Halloween is only days away and it’s the perfect opportunity to cut loose: dress up wildly, get your groove on mid-week and let yourself indulge a bit! Although this great and ghouly event is synonymous with a sack full of sugary treats, you may want to limit your sweet indulgence – especially once you learn what sugar really does to your immune system!
Sugar is an incredibly powerful and highly addictive substance. It stimulates the release of hormones that give us a major boost: serotonin, that feel-good brain buzzer, and our stress hormone, cortisol. It’s the cortisol that wreaks havoc on our immune function.
Our immune system is controlled by our nervous system, which like the rest of the body, is ancient. As a species, we haven’t changed much in over 10,000 years!1 As a result, we have only two speeds: fight or flight (sympathetic) or rest and digest (parasympathetic). And we can not be in both places at once!
In today’s world we spend most of our time in sympathetic mode, which means the body is on high alert, ready for attack. Thousands of years ago, our threats were likely more physical – saber-tooth tigers, warring tribes, starvation, etcetera. For many of us today though, stress is often triggered by internal factors such as negative thoughts or emotions, food intolerances or even high amounts of caffeine or sugar. Our nervous system does not know the difference between an external or internal stress – the biochemical and physiological response is exactly the same! Whether we are truly fighting for our lives, or we are just ticked about the line-up in Starbuck’s, either way, the body says: “all hands on deck ~ we’re fightin’ for our life!”
When this happens, any non-essential body function shuts down, including immune function. You cannot effectively fight a tiger if your nose is running, your eyes itchy or your lungs full of goo. Fight for your life, then balance your immune function. Fight for your life, then deal with your digestion, or your hormones, or whatever else needs attention. But fight for your life first. From your evolutionary body’s perspective, nothing else matters if you’re dead!
Sugar is the fuel and cortisol is the signal. In essence, a super smart system. The problem, is that in today’s world the ‘threat’ is rarely over. Many of us live with incredible levels of stress which chronically suppresses our immune system. “Not so bad”, you might think, “who wants a runny nose anyway?” But keep in mind, just because you’re not getting the symptoms of being sick, doesn’t mean that you aren’t sick. The bugs are still getting in. It’s just that the security guards are in a head-lock due to the cortisol and sugar. As soon as the stress comes down, your immune system ramps back up. Have you ever planned a vacation only to get there and spend the entire time in bed? Exactly.
When stress hormones are released, they trigger the release of stored sugar from the liver. Remember thousands of years ago, we might have been fighting for our lives yet hadn’t eaten for days. Our liver stores sugar for just this occasion. When cortisol fires the signal, the liver responds by flooding our blood stream with sugar so we have the fuel to fight. Sugar then blocks our immune function so that we can win.
Sugar and immunity have been studied for decades. Sugar has been shown to ‘freeze’ our immune cells, in particular, our neutrophils2. Neutrophils are like foot soldiers in our immune army. They form the first line of defense against invaders. Cruising through the blood like a platoon on patrol, they search for bacteria or viruses. If any are found, the neutrophils ‘phagocytose’ them. Meaning they surround them, hand-cuff them, and send them to the gallows without a trial. All of this happens with rapid-fire speed, until sugar enters the game. With sugar present, neutrophils are ‘frozen’, blocked from capturing toxic invaders for up to five hours, possibly more2.
How much sugar induces the five-hour freeze? According to one study, it was approximately 20 teaspoons2. Since the average chocolate bar has over 7.5 tsp of sugar and a package of skittles has more than 11, the immune freeze is reached with just a few treats!
But how long does it take to get sick? Look at it this way: how long does it take for someone to cough and then for you take a breath?
Sadly, this isn’t the only way sugar messes with our immune function. It also blocks one of our key immune nutrients, Vitamin C, from entering our cells! Taking vitamin C is like giving our immune cells a red-bull: they move far more quickly and aggressively to attack invading viruses and bacteria.
But when blood sugars rise, Vitamin C is left out in the cold. Vitamin C and sugar require the same pass-card to get into the cells3. It’s like going to a popular venue and needing a VIP pass to get in. The door man is a hormone called insulin. And insulin has a penchant for sugar. When sugar shows up, Vitamin C is left on the curb3. Not only does sugar freeze our immune cells from acting, it inhibits their ability to absorb the substance they need most. Definitely more ‘trick’ than ‘treat’ going on!
So what can you do? Here are 5 simple tips:
- Limit your intake of sugar.
- Eat a clean diet (plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, avoid allergenic or toxic substances) in the days before and after Hallowe’en so that your body has only the increased sugar to deal with, not other toxins as well.
- Increase your water intake to flush your system of toxins.
- Take good quality probiotics and immune medicines such as vitamin C and zinc. For therapeutic dosing, check with your naturopathic physician.
- Keep a good sleep schedule to ensure better cortisol balance.
Of course, there are healthy and yummy Hallowe’en treats that take just moments to prepare. Try this Silky Bean Fudge recipe and you’ll be a believer!
3 1/2 cups cooked beans (or 2 medium tins), rinsed well
3/4 cup melted coconut oil
3/4 cup carob or cocoa powder to taste
1/2 cup sweetener (honey, maple syrup, agave, 3 or 4 blended dates, or coconut sugar)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
Put all the ingredients in a high powered blender (Vitamix) or food processor and process until completely smooth. Adjust sweetener to taste. Spread mixture in an oiled 8 x 8 pan. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set. Enjoy!
- Diamond, J. 1997. “Guns, Germs and Steel.” W.W. Norton, USA.
- Sanchez, A., Reeser, J.L., Lau, H.S., Yahiku, P.Y., Willare, R.E., McMillan, P.J., Cho, S.Y., Magie, A.R. & U.D. Register. 1973. “Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis.” American Society of Clinical Nutrition Inc.
- Johnston, CS & MF Yen. 1994. “Megadose of vitamin C delays insulin response to a glucose challenge in normoglycemic adults.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60(5): 735-8.