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Americans consume massive amounts of sugar. On average, we’re eating or drinking 34 teaspoons of sugar daily, which averages more than 100 pounds per person yearly. Sugar intake has drastically increased over the last century. A 12-ounce can of soda supplies more sugar than you’d get in several days back in the 1800s. This increase in sugar in the Western diet has had many adverse effects on the general population, and many have to do with gut health.

What is Sugar?

Sugar, like so many other things, is a general term. It describes any of those soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates from plant sources. You can find sugar in whole foods like fruits, veggies, meats, nuts, and seeds. It can come from any organic (carbon-containing) source. It’s also added to many processed foods and beverages. Chemically, sugar refers to a group of simple carbohydrates. The most common dietary sugars are glucose, fructose, and sucrose.

Glucose is a primary energy source for our cells and occurs in foods like fruits, vegetables, and honey. Fructose is another natural sugar present in fruits, vegetables, and honey. They both have the same molecular formula of C6H12O6 but have different structures. Sucrose, often referred to as table sugar, is a disaccharide composed of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. It’s often used as a sweetener in recipes and food products. Sugar is a quick source of energy for the body, which is why it works so well when a person with diabetes is experiencing low blood sugar levels. However, excessive consumption of added sugars in processed foods and beverages can lead to health issues. A few examples include metabolic syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A 2022 review study refers to excessive sugar intake as “an accomplice of inflammation.” [1] It’s well-established that inflammation is behind all chronic illnesses.

Artificial sweeteners and refined sugars are even worse. Examples include sucralose, aspartame, refined white or brown sugar, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Avoid these toxic sugars at all costs due to their damaging effects on the body. You can find information on what you can replace these sugars with here.

5 Ways Cutting Sugar Benefits the Gut

Cutting out sugar has seemingly endless health benefits, but it’s wise to remember that “all disease begins in the gut.” Here are five ways eliminating sugar benefits the digestive system and beyond.

1. Allowing the Gut Microbiota to Return to Balance

A high-sugar diet can alter the balance of gut bacteria, leading to dysbiosis, an imbalance in the microbial community. A 2020 study looked into how sugar intake tips the microbial balance. Researchers reported that high sugar intake over time leads to an increase in Proteobacteria and reduced Bacteroidetes. That’s detrimental because Bacteroidetes are good bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs like butyrate and others protect the gut from toxins. They also reinforce the gut lining, making it less likely to become “leaky.” [2]

An overabundance of Proteobacteria is associated with disease. Those with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) often have increased proteobacteria. That’s also the case with chronic lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). [3] It may not take long for a high-sugar diet to take its toll. A 2020 animal study found that consuming a 10% sugary drink for a week significantly altered their gut bacteria. In fact, it set them up for colitis. [4] On a human timeline, that’s about 9 to 12 months. So, if you “fall off the wagon” for just one year and start eating more sugar than usual, you could end up changing your gut bacteria. That change in the gut microbiota may end up paving the way to disease.

Cutting the sugar stops overfeeding the Proteobacteria. When you cut their primary food source, you’re potentially allowing your gut bacteria to return to a healthy balance. That is, as long as adequate prebiotic fiber from vegetables and other plant foods is coming in. That healthy balance has a wide range of effects on the digestive tract, lungs, and body. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome promotes a healthy immune response and overall wellness.

2. Decreasing Inflammation

Sugary foods and the effects of blood sugar that’s “too high for too long” can stimulate the production of inflammatory mediators in the gut. Two examples of these are inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins. [1][5] These substances intensify the inflammatory reaction in the gut lining. Prolonged gut inflammation can lead to digestive issues. It may play a role in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or, worse, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Sugar is a known trigger for an IBD flare, especially alongside a diet low in vegetables. [6]

Continuous low-level gut inflammation may contribute to systemic inflammation. When the immune system is chronically activated, it can negatively impact health. [7] Overcoming your sweet tooth can reduce gut inflammation. Ultimately, this can benefit gut health and overall wellness.

3. Allowing the Gut Lining to Heal

Excessive sugar can increase gut permeability. The increased permeability allows toxins and undigested particles to pass into the bloodstream. This condition, called “leaky gut,” may trigger immune responses and inflammation. Combined with genetic susceptibility and an environmental trigger, it can set you up for the perfect storm. Dr. Alessio Fasano has found genetics, leaky gut, and an environmental trigger can lead to one or more autoimmune conditions. [8] As long as you continue to keep your blood sugar high, you’re damaging the gut lining. Reducing the damage can allow your gut lining to heal, helping your body reverse autoimmunity.

4. Not Feeding Gut Infections

Some harmful microbes in the gut, including bacteria, yeasts, and parasites, thrive on sugar. An abundance of simple sugars can fuel the growth of these pathogens. In animal studies, a high-sugar diet significantly increased candida and E. coli infections. [9] Stop overeating sugar and feeding infections, and you may find that your health problems begin to disappear.

5. Reducing Digestive Discomfort

High sugar intake may also cause digestive issues such as bloating, gas, cramping, and irregular bowel movements. These symptoms often arise from gut dysbiosis and the inflammatory effects of excessive sugar. Those with small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may find sugar aggravates their symptoms. That may be due to an intolerance of high FODMAP foods. FODMAPs are “Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols.” They’re carbohydrates that can feed microorganisms that have migrated into the small intestine. Feeding those bacteria leads to SIBO and all kinds of digestive issues.

FODMAPs naturally occur in healthy foods like onions, artichokes, and legumes. They’re also in many sweeteners, including sugar, maple syrup, honey, xylitol, erythritol, and yacon. So, even if you’re avoiding white and brown sugar and using one of Doc’s top favorite sweeteners, you could be causing gut issues. [9]

For More Information…

If you want to know more general benefits of cutting sugar, check out this article. Sugar is very addictive, and it can be challenging to find recipes without some form of sugar. That’s why The Wellness Way has an entire collection of sugar-free recipes. We also have tips on how to reduce sugar cravings because no one’s saying cutting your sugar intake will be easy. Find out how well your body is handling sugar and how to address the consequences; contact a Wellness Way clinic today!

Originally published January 5, 2022. Updated January 8, 2024.

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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