Science and the Scleroderma Girl: What a Cell Wants… (AKA the Sugar Rant)

I’ve been pressured repeatedly to “give up sugar” to control my inflammation. Really, people have been pretty darn aggressive in this messaging both in person and online. To be fair, the people pressing this message must have felt they were improved when they cut back on sugar, but every time it happens I am torn between tears and frustration.

I’m sorry, but this is like telling me that I can’t put gasoline into my car anymore. The car simply can’t run on air alone, and neither can I.

Eukaryotic Cell
Cutest drawing of a cell ever!! This little guy, an idealized animal cell, needs many essential components to stay alive, including a constant supply of glucose and oxygen. That’s what a cell wants, what a cell needs… 

Okay, to be clear, we do need a component of air for energy: oxygen. I was running short of that commodity earlier in my scleroderma career and had to be placed on supplemental oxygen for about 6 months waiting for my drugs to kick in and save my ass. If you are short on oxygen, as I can attest, you are also short on energy and you can’t think very well. I was in trouble, as my pulmonologist put it, because my “engine” (my lungs) was too small for my body.

The other essential energy component is sugar, or specifically, glucose. Cells, and by extension, bodies, use an amazing system of biochemical pathways to convert biological materials to glucose, maintain a steady concentration of glucose in your blood, and then pack away the excess for storage in your muscles and liver. If blood glucose levels drop too low your body releases glucose from storage. If the stored glucose gets used up, your body begins to cannibalize other tissues. Why is glucose so important? Because it is used in the mitochondria located in body cells along with oxygen to produce the energy molecules (ATP for you geeks out there) that are used to run the whole biological show. If there is no ATP, the whole show stops. That’s why it is critical to keep people breathing and their blood pumping, but also why it is important to consume glucose.

My relationship with glucose is pretty darn complex. Too much sugar at a time isn’t a good thing: it can dehydrate and damage tissue, and high blood sugar can cause blood pressure spikes. Take home lesson for me: don’t binge on milkshakes, sugary pops, and French fries. Because I had hypertension and a family member with diabetes, I have spent years developing a diet that has a low glycemic index. I eat yellow potatoes instead of white ones, recipes with half the flour replaced with oatmeal, and little sugar. I also eat fresh fruit in my yogurt smoothies, and rice mixed with veggies. I am eating sugar every single day in my meals, and it really is essential for me to function properly; the trick is to try to consume it in a way that helps maintain good blood sugar levels. Frosting loaded cinnamon rolls… NO!! Banana and strawberry smoothie with yogurt… YES!!

So, every time someone insists that I have to “cut out sugar” I can feel my head getting ready to explode. I wonder if they understand that potatoes, bread and rice are also “sugar”. Have they given up fruits? If they are also cutting out gluten they may be actually spiking their blood sugar with rice-based alternatives. It is kind of crazy talk… It also is kind of “it’s your fault you are sick” talk. Not nice!!

It makes me go sit in a corner somewhere to knit away the frustration…

The research is mixed on the link between sugar and inflammation. There are lots of articles on healthy eating sites that say it is bad, but I wanted to see actual controlled experiments looking at the link between sugar and inflammation. There are several ways to check for inflammation but most look for inflammatory markers in the blood and cell permeability. This controlled research study found that there was no link between excessive sugar intake and inflammation. It’s kind of a small study, though, so I went hunting for more. This study showed that sugars obtained from food were not inflammatory, but when people consumed free sugars (spooned sugar into coffee or cereal, or drank sugary fruit juice) they did increase inflammatory markers. Cool. That totally makes sense, and explains why other people are reporting that they feel better when they “cut out sugar”. My sugar canister goes months without being opened… I don’t add sugar to anything unless I’m baking. Still on the hunt for info, I found this meta-analysis of research studies that showed that high-fructose corn sugar wasn’t any worse than any other in terms of inflammatory marker increases.

Okay, I think that the rant is over. Sugar is your friend, but don’t get crazy people…

Back to the knitting!

Author: Midnight Knitter

I weave, knit and read in Aurora, Colorado where my garden lives. I have 2 sons, a knitting daughter-in-law, a grandson and two exceptionally spoiled kittens. In 2014 I was diagnosed with a serious rare autoimmune disease called systemic sclerosis along with Sjogren's Disease and fibromyalgia.

10 thoughts on “Science and the Scleroderma Girl: What a Cell Wants… (AKA the Sugar Rant)”

  1. I have that same response to people telling me to eat Keto. If it works for them, great, but I don’t want to do that!

  2. I honestly never knew that sugar can increase inflammation. I am planning to give up dairy because I have read that increases inflammation. My goodness I do not think I can give up both sugar and dairy!

    1. Well, sugar is fine as long as you aren’t adding it to foods or drinking sugary drinks. I keep a food log and I haven’t noticed any big problems when I indulge occasionally.

      About dairy, I keep my GI issues under control by eating yogurt and other dairy products without lactose. There is research that says dairy is anti-inflammatory if you aren’t allergic to it or are lactose intolerent; in my case it has helped me enormously. My doctor checks my C reactive protein every month and I’m doing okay eating my current diet.

      I get what you are saying. I have had to give up so much already that I almost burst into tears when another scleroderma person told me I had to give up sugar, dairy, gluten and red meat. I’m not willing to cut any thing else out of my diet unless there is strong evidence for giving it up.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic knowledge!! The funny thing is, I basically spent the first year of my life in the hospital because it took forever for the doctors to figure out that I was lactose intolerant. When I do have any dairy products it does not seem to make me sick or anything, but I do wonder if it is secretly causing my MS issues. I do not really eat much anyways, but I do eat cheese. I do not drink milk though. I have been working on starting a bullet journal, but not until July 1st because it seemed silly to start one now when the month is almost over. I am going to do a food tracker to see what if anything I eat causes me issues. I already do not eat much red meat because as crazy as it may sound, it makes me sad. I do not really want to cut foods out of my diet because of MS. I never wanted this illness to dictate my life. We only get once shot at life and I do not want an illness to control me. I really appreciate all you have shared!!!! I hope you have a great Sunday!!!!

      2. You know, keep a log to see if your MS gets worse when you indulge in dairy. I think that one of the research studies that I looked at specifically looked at MS/dairy/inflammation and it was not a problem, but it would be worth looking at PubMed yourself.

        The food tracker has been a great help for me. I hope that you discover the same. How interesting that you noticed that red meat affects you; I’d avoid it too!

        My doctors have me taking fish oil (krill oil actually) and vitamin D every day, and I noticed that the vitamin D helps with depression/anxiety and that the krill oil really makes a difference with my neuropathy. Don’t know if they will help with MS, but it sure is worth checking out. 🙂

        I had a great Sunday! I hope yours was good too.

  3. Very well put. It’s obvious from reading your blog that you are doing everything that is best for you to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
    As an aside, I find consuming fast acting sugars (and caffeine) intensifies and increases the number of my hot flushes/flashes.

    1. Thanks. It has been a journey, that is for sure. When I was fist diagnosed I had so many symptoms that it took a long time to sort out what helped, and what I should avoid.

      I had to give up caffeine except for my morning latte…you have to draw the line somewhere, right? How sad that sugar is an issue. That is just insult to injury!

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