Not So Sweet: The Sugar-Inflammation Connection

Inflammation plays a key role in the immune system.1 This physiological process, the inflammatory response, is the body’s way of protecting itself from infection due to bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other foreign substances.2 Inflammation plays a key role in the body’s natural healing process.1,2

While inflammation is natural—it is necessary in many cases—not all inflammatory responses are created equal.2 Sometimes the body might be inflamed when there are no foreign invaders the immune system needs to fight.2

Far too often, refined sugar is partly responsible.1 So if you have a serious sweet tooth and experience symptoms like redness, joint or muscle stiffness, fatigue, and loss of appetite, you may have fallen victim to the sugar-inflammation connection.1

How does added sugar cause inflammation?

Consistently eating high quantities of refined sugar can cause chronic, low-grade inflammation.1 This may lead to serious health issues like cardiovascular challenges, weight gain, or allergies.1,2

Specifically, added sugar promotes the following changes in the body:

  • Gut lining damage: Frequently consuming added sugar may help bacteria and toxins from the gut move into the bloodstream.1 Long-term gut lining damage can increase inflammation, so this is something to be aware of.
  • Weight gain and related issues: By consistently eating refined flours and sugars, you may experience weight gain and increased body fat.1 The latter is linked to insulin resistance, which makes it difficult for the body to regulate the processed sugars once they’re absorbed.1 Insulin resistance is also associated with inflammation.1
  • Increased production of harmful compounds: Compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) form when fat or protein blend with refined sugar in the blood.3 Excessive AGEs can contribute to inflammation.3
  • Higher cholesterol: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—the “bad” kind of cholesterol—may rise as your consumption of refined sugar increases.1 Data suggests high LDL cholesterol is linked to higher quantities of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.1

While the government recommends that added sugar and solid fats combined account for no more than 5% to 15% of one’s total caloric intake, 13% of US adults’ total calories come from processed sugar.4 All of the above symptoms are linked to chronic, low-grade inflammation. That said, it’s worth noting that added sugar consumption alone is unlikely to cause severe inflammation; often, there are a number of factors at play.1

How can you support a healthier inflammation response?

Lifestyle changes can address some of the symptoms mentioned above.1 Examples include: eliminating junk food from your diet, reducing your general stress levels, and so much more.1

Regardless, you will want to take stock of where you are at and make a conscious effort to improve your health.1 Read through the following list to see if there are areas where you can enhance your lifestyle:1,5

  • Limit your intake of processed foods and beverages: This includes added sugar. Carefully read food labels, be mindful of what you order when you go out to eat, and exclude refined ingredients like white bread from your diet. Be sure to avoid hyper-processed, sugary ingredients like sucrose, glucose, and fructose.1 One study found that lowering fructose consumption can help treat inflammatory blood markers by almost 30%.5
  • Opt for whole grains, healthy produce, and antioxidant-rich ingredients: When you shop for food, aim to focus on whole-grain carbohydrates like brown rice, barley, quinoa, and oats. These ingredients are chock-full of fiber, which may help to lower blood sugar and reduce inflammation. Similarly, healthy produce is packed with the antioxidants and vitamins you need to thrive—the same goes for fatty fish, nuts like almonds, and seeds.
  • Lower your stress levels and engage in frequent exercise: Chronic stress can make you more susceptible to inflammation.1 To target your stress, aim to exercise regularly (by getting your heart rate up and also making time for resistance training), meditate, go on walks in nature, or engage in other activities that calm you—such as cooking or taking a hot bath.

Returning to the topic of sugar, there’s no need to give up the sweet stuff entirely. You might consider substituting processed sweets with naturally sweetened alternatives in order to reduce your inflammatory symptoms.1 The next section explains how natural sugars like honey and maple syrup may decrease inflammation.

Natural sugars and inflammation

Chances are you’re familiar with refined sugar and how it differs from the natural alternatives. Where refined sugar is separated from its source, reconfigured, and then added as a sweetener, natural sugar occurs—you guessed it—naturally in foods.1 This means it is sourced directly from a whole plant source.1

Whole foods like fruit and dairy products feature varying amounts of fructose and lactose—yet they’re also full of fiber, protein, and nutrients, so the body is equipped to process them efficiently.1 Natural sugar is not associated with inflammation.1 It is absorbed more slowly by the body, which helps to minimize blood sugar spikes.1

What does this mean? The verdict is that consuming natural sugar, within moderation, is just fine from a health and wellness standpoint.1 Added sugar, alternatively, should only be eaten rarely and in limited quantities.1 Please contact your doctor if your inflammatory symptoms persist even after eliminating refined sugar from your diet.

For more information on nutrition and general wellness topics, please visit the Metagenics blog.


  1. Brown MJ. Healthline. Accessed July 18, 2019.
  2. WebMD Staff. WebMD. Accessed July 22, 2019.
  3. Uribarri J et al. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(6):911–16.e12. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018
  4. Nordqvist C. Medical News Today. Accessed July 22, 2019.
  5. Brymora A et al. Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2012;27(2):608-612.

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