Sugar and the Gut Microbiome

How excessive sugar consumption disrupts a healthy balance of microbiota for gut health.


Several years ago, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Searing pain and joints so stiff I had to crawl up the stairs preceded the doctor’s blood diagnostics. When I returned home with a stash of instructions and medicines, namely antibiotics, there were clear guidelines for which drugs to take for inflammation and pain and which to take for their bacteria-decimating properties, in what dose, and in what order and intervals.

But the pain was slow to subside. And so, while continuing the anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, I began to wonder if I should change my diet to encourage the healing process. After all, I was pouring molecules into my body. The antibiotics were designed to fight types of microbes. The anti-inflammatories worked to reduce inflammation.

Why not find a different molecule designed to encourage collagen formation and blood vessel circulation or boost the replenishment of stem cells located within the skin—a molecule ingested not in the form of a pill but as a nutrient in my food?

At the time, possessing no appetite and no energy meant that I was advised to eat whatever seemed appetizing when it became available—highly-processed foods and refined sugars included: doctor’s orders. I developed body rashes, headaches, GI issues, inflammatory joint pain, and acne breakouts that were difficult to blame on a singular cause. Was it the disease? The antibiotics? The reckless diet?

The Gut-Brain Connection

Candida is a fungus, which is a form of yeast, a very small amount of which lives in your mouth and intestines. There are actually many different types of yeast that can take up residence in your body, however, Candida albicans—Candida for short—is the most common as it aids with digestion and nutrient absorption. While the bacteria in your gut typically prevent your Candida population from overgrowth, antibiotics (which decimate the good bacteria within your gut) enable a diet of refined sugars to feed the yeast into a host of ailments and symptoms.

Unexplainable memory loss, slowness, and impaired thinking seemed to coincide with my careless diet. I came to find that the gut-brain connection was no joke.

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines just as the gastrointestinal system can send signals to the brain in its distress.

It was time to cut out the sugar, strictly and entirely. Within several weeks, I began to witness small improvements.


Public Sugar Wars

If you want to start a war you have to have an enemy. Although the public remains suspicious of fat, these days, our culinary enemy has shifted to sugar as the principal poison in our diets. Sugar is now invoked as the cause of a variety of chronic illnesses, from diabetes to dementia. One study published recently in the Journal of American Medicine found that a high sugar diet can increase the risk of death—even for people maintaining a healthy weight.

The sugar wars are waged by two camps: those who hold sugar directly responsible for obesity, diabetes, and various chronic ailments, and those who list sugar as one arm of a dangerous and multi-faceted problem in a country that eats too many calories to begin with, most of which are nutritionally empty.

Despite the well-documented addictive nature of sugar in reducing the brain’s oxytocin system that prevents you from gorging, less study is devoted to the ways in which sugar and processed foods wreak havoc on our microbiome.

The probiotics in our gut feed on prebiotics—plant-based fibers from whole foods like apples, onions, garlic, bananas and oats. When we eat a high-sugar diet, undesirable bacteria thrive and outnumber the fragile balance of beneficial bacteria.

In fact, the effects in one study of mice fed a high-sugar diet showed reduced cognitive flexibility in their ability to switch between concepts and impaired memory, all due to changes in gut microbiota.

Feeding the Microbiome in a Sugar-Crazed Society

Real food, unlike added sugars, possess their own regulatory systems. Four apples may contain sixteen teaspoons of sugar—far more than the recommended daily allotment. But few people choose to eat four apples. The fruit contains enough fiber and other nutrients to send the body signals of feeling full.

And it should be said that sugar by any other name is still sugar: sweeteners like sucrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) all have similar effects despite “healthy” packaging as natural honey or agave.

Indulge in any one of them and we not only overwork our insulin, the hormone that breaks down sugar to metabolize and store it, but we risk upsetting the fragile balance of billions of sensitive bacteria in our gastrointestinal system.

Heal Using a Whole-Body Approach

Besides avoiding microbiome depleters and reducing or eliminating sugar intake, gut health requires more holistic maintenance.
Establish gut health using probiotics. Taking a high-quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement supports the microbiome by replenishing depleted beneficial bacteria and diminishing the harmful sugar-feeding strains.
Eat plant-based foods. Prebiotics, those indigestible fibers that fuel gut flora, are best found in most vegetables and some fruits. Some of the best options include oats, onions, bananas, garlic, and Jerusalem artichoke.
Live an active lifestyle. Studies show that activity maintains a healthier microbiome than sedentary lifestyles. Stress can also deplete health gut flora, so using relaxation and exercise to relieve anxiety can maintain a healthy balance.

To be fair, a sugary indulgence from time to time is part of a healthy and moderated lifestyle, one that you’re more likely to continue in the long term. But a life without excessive sugar, a new normal, will feel healthier and maintain the all-important health of your essential microbiome.

Have you typically eaten a highly-processed diet and experienced symptoms that may stem from the sugars added to your foods? Reach out here to chat about your story or visit for more information.

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