Are you struggling with your gut health? Have you been told you have an autoimmune condition and that you need to heal your gut to put it into remission? If you’re continuing to eat a high amount of carbohydrates and added sugars, you may be sabotaging your efforts – no matter how many probiotics, prebiotics, or L-glutamine supplements you’re taking. Here’s how sugar messes with your ability to restore your gut and overall health.
The Swiss Watch: Why Work on the Gut?
According to Hippocrates, a well-known and widely quoted physician from ancient Greece, “All disease begins in the gut.” It’s true; it turns out that the gut microbiome affects all aspects of health –from the immune response to brain health to hormones to the skin. Scientific research supports this. To restore health, you must restore the gut.
At The Wellness Way, we talk about the Swiss Watch principle, which acknowledges that the gut microbiome and other body systems are not isolated but interact with all the other systems. Similar to the gears of a Swiss watch, an imbalance in one system can create dis-ease or imbalances in other systems.
Sugar is one food that, in excess, can act as a toxin and lead to a variety of health conditions.
What Do We Mean By “Sugar”?
Sugar & Carbs
The Western diet seems to be based on sugar and carbohydrates. Most people start the day with breakfast cereal, toast or a bagel, and maybe some orange juice. For lunch, it’s a sandwich and chips followed by a cookie. Dinner is often pasta or pizza. It’s one of the reasons metabolic diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes have risen to epidemic levels. The human gut was not designed to handle this amount of sugar in food. And yes, carbohydrates, unfortunately, break down into sugar molecules and impact blood sugar.
While refined white sugar (pure sucrose) is thought to be one of the worst forms of sugar out there, other forms of dietary sugar aren’t vastly better. Brown sugar is also sucrose; it just has some molasses added back in to make it brown and give it a richer flavor profile. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking cane sugar or beet sugar. All granulated, liquid, and powdered sugars similarly impact the body.
Corn syrup and now high fructose corn syrup are potentially even worse. Not only is corn one of the most frequently genetically modified foods, but it also contains the toxic metal mercury.  Mercury is added for its antimicrobial properties. It’s there to improve the shelf life of processed foods, but it’s toxic to the brain.
Honey and maple syrup are natural sweeteners, but they, too, must be used in moderation as they still impact blood sugar and feed microbes. Anything that increases blood sugar can increase inflammation. This also goes for blackstrap and regular molasses, dates and date sugar, concentrated juices, brown rice syrup, agave (high in fructose), pomegranate molasses, and other natural sweeteners. Of course, there’s always a spectrum of food options, and these natural sweeteners have some beneficial nutrients. However, they still do more harm than good — especially in excess. But lab-created artificial sweeteners are worse.
Yes, sugar is harmful, but you don’t want to switch to artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharine, or sucralose either. These can have a bleach-like effect on the gut, killing off beneficial bacteria. They may also change the ratio of bacteria strains and decrease intestinal production of brain-nourishing short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs). 
A 2008 study published by Duke University showed that sucralose can kill beneficial bacteria that live in the gut, including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.  A 2016 study showed that artificial sweeteners can also negatively affect motility, the movement of food through the digestive tract. 
Poor motility can lead to small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), where bacteria that are supposed to remain in the large intestine migrate into the small intestine when the sphincter between them fails to close completely. There are not supposed to be high levels of bacteria in the small intestine, so when that happens, it leads to poor digestion and many other aggravating symptoms.
How Sugar Destroys Your Gut
Excess sugar has many destructive effects on the digestive system. Between feeding pathogenic bacteria and yeasts, decreasing good bacteria, and damaging the gut lining, sugar can wreak havoc on the gut and overall health.
Feeds Pathogenic Bacteria
Consuming too many simple sugars like fructose and sucrose is known to change the makeup of our gut microbiota, feeding dis-ease causing bacteria like Clostridium difficile and certain Proteobacteria.  A sweetener called Trehalose is linked to increased C. difficile infections, which began in the early 2000s. 
Contributes to Candida and Other Yeast Overgrowth
Candida albicans is a yeast that naturally inhabits the gut and other places with a mucus lining.  However, if it gets out of control due to antibiotic use or excess sugar consumption, it can lead to a diagnosis of “Candidiasis.” Candidiasis is linked to many symptoms and health issues, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), chronic allergies, yeast infections, and toenail fungus. It can even fuel sugar cravings, making the problem even worse.
Disrupts The Gut Lining, Causing Leaky Gut
Sugar disrupts the balance of good gut bacteria, which protects the mucus lining, and increases the prevalence of bacteria that break down the mucus lining.  The increased permeability or “leaky gut” then allows lipopolysaccharides or endotoxins to leak into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response to these foreign molecules. This increases inflammation throughout the gut and sets a person up for metabolic disease and autoimmune conditions.
A leaky gut is one of the three requirements for developing an autoimmune disease discovered by researcher Alessio Fasano, MD.  The other two are a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger – which we categorize into trauma, toxins, or thoughts.
Prevents Good Bacteria from Colonizing the Gut
According to a study published in 2018, eating a high-sugar diet cancels out a class of proteins needed for healthy gut colonization.  High amounts of sugar in the gut signal certain beneficial bacteria not to stay and colonize. Dietary fiber does just the opposite, encouraging growth.
A diet high in refined sugar is linked to a lower diversity of microorganisms in the gut. Higher diversity in the gut microbiome, fostered by a healthy fiber intake, is associated with good health. 
Sugar is particularly damaging if you have an Inflammatory Bowel Disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.  However, even if you don’t have that diagnosis, sugar increases inflammation in everyone and negatively affects health. 
Causes Metabolic Syndrome
High blood sugar levels over time contribute to metabolic syndrome, characterized by insulin resistance, weight gain, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke. Obesity is also associated with inflammation, dysbiosis, and poor gut health in general.
The Result of a Sugar-Damaged Gut
What is the result of all these gut changes? Ultimately, these changes to the intestines can lead to poor absorption of nutrients, infections, poor immune response, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune diseases. These have greater downstream effects, like hormone or neurotransmitter imbalance, sleep problems, accelerated aging, and more.
How to Stop the Sugar Cravings
Sugar is a powerful addictive substance, and it can be challenging to quit eating it. The good news is that there are some strategies for getting the cravings under control. Here are a few ideas for you:
- Add apple cider vinegar (ACV), a Wellness Way staple
- Consider a higher-fat diet like ketogenic or low-carb, high (healthy) fat, which is satiating, blood sugar-balancing, and can lower those sugar cravings
- Support balanced blood sugar with an herb like Gymnema
- Try natural non-caloric sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, xylitol, or erythritol
- Consider a prebiotic sweetener like Yacón or inulin. (Inulin also comes as a supplement for added fiber)
Keep in mind that these sweetener options are highly individual, depending on your food allergy list, glucose tolerance, and ability to handle high FODMAP foods. Check in with your Wellness Way practitioner for a Personalized Nutrition Program.
The Wellness Way Approach to Gut Health
At The Wellness Way, we focus on keeping sugar intake low. We know sugar feeds inflammation, infections, and chronic dis-ease. But sugar isn’t the only thing that contributes to inflammation and chronic conditions. Sugar is just one toxin within our “Trauma, Toxins, and Thoughts” understanding of stressors. We don’t guess—we test to find the imbalances in the gut, immune system, endocrine system, and more. We can help support you in restoring your gut health and overall wellness. Contact one of our clinics today!
- Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Potential Effects of Sucralose and Saccharin on Gut Microbiota: A Review – PMC (nih.gov)
- Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Artificial Sweeteners: A Systematic Review and Primer for Gastroenterologists – PMC (nih.gov)
- Causality of small and large intestinal microbiota in weight regulation and insulin resistance – PMC (nih.gov)
- Did a Sugar Called Trehalose Contribute to the Clostridium difficile Epidemic? | Infectious Diseases | JAMA | JAMA Network
- The Interplay Between Sugar and Yeast Infections: Do Diabetics Have a Greater Predisposition to Develop Oral and Vulvovaginal Candidiasis? – PMC (nih.gov)
- Dietary simple sugars alter microbial ecology in the gut and promote colitis in mice | Science Translational Medicine
- Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Dietary sugar silences a colonization factor in a mammalian gut symbiont | PNAS
- The healthy human microbiome: PubMed (nih.gov)
- The Role of Diet in the Pathogenesis and Management of Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Review – PMC (nih.gov)
- Impact of sugar on the body, brain, and behavior – PubMed (nih.gov)