Candy canes and colds. Those are my husband's memories of Christmas. Whenever we reminisce about our childhoods, my husband delights in raving about his mother's talent for baking. Weak-kneed at the remembrance of her weekly desserts, his eyes glaze over when he describes her Yuletide pantry of sugar-laced divinity cookies, plum pudding, gooey strawberry treats and brownies.
He also recalls her attentiveness during his regular bout with holiday colds and flu. Tall, cool glasses of ginger ale and frosty popsicles were served to strengthen and soothe him during his suffering. But unbeknownst to his mother--and caretakers everywhere-- sugar, a common comfort for the ailing, invites, rather than eases, the throes of illness. Sugar isn't as sweet as it seems.
Everyone knows that eating too much sugar is associated with tooth decay and gaining weight. However, according to scientific research, sugar's health effects reach well beyond your teeth and belly. Too many sweets may increase your risk of Crohn's disease (1) and heart disease (2), up uric acid levels (associated with gout) (2), promote diabetes (3), jack up your appetite (4) and could even take years off your life (5). There's also evidence that sugar greatly impacts one of the most important systems of your body--the immune system.
Killing me Slowly with Sugar
The immune system is the body's protective force against foreign invaders including viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi, toxins, pollutants and even cancer. The skin, mucous membranes and body surface secretions are the initial buttresses that fend off assailants. If these guards are over thrown, then a cavalry of white blood cells and antibody-producing B cells gallop to the rescue.
A study from the journal Dental Survey investigated sugar's effect on bacteria-hungry white blood cells called neutrophils. This experiment found that consuming 24 ounces of cola depresses neutrophil activity by 50 percent. This occurs thirty minutes after ingestion and lasts for five hours--possibly longer (6). Other parts of the immune system may be similarly assaulted by sugar (7).
This is particularly distressing news considering how hospital patients are fed. When I worked in the dietary department of a large hospital, it was routine to serve operation candidates pop, jello, ice cream and custard. The hospital dietitians rationalized that surgical patients needed easy-to-digest foods. They didn't know that hefty doses of sugar could drag down their patient's immunity at a time when they needed it the most. There's lots of other examples of the sick being nursed back to health with sweets. How many times did your mother offer you 7-Up and ginger ale for an upset stomach? And isn't ice cream the favorite soother after a tonsillectomy?
We've all been taught to guzzle orange juice for it's vitamin C, which is great for the sniffles. Unfortunately, most orange juice brands sorely lacking in this nutrient due to processing and packaging. And the juice itself can actually lower your resistance because of its high fructose content. In a study published in a 1973 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, A. Sanchez showed that 100 carbohydrate grams worth of orange juice (equal to about 32 ounces) lowers white blood cell activity for at least five hours (honey and table sugar, Sanchez found, had similar effects).
Sugar and Spice
How did sugar become a convalescent celebrity? Mary Poppins advised that "just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," because remedies generally tasted awful. Later, the sugar became the remedy. In the 1940s and 50s, candy and soft drink manufacturers commonly advertised in prominent medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. The American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages urged physicians to treat their undernourished patients with soda. The Council on Candy said confectionery treats are a nutritious addition to a child's diet. We now know, of course, that that's not true.