“My ankles hurt.” “It’s hard to breathe when I run.” Parents who are looking for the causes of mystery ailments like these should consider whether inflammation plays a role. Inflammation, which is what happens when your body triggers an immune response, can become chronic and spread throughout the body and can often be tied to excess dietary sugar. As we explain in our new book Sugarproof, systemic inflammation can play a role in a host of disorders, including asthma, joint pain, and skin health. Also, as new studies are showing, this systemic inflammation can compromise the ability of the body to fight inflammation caused by actual infections like COVID-19 and influenza.
Dietary sugar, especially from beverages including juices, is associated with a generalized inflammatory state throughout the body. This type of inflammation can be measured by testing circulating levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP. For example, one study showed that drinking sugary beverages on a daily basis is associated with a 60 to 100 percent increase in CRP levels indicating broad inflammation.
If your child suffers from asthma, take a look at their diet. A large study of almost two thousand children found that kids who drink more than five sugary beverages a week (including juice) are five times more likely to develop asthma than kids who drink less than one per month. There is also evidence to suggest that a higher intake of sugar during pregnancy is related to an increased risk of asthma for the child. One potential mechanism for how increased sugar could contribute to asthma is by excess fructose from beverages and juices disrupting the gut and causing intestinal permeability (leaky gut) or through formation of advanced glycation end products which can be absorbed and contribute to asthma development in the lungs.
Another ailment that is connected to inflammation is gout. You might think of gout as a condition in older people caused by eating too much meat or drinking too much alcohol. But sugar, and specifically fructose, can also trigger this inflammatory condition. The pain and inflammation of gout is caused by deposits of uric acid crystals in the joints. Uric acid is produced as a by-product from the way fructose is broken down in the liver. One of the most consistent findings associated with increased consumption of sugars, and especially sugary beverages, is an increase in circulating levels of uric acid. This is so consistent that some researchers consider using uric acid levels in blood as an independent marker of sugary beverage consumption. An analysis of ten different studies concluded that sugary beverage consumption was associated with a 35 percent increase in risk for increased uric acid and gout. And in detailed feeding studies, an increase in uric acid was explained by increased fructose consumption in particular. Usually, uric acid is filtered out by the kidneys, but when levels become too high, the uric acid can crystallize and be deposited in the joints of the extremities of the body such as fingers, toes, and ankles. The result is a sharply painful sensation.
Inflammation from a high sugar diet can also be manifested through acne. There is a lot of speculation about the possible links between diet and acne. Some say chocolate is a trigger; others blame the oil from fried foods. We know that acne is related to hormones, which is why it flares up in the teenage years. The reality is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on diet and acne, but studies show that sugar can be a contributor. For example, a large study of Chinese teenagers found that daily soft drink consumption significantly increases the risk of moderate to severe acne. In a study of 139 sets of twins, the twin with higher sugar intake had more acne. The twin study is especially interesting because it controls for the influence of genetics, which may also influence one’s skin. Other research suggests that a number of dietary factors are related to acne, including added sugar, total sugar, foods that are high on the glycemic index, number of milk servings per day, saturated fat and trans-fatty acids, and fewer servings of fish per day. The message is clear: Your child’s overall diet quality can make a difference for their skin, health, and sugar plays a key role. In fact, a low-glycemic diet appears to reduce acne, with a significant improvement in skin lesions. A low-glycemic diet reduces insulin demand, which reduces levels of androgens and sebum production, which are the main culprits behind acne.
New research in the context of Covid-19 is also showing that the broad systemic inflammation caused by increased sugar and poor diet can also disrupt the body’s ability to produce a more targeted immune response that would attack the virus. Instead, the body’s immune response seems to mount a broad attack against the broader systemic inflammation, resulting in damage to vital organs. There has never been a better time than now to reduce our consumption of sugar and look out for the future health of our children.
If your kids have acne, asthma, or if they complain of achy joints in the hands, feet, or ankles, or if they simply suffer from mysterious symptoms, try skipping soda and juice for a few days, or back off of very large servings of fruit. It’s still important to follow the doctor’s prescription for any medication or other treatments. But if eliminating soda and juice helps your kids feel better, you’ve got a powerful clue as to a possible contributing factor: inflammation. See our website and our book “Sugarproof” for simple family-based strategies for cutting back on sugar including recipes that are free from added sugar.
Guest post by Michael Goran and Emily Ventura, authors of “Sugarproof: The Hidden Sugars that are Putting Your Child’s Health at Risk and What You Can Do”