I think you’ll agree with me when I say that sugar is not a drug.
But it turns out that it’s effects are just as insidious as many illegal street drugs.
Sugar lights up our reward pathways like heroin. Sugar addiction is very real, with serious, life-threatening consequences. Over 300,000 people die every year due to obesity, compared to 25,000 who die from heroin overdose.
Both those statistics are tragic— but obesity tops all other causes except tobacco in yearly preventable deaths, and sugar is a leading cause of obesity.
And not just obesity.
The dangers of sugar have been investigated in detail with countless studies showing its effect on every part of the body.
And in today’s post I’m going to give you the big picture, with all the details.
What effect, exactly, does sugar have on our body as a whole? What life-threatening conditions are directly linked to excess sugar consumption? What symptoms do you deal with, maybe daily, that are linked to sugar— even if you don’t know it?
Read on to find out.
Is Sugar Really That Bad?
Sugar is blamed for so many health problems, it’s wise to be skeptical. Is sugar truly as bad as they say?
The sugar industry does what it can to make sugar appear harmless. This isn’t total dishonesty. As you’ll read, many of the debilitating and life-threatening conditions linked with sugar are NOT caused by sugar itself… but by the reaction that sugar causes in the body.
What they fail to mention is that refined and synthetic sugars are empty calories. They have no nutritional value beyond pure calories in the form of carbohydrates.
Our bodies can handle sugar. Natural sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose, in the right doses, are vital for health.
We need them to live. We crave sugar for a good reason.
But problems come when we overload.
And we are overloading.
A can of coke has 6 1/2 teaspoons of simple sugar. And simple sugars are in all kinds of things we eat everyday. Fast food, pasta, white bread, TV dinners, and much, much more.
What’s more, Americans on average consume 756 grams of sugar per week, or 189 sugar cubes. We’ve blown past cavemen days— but our bodies are stuck in the past.
That’s why we still crave sugar.
And we answer that craving with a full-scale assault. Our bodies go into overdrive.
True, Some sugar is burned off as energy.
Very little though because we move less than ever. Insulin then floods our body, and distributes the sugar.
Most of the remaining sugar is stored in fat cells.
Meanwhile, when left to their devices, our bodies thrive in a balanced state known as homeostasis.
No problem! We have naturally evolved biological processes that keep us in that state.
These processes are grouped into 10 different systems by scientists. They are:
When we eat so many simple sugars, it eventually throws every one of these systems off balance. And that’s when the life-threatening problems start happening.
1. How Sugar Damages The Cardiovascular / Circulatory System
The cardiovascular system is the freeway that delivers nutrients and oxygen throughout our bodies. It’s key organ is the heart, while arteries carry blood away from the heart, and veins carry blood to the heart.
Sadly, heart disease is our biggest killer. In the United States alone, 610,000+ people die from it every single year.
For years, we were told that heart disease was caused by saturated fats. However, new evidence moves the finger away from fats, and points directly at sugar.
While science is unclear on exactly why sugar damages the heart, we know it does do damage.
In fact, a study recently proved that people who get 25% of their daily calories from simple sugars are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease.
We also know that a high-sugar diet increases blood pressure, which can lead to a sick and enlarged heart.
Sugar can directly cause plaque buildup in veins, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which prevents blood from flowing through and can lead to near-instant death.
2. How Sugar Damages The Digestive / Excretory Systems
Every day we eat food in the form of breads, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy and chocolate; the six food groups. Our digestive system breaks these nutrients down, and uses them to repair and sustain our bodies.
We’re all familiar with gas and bloating. And while a small amount is normal in a healthy person, sugar makes it much worse.
The process of digesting simple sugars can cause:
Abdominal pain and cramping
Source: Fernando Fernández-Bañares, et al. Sugar malabsorption in functional abdominal bloating: A pilot study on the long-term effect of dietary treatment Clinical Nutrition Volume 25, Issue 5, October 2006, Pages 824–831
Sugar also draws water into the small intestine, which creates wet stools, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable bowel issues. Not the best idea to eat sugar before a romantic date.
People who eat a lot of sugar are much more likely to get extremely painful and lasting digestive diseases like Crohn’s and Colitis.
For individuals suffering from Irritable Bowel Disease, sugar is a trigger.
The liver, one of our body’s key filters, is also at risk. It’s the only organ in the body that can metabolize sugar.
When we overload on simple sugars, they get stored in the liver. If too much is stored, the liver has to convert that sugar into fat. Over time, this causes fatty liver syndrome — similar to the livers of alcoholics.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease often has no symptoms until it’s too late— when they occur, scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver may have already occurred, which can lead to liver cancer or total liver failure.
The pancreas is also an important part of the digestive system. Its main role is to balance blood sugar by making insulin. This organ is famous for its role in Type 1 diabetes, where the t-cells that create insulin are permanently damaged. That’s why diabetics need to inject insulin every day to survive.
Type 1 diabetes is happening to more people than ever. And we’re also eating record numbers of simple sugars. As of now, there is no concrete evidence that directly links these two together, and it’s entirely possible that the two are totally unrelated.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is absolutely linked to diet and sugar. In Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still secretes insulin.
However, it may not secrete enough to balance blood sugar levels, or due to the endocrine system malfunctioning (next section), the body may be insulin resistant. This leads to unnaturally high blood sugar levels, a toxic state for the body.
Once Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, future health risks are serious and life-threatening. They include:
- Heart and blood vessel disease
- Nerve damage (neuropathy)
- Kidney damage
- Eye damage
- Foot damage
- Hearing damage
- Advanced skin conditions
- Alzheimer’s disease
Eating too much sugar is also linked to pancreatic cancer. In fact, if blood sugar levels are kept too high, insulin floods the system.
And too much insulin is linked to a variety of cancers, because insulin prevents certain cell structures from dying.
3. How Sugar Damages The Endocrine System
Our endocrine system controls the cocktail of hormones that make up our everyday experience and help keep our bodies in balanced homeostasis. One of the hormones that has a very noticeable effect on our lives is cortisol— the stress hormone.
When faced with stress, or low blood sugar, our adrenals produce cortisol. Cortisol immediately empties stored glucose to give us instant energy.
In our distant past, almost every threat that caused us stress was physical. A predator chasing us. A natural disaster. We got a boost of energy, then ran it off (or died). Life is different now for most people.
At first glance, it seems like cortisol should help us lose weight. Because it empties the fat cells. But the problem is, if we’re sitting down all the time, we have no way to use up that energy.
So all that sugar is sitting in our blood stream, causing high blood sugar. In response, our pancreas secretes insulin into the blood, to put that sugar somewhere useful.
Now here’s where sugar comes into play.
When we eat too much simple sugar, our blood sugar spikes… a lot. (Remember our body didn’t evolve to handle so much simple sugar— only complex sugars from fruits and natural foods.) So our body produces a lot of insulin.
Usually too much.
The insulin directs the sugars where to go, but it creates lowered blood sugar. Now the adrenals produce cortisol, which empties the stored sugar into energy.
Except this energy can’t be used, so the body creates insulin again to balance out blood sugar.
Since we get rewarded with dopamine for eating sugar, and it doesn’t fill us up, this process repeats itself over and over again. Our balance is upset. Cortisol and insulin in the blood at the same time, over time, creates insulin insensitivity.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels are have also been directly linked to depression.
4. How Sugar Damages The Integumentary System
The Integumentary system is made up of our skin, hair, nails, and various glands associated. When looking for causes of aged skin, fragile hair and nails, and skin conditions like acne, sugar may be to blame.
When overloaded with sugar, insulin stores sugar in different places (the muscles, fat cells, liver, etc). This process is called glycation.
Glycation releases advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs), that do major damage to our skin. Too many AGEs weakens the skin, causing visible wrinkles, and makes it much more vulnerable to sun damage, sagging, and other conditions.
You learned earlier that excess sugar consumption causes the endocrine system to go haywire, which disrupts our balance. But these hormone spikes have also been linked to serious acne breakouts and to thin, weak hair, and fragile nails.
5. How Sugar Damages The Lymphatic / Immune System
It’s been a long standing claim that sugar suppresses the immune system. But a 1973 study done by Loma Linda University researchers confirmed it for the first time.
Participants were asked to fast for one whole day. They were then given injections of sugar in different forms (fructose, sucrose, honey, etc).
Researchers then measured the the process of Neutrophilic Phagocytosis, which is how neutrophils, warriors of the immune system, dispatch microbes that cause diseases.
While sugar didn’t decrease the number of neutrophils, it did slow them down… a lot.
There are many theories as to why this might be. We know that sugar increases inflammation throughout the body.
When an area of the body is inflamed, neutrophils go to investigate. This divides the immune system. Instead of focusing solely on incoming invaders, the attention is split between inflammation caused by sugar and potentially dangerous microbes.
6. How Sugar Damages The Muscular / Skeletal System
Most people now are taught that sugar is harmful— and for good reason.
Usually we’re introduced to the harms of sugar through our teeth. If you eat too much sugar, you get cavities, we are told.
And this is true.
But it may not be for the reasons you’re thinking. In point of fact, sugar does no harm whatsoever to teeth.
But it does provide great food for many of the germs that live in our mouths.
When you combine these germs and sugar, you get acid as a byproduct. This acid is capable of eroding the enamel in our teeth and creating cavities.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that one way sugar harms our bodies is by removing crucial nutrients. Remember, simple sugars provide almost no nutritional value whatsoever. They do, however, require nutrients in order to be processed and digested.
Some of these nutrients are not so easy to come by with the standard American diet (SAD) and other western diets.
In a 1986 study, a measurement was taken for chromium in two groups of people. Chromium is an essential metal the body uses very rarely, and gets very little of through diet.
The first group went on a high simple sugar diet. The second went on a more balanced, complex diet. At the end of the study, those with the high sugar diet reported significantly less chromium.
Other minerals like calcium and magnesium, and essential vitamins, are also drained due to excess sugar consumption. These are vitamins and minerals the muscular and skeletal system absolutely needs to function at their highest levels.
Take a ready supply of these minerals away, and our skeleton and muscles perform at a mediocre level at best.
7. How Sugar Damages The Nervous System
Sugar may not technically be a drug.
But it does behave like a drug to the nervous system. That’s why sugar addiction is a very real, life-threatening condition.
Our brain has evolved over tens of thousands of years to keep us alive and reproducing. To keep us alive, it gives us rewards and punishments based on our actions.
You see, it’s important that we get a variety of different nutrients. If we eat the same meal every single day, we most likely won’t get all the nutrients and micronutrients we need to survive.
So your brain uses dopamine — a neurotransmitter the makes you feel good — to help us decide what to eat. When we eat a meal, we get a shot of dopamine.
If we eat a different meal next, we get another shot. But if we eat the same meal too often, the brain releases less dopamine.
With sugar, though, it’s different. You can eat sugar every single day, and you’ll still get that tasty dopamine release.
This is why the pleasures of eating candy never really go away. And it’s why it’s such a hard craving to resist every single day.
It gets worse.
If you consume too much sugar, for too long, your body will actually become insensitive to these dopamine rushes.
This can have catastrophic effects on the quality of your life. But also can make it so you need more sugar to get a similar dopamine rush.
Now remember how simple sugars do no good for our bodies, other than a slight energy boost (which we usually don’t need). So the more we eat them, the more problems occur.
Think for a moment about what that means.
Because of how our brains evolved, we actually get rewarded by our brains for doing all of this damage! It’s no wonder sugar-related diseases and dysfunctions have become an epidemic.
It doesn’t stop there.
A recent study has shown that excess sugar has the same damaging effects on the brain as early life stress exposure and trauma.
This type of trauma related damage is linked to all kinds of psychiatric disorders, including depression and abnormal anxiety.
One other major disorder linked to sugar is Alzheimer’s — a devastating condition where sufferers slowly lose their identity and independence.
Some medical circles are referring to Alzheimer’s as “Type 3 Diabetes” due to its relation to insulin and blood sugar.
In individuals who have consumed large quantities of sugar over a long period of time, nerve damage is also a major risk. Especially those diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
This nerve damage can manifest as the following symptoms:
- Inability to focus the eye
- Double vision
- Aching behind one eye
- Paralysis on one side of the face, called Bell’s palsy
- Severe, debilitating chronic pain
8. How Sugar Damages Renal / Urinary Systems
In our mouths, sugar feeds germs that cause cavities. But it also feeds potentially harmful bacteria— like E. coli — in other parts of our body as well, like the urinary system.
Aggressive E. coli in the urinary tract leads to infections that are painful and, if not treated correctly, debilitating.
Sugar is also a bladder irritant that can make us pee a lot more frequently, and with more urgency. It is also a trigger for urinary incontinence.
An excessive amount of sugar can even contribute to the formation of extremely painful kidney stones.
9. How Sugar Damages The Reproductive System
As if all of that’s not enough, eating excess sugar turns off a gene that controls the effect of sex hormones.
When the liver comes across too much sugar, it converts it into fat, or lipids. That increased production of lipids shut down a gene called SHBG, which controls the levels of testosterone and estrogen in our bodies.
This can have a wide range of effects, from either too much testosterone and estrogen, or too little. Leading to all kinds of unpleasant problems, including acne, infertility, polycystic ovaries, and different types of cancer.
Sugar has also been directly linked to sexual issues like erectile dysfunction.
10. How Sugar Damages The Respiratory System
Finally, excess sugar consumption has been directly linked to asthma and other chronic breathing conditions. It’s speculated this is due to inflammation associated with too much sugar in the diet.
Sugar’s effect on your breathing is serious business.
Is sugar harmful?
The evidence has been presented. It’s up to you to make the conclusion.
The good news is that natural, complex sugars are necessary for good health.
And it’s even possible to get away with eating a more moderate amount of sugar. You don’t have to throw away the birthday cake. You can even have a few donuts once in a while.
But on average, we’re eating over 60 pounds of sugar every year. This is far more than was ever possible when our body was developing over tens of thousands of years.
The bottom line? Sugar in the modern day Western diet does cause damage.
And if you eat too much, for too long, you will most likely experience a serious disease described here.
Many of these diseases are chronic, extremely painful, and can even be life threatening.
So if you find yourself showing any of the symptoms of discussed above, the solution may be simple: drastically cut down on your sugar intake.
But first, a trip to see your physician to discuss your diet is a good idea.
On the other hand, just because the solution is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sugar is addictive, and it’s hard to resist.
But the upside is far better health. If you have difficulty quitting or reducing sugar, there is help. Start here: http://www.foodaddictsanonymous.org/
As I mentioned before, sugar is serious business. And it’s time we treat it as such.
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