benefits related to wound healing, cough suppression and inflammation. Many people even report that local raw honey helps lessen their seasonal allergy burdens, although this has not been studied in depth.
Unfortunately, the downsides of sugar on immune health far outweigh its potential benefits.
Large amounts of sugar in the diet can be profoundly pro-inflammatory. While short-term inflammation is a normal immune response to illness or injury, systemic chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your health, increasing your risk of diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
High sugar intake and chronic inflammation may also increase your risk of developing an autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Autoimmune conditions develop when your immune system mistakenly identifies part of your own body as a potential threat and begins to attack it.
Does Alcohol Weaken Your Immune System?
Although alcohol and sugar are two completely different compounds, they affect immune health similarly - especially when consumed in high amounts. Alcohol is pro-inflammatory and interferes with immune function. Drinking excessively can increase your risk of getting sick or developing an autoimmune condition.
To minimize your risk, you should stick to drinking in moderation. That’s a maximum of one drink a day for women and two for men. No alcohol at all is even better.
Minimizing Sugar’s Negative Impact on Immune Health
Here are some helpful ways to keep sugar from compromising your immune function:
- Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and juice, and instead drink green tea or water.
- Limit added sugars to less than 5 percent of your calories with rare exceptions for treats or special occasions.
- Use natural, alternative sweeteners like stevia, which contains no sugar, and honey, which contains sugar but may offer some immune benefit as well.
While you’re taking steps to protect yourself during this global pandemic, be sure to consider how your diet may be affecting your health. Reducing your added sugar intake can improve your health in a number of ways, including helping to optimize your immune function.