Sugar hurts. We all know the connection between sugar and diabetes has been well established but high sugar diets aren’t just hazardous for diabetics. It turns out, the sweet stuff appears to be a bigger health risk than ever imagined.
While weight gain and tooth decay may be the most obvious consequences of excessive sugar consumption, there are many other ‘hidden’ effects of consuming too much sugar. Studies have now linked high sugar consumption to inflammatory diseases like osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and other joint pain.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process. During injury or infection, the body releases chemicals to help protect it and fight off any harmful organisms. This can cause redness, warmth and swelling. Some foods, like sugar, can also cause inflammation in the body, which is normal. However, eating too many inflammatory foods may cause chronic low-grade inflammation. This can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, allergies and pain.
There are many kinds of joint pain and inflammation, including various forms of arthritis. The most prevalent type is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. It affects more than a one-third of adults older than 65 and 14 percent of people over 25. A research paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed several studies showing processed sugar can increase inflammation that causes joint pain.
There’s no question, Americans eat a lot of sugar! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes roughly 47 pounds of cane sugar and 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year. We all know sugar is the main ingredient in the obvious villains such as candy, ice cream and other desserts, but there are also hidden sugars in most processed foods. This includes many so called “healthy” foods such as whole grain breakfast cereals, granola bars, pasta sauce, yogurt, and sports drinks.
There’s nothing sweet about inflammation
Foods high in sugar can cause a spike in insulin which starts a cascade of biochemical reactions that lead to the production of inflammation. Insulin is secreted from the pancreas and is responsible for taking sugar out of the blood stream and storing it in the cells, which also contributes to the accumulation of fat. Visceral fat, or stomach fat, itself secretes inflammatory proteins and hormones which generates chronic inflammation. Most forms of joint pain and muscle aches involve inflammation and, even if pain is the result of trauma, symptoms may be exacerbated and prolonged by eating foods high in sugar.
Human studies confirm the link between added sugar and higher inflammatory markers. A study of 29 healthy people found that consuming only 40 grams of added sugar from just one 375-ml can of soda per day led to an increase in inflammatory markers, insulin resistance, LDL cholesterol and weight gain.
Another study in overweight and obese people found that consuming one can of regular soda daily for six months led to increased levels of uric acid, a trigger for inflammation, gout and insulin resistance. Subjects who drank diet soda, milk or water had no increase in uric acid levels. Moreover, this effect can last for a considerable amount of time. Consuming a 50-gram dose of fructose causes a spike in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) just 30 minutes later. Furthermore, CRP remains high for over two hours!
In addition to added sugar, eating too many refined carbohydrates has also been linked to increased inflammation in humans. In one study, eating just 50 grams of refined carbs in the form of white bread resulted in higher blood sugar levels and an increase in the inflammatory marker Nf-kB.
Sugar is a pain in the joints
Sugar also contributes to joint pain and stiffness experienced with aging through a process called glycation. Glycation occurs when sugar bonds with proteins to form compounds called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These compounds damage cells in the body by speeding up the oxidative process and changing normal cell behavior. AGEs are thought to be a major factor in aging as well as contributing to many age-related chronic diseases. Studies have shown that accumulation of AGEs in joint tissues causes changes in articular cartilage, making the cartilage more susceptible to damage and development of osteoarthritis.
Relax! A little sugar never hurt anyone, right?
Lastly, sugar depletes important minerals that are needed for proper muscle contraction and relaxation. A high sugar diet results in the loss of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium in the urine. These minerals are not only critical to the proper function of every cell, but also play a key role in skeletal muscle contraction and function. An imbalance or deficiency of any of these minerals can lead to excitability of nerve and muscle tissue and result in excessive muscle contractions or cramps. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome, the body requires at least twenty-eight molecules of magnesium to metabolize a single molecule of sugar. Therefore, a diet high in sugar can deplete the body of this very important mineral that is essential for maintaining proper muscle contraction.
Natural sugars are not linked to inflammation
There is a difference between added sugar and natural sugar. Added sugar is removed from its original source and added to foods and drinks to serve as a sweetener or increase shelf life. It is found mostly in processed foods and drinks, though table sugar is also considered an added sugar. Other common forms include high- fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sucrose, fructose, glucose and corn sugar. Remember that highly processed foods (pizza, cereal, granola bars, popcorn and the list can go on forever), mostly all contain sugar and trans-fats (damaged fats and oils that are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, such as margarine and refined vegetable oils) which are known to increase inflammation and pain.
Among US adults, around 13% of total calories come from added sugar. This is high, considering that government guidelines advise that no more than 5% to 15% of calories should come from both solid fats and added sugar.
Although excess amounts of added sugar and refined carbs have been linked to inflammation, natural sugar has not been linked to inflammation. In fact, many foods containing natural sugars, such as fruits and vegetables, may be anti- inflammatory.
Natural sugars include those naturally occurring in foods. Examples include fructose in fruit and lactose in milk and dairy products. Consuming natural sugars should not be any cause for concern. That’s because they act very differently than added sugar when consumed and digested in the body. Natural sugar is usually consumed within whole foods. Thus, it is accompanied by other nutrients, such as protein and fiber, which cause natural sugars to be absorbed slowly. The steady absorption of natural sugar prevents blood sugar spikes. A diet high in whole foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains can have other health benefits, too, so there is no need to limit or avoid whole foods.
Nutrition is your best line of defense against sugar-aches. Limiting sugar intake is a must for reducing the accumulation of years of inflammation that can lead to joint damage and pain. If you suffer with joint and/or muscle aches and pain, try eliminating sugar from your diet and focus on eating the healthy, natural foods provided by nature. Do your own experiment. Stop eating processed carbohydrates for three full weeks. Avoid soda, candy, chips, cereal, bagels, etc., and I am willing to bet that you will experience less pain and inflammation. See how much better you feel and how much more energy you have, along with improved overall health and fitness.