There is a metabolic difference between simple and complex carbohydrates. The simple ones become glucose soon after they are eaten. The complex ones take longer to turn into sugar and are less apt to spike insulin and cause energy crashes down the line. But that isn’t the only difference between the two.
Almost forty years ago scientists had an interest in the relationship of diet to health, specifically of sugar intake to immunity. But their curiosity went past simple sugar to include carbohydrates other than glucose. The cells that are the backbone of the immune system are supposed to kill, swallow, and dispose of alien bodies, including bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. Scientists at Loma Linda University in California examined the activity of neutrophilic phagocytes (cells that dissolve the enemy) after subjects ingested glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, or orange juice and found that “…all significantly decreased the capacity of neutrophils to engulf bacteria…” (Sanchez, Reeser, et al. 1973). Looking more closely, the researchers also discovered that the greatest effects occurred within the first two hours after eating, but “…the effects last for at least 5 hours.” (Ibid.) If there is any promise, it’s that the effects can be undone by fasting from added sugars for the next two or three days.
At the start of the twentieth century, Americans consumed only about five pounds of sugar a year. By the fifties, that had grown to almost 110 pounds a year, and to more than 152 by the year 2000. Corn sweeteners account for 85 of those pounds. America’s sweet tooth increased 39% between 1950 and 2000 as the use of corn sweetener octupled.
Although the statistics above are decades old, its message is contemporary. High-fructose corn syrup has become the bad boy of the anti-sugar crusade. HFCS began replacing sugar in soft drinks in the 1980’s, after it was portrayed by marketers as a healthful replacement for demon sugar. It didn’t hurt the industry that it cost less, either. The biological effects of sugar and HFCS are the same, however. Neither has any food value — no vitamins, protein, minerals, antioxidants, or fiber — but they do displace the more nutritious elements of one’s diet, and we tend to consume more than we need to maintain our weight, so we gain.
Even though the number of calories from the glucose in a slice of bread or other starch is the same as that from table sugar (half fructose and half glucose), they are metabolized differently and have different effects on the body. While fructose is metabolized by the liver, glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body. When fructose reaches the liver, especially in liquid form (as in soda), it overwhelms the organ and is almost immediately converted to fat. (Taubes. 2011)
Innate immunity is that which occurs as part of your natural makeup and defends you against infection by other organisms. Short-term hyperglycemia, which might come from a pint of vanilla, has been found to affect all the major components of the innate immune system and to impair its ability to combat infection. Reduced neutrophil activity, but not necessarily reduced neutrophil numbers, is one of several reactions to high sugar intake. (Turina. 2005) Way back in the early 1900’s, researchers noted a relationship between glucose levels and infection frequency among diabetes sufferers, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s that scientists found that diabetics’ white cells were sluggish. (Challem. 1997) More recent study has corroborated the diabetes-infection connection, agreeing that neutrophil phagocytosis is impaired when glucose control is less than adequate. (Lin. 2006) Impaired immune activity is not limited to those with diabetes. As soon as glucose goes up, immune function goes down.
Some people think they’re doing themselves a favor by using artificial sweeteners. Once the brain is fooled into thinking a sweet has been swallowed, it directs the pancreas to make insulin to carry the “sugar” to the cells for energy. After the insulin finds out it’s been cheated of real sugar, it tells the body to eat in order to get some, and that creates artificial hunger, which causes weight increase from overeating. Even environmental scientists have a concern with fake sweeteners in that they appear in the public’s drinking water after use. You can guess how that works. (Mawhinney. 2011)
Mineral deficiencies, especially prevalent in a fast-food world, contribute to immune dysfunction by inhibiting all aspects of the system, from immune cell adherence to antibody activity. Paramount among minerals is magnesium, which is part of both the innate and acquired immune responses. (Tam. 2003) Epidemiological studies have connected magnesium intake to decreased incidence of respiratory infections (PDR. 2000). But sugar pushes magnesium — and other minerals — out of the body. (Milne. 2000) This will compromise not only immune function, but also bone integrity. (Tjäderhane. 1998). Mix a sweet alcohol cocktail and find the whammy doubled. (Fuchs. 2002).
Zinc has been touted for its ability to shorten the duration of the common cold. Like magnesium, zinc levels decrease with age, and even tiny deficiencies can have a large effect on immune health, particularly in the function of the thymus gland, which makes the T-cells of the immune system. Zinc supplementation improves immune response in both the young and the old. (Haase. 2009) (Bogden. 2004) (Bondestam. 1985) All the microminerals, in fact, are needed in minute amounts for optimal growth and development…and physiology. Low intakes suppress immune function by affecting T-cell and antibody response. Thus begins a cycle whereby infection prevents uptake of the minerals that could prevent infection in the first place. Adequate intakes of selenium, zinc, copper, iron plus vitamins B6, folate, C, D, A, and E have been found to counteract potential damage by reactive oxygen species and to enhance immune function. (Wintergest. 2007)
Who would have viewed something as sweet as sugar as being so hostile to its host? It likes to let itself in, but has the nasty character of pushing everything else out.