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Does Sugar Really Suppress the Immune System?

Eating sugar may put your white blood cells into a temporary coma. But there’s a lot more to the story of how sugar affects our immune response.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #476

Move Over, J. Edgar Hoover

There are arms of the immune system that function like beat cops, roaming around and arresting (or gobbling up) suspicious looking characters. But there are other arms that function more like the CIA, surveilling and keeping dossiers on known criminals so that they can be quickly apprehended should they attempt to strike again.

Once identified, our immune system also has many methods for detaining, disarming, or destroying these criminal elements. We can heat them up, beat them up, poison them, dismember them, isolate, immobilize, or deport them.

Different threats activate different arms of the immune system and elicit different responses. To look at a petri dish full of neutrophils in a sugar-induced coma and say that “eating sugar suppresses immune response” is a bit of an over-simplification.

Other departments of the immune system aren’t that good at spotting or apprehending offenders but instead react to signs of criminal activity, dispatching first responders to secure the area and deal with the wounded. Different threats activate different arms of the immune system and elicit different responses.

So to look at a petri dish full of neutrophils in a sugar-induced coma and say that “eating sugar suppresses immune response” is a bit of an over-simplification.

A couple of years ago, there was an interesting study done in rats showing that sugar’s effect on the immune response depends on what sort of bug you’re fighting. Consuming sugar seemed to help the animals recover from viral infections but hinder their ability to fight off bacterial ones.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to the story of how sugar affects our immune response. However, we do know that there are many other downsides to over-consuming sugar, everything from weight gain to diabetes to tooth decay.  So, while I think we may have been guilty of over-simplification and over-interpretation of a single, small study, I still think the advice to limit your intake of added sugar is good advice.

But, as I pointed out in my earlier article, there is a potential loophole for those of you with a sweet tooth. Sugar consumed after exercise is taken up very quickly by your just-worked muscles. Plus, exercise sensitizes your cells to the effects of insulin, the exact opposite of the desensitizing effect that chronic sugar intake has. In other words, if you want to enjoy a little treat, use it as your reward after a good workout.

What do you think? Post your thoughts below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. And don't forget to subscribe to the Nutrition Diva Podcast so you don't miss a single episode!

Image of sugary soda © Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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