Ask the Doctors: Early Studies Link Added Sugar to IBD | Health, medicine and fitness
Dear doctor: I am 32 years old and have just found out that I have IBD. My doctor thinks that the fact that in my family we eat a lot of sweets has something to do with it. I am not the only one with stomach problems, but I thought that since it is family, it is genetic. Do you think it could really be due to too much sugar?
Dear reader: Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a general term used to describe a group of disorders resulting from chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The most common of these are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Although Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, most people experience problems in the area between the ileum, which is the end of the small intestine, and the beginning of the colon, or large intestine. In ulcerative colitis, the individual develops sores along the inner wall of the colon and rectum. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgency to defecate, involuntary weight loss, and fatigue.
It is true that there is some evidence that IBD, which affects more than 3 million people in the United States, is hereditary. Stress, diet and age also seem to play a role. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease often develop in a person in their 20s and 30s. IBD is also believed to result from a deficiency or dysfunction of the immune system.
This brings us to your doctor by linking your diagnosis of IBD to excessive sugar consumption. A study using mice, published last fall in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found evidence that adding sugar to the diet can lead to IBD and worsen existing disease. Americans consume about 65 to 70 pounds of added sugar per year, the highest rate in the world. Considering that the United States accounts for between one-third and one-half of all IBD cases worldwide, it’s easy to see how the IBD-sugar connection has become a subject of investigation.
In this study, the researchers looked at three groups of mice: those with a healthy gut, a group genetically predisposed to developing colitis, and a group fed a compound to induce colitis. The mice were then divided into new groups. Some were given simple sugars for seven days at concentrations equivalent to a soft drink. Others did not have added sugars in their diet. At the end of the week, the mice on a sweet diet developed much more severe colitis than the mice without sugar. The gut microbiomes of all sugar-fed mice were dramatically altered, with a marked increase in bacteria that break down the protective mucus layer that lines the gut.
Whether sugar consumption erodes the protective mucus in the intestines of humans remains to be seen, but these findings are intriguing. And given that we already know that too much added sugar negatively impacts heart health, blood sugar control, inflammation, and even mood, we think cutting back would be good not only for your gut, but also for your health in general.