Sugar May Harm Immune Cells

We all know that sugar negatively impacts health. But, aside from causing weight gain, scientists still have a lot to learn about how sugar affects the body.

New research in mice may be a huge breakthrough. Scientists discovered that eating sugar leads to the loss of important immune cells in mice.  

What you eat feeds the microbiome in your gut. Research has found that around 70 percent of our immune system lives in our gut. When mice ate sugar, it fed bacteria that out-competed useful bacteria. That, in turn, reduced helpful bacteria in the gut called TH17 that protect the mice from diet-related obesity, absorption of fat and the ravages of metabolic diseases.

These immune cells produce molecules that slow down the absorption of ‘bad’ lipids from the intestines and they decrease intestinal inflammation,” explained Ivaylo Ivanov, of the Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham, lead researcher on the project. “In other words, they keep the gut healthy and protect the body from absorbing pathogenic lipids.”

It’s always hard to know if animal research will carry over into human populations. TH17 cells play the same critical role in the human immune system.

There may be other mechanisms at work as well and the role of physical activity and exercise has not been considered,” said Dr. David Heber, an internist, endocrinologist and physician nutrition specialist. He was not involved in the research but did review it.  

He went on to say, “This study demonstrates in detail one mechanism by which an alteration in diet can affect the microbiome which then affects immune cells mediating the gut issues involved in metabolic syndrome.”

The study’s authors pointed out that we cannot come to conclusions too quickly. Not only was this research in mice, but each person’s microbiome is also different. Following a diet to “fix” your microbiome won’t help if you don’t know what bacteria you need to improve.

Dr. Ivanov said, “This suggests that some popular dietary interventions, such as minimizing sugars, may only work in people who have certain bacterial populations within their microbiota.”  

Dr. Ivanov had some good news, “When we fed mice a sugar-free, high-fat diet, they retain the intestinal Th17 cells and were completely protected from developing obesity and [blood sugar concerns], even though they ate the same number of calories.”

As stated before, there’s no way to know that this research will transfer to humans without further studies. However, older studies have found that eating a diet rich in healthy fat and complex carbs that that are fiber-rich nourishes beneficial bacteria in the gut and promotes diversity. While these results may not be exactly the same in people, we know that a varied diet that is low in added sugar is best for gut health. Now, we have a better understanding of why that might be.  

Banner image: Jason via Unsplash

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