How Sugar Promotes Chronic Intestinal Inflammation
The intestinal mucosa must constantly renew itself. High sugar consumption could disrupt this process – and thus promote chronic intestinal inflammation such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Sugar consumption has exploded in western industrialised countries: it has increased by 127 percent in the last 40 years. At the same time, the number of chronic intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis also increased. Research has provided evidence that people who consume particularly high amounts of sugar are more likely to develop such a condition.
Researchers led by Timothy Hand from the University of Pittsburgh have now uncovered a mechanism that explains how high amounts of sugar can damage the intestines – albeit indirectly. They focused on refined table sugar (sucrose). Unlike more complex carbohydrates, for example from whole grain products or vegetables, it can be used very quickly. Such sugars were only found in small amounts in the original human diet. The body is not prepared for this.
Intestinal model in the Petri dish
The researchers used so-called organoids for their experiment. These are cell complexes that are cultivated in the laboratory based on stem cells. They organize themselves into structures that work in a similar way to the corresponding organs. In this case, the researchers created intestinal organoids that have the functions of the intestinal mucosa.
The team then exposed the organoids to a sugar solution. As a result, they were able to observe that the mucosal cells did not regenerate as usual.
This regeneration process is essential for healthy intestinal function. It ensures that the intestines can, on the one hand, channel large amounts of nutrients into the bloodstream on a daily basis – but, on the other hand, also fend off pollutants and pathogens.
The intestine must constantly regenerate itself
The wear and tear is high: the intestinal mucosa is completely renewed every four to five days. For this purpose, stem cells in the so-called crypts constantly produce new intestinal mucosal cells. The crypts are gland-like structures in the intestinal wall that sit in the depression between the intestinal villi.
More detailed analyses showed that high sugar consumption increased pyruvate in the cells of the crypts. This is an intermediate product of sugar utilization, which in a next step is converted by the cell into ATP, the body’s actual “energy currency”. However, this conversion process is apparently disrupted if the sugar consumption is too high.
Experiments with mice showed how serious the effects of sugar can be: animals whose intestinal mucosa was damaged by exposure to a salt (dextran sulfate) recovered within 14 days. However, if the animals received an extremely sugary solution at the same time, they died within a few days.
Sugar inhibits intestinal regeneration
“Overall, our results indicate that a short-term excess of sucrose in the diet can directly alter the metabolism of gut crypt cells and inhibit the regenerative formation of gut stem cells,” the researchers write.
Accordingly, diets could possibly support the treatment of acute intestinal damage. In addition to inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, examples of this would also be severe gastrointestinal infections or radiation therapy.
Sugar is everywhere
Household sugar is not only found in sweets and fizzy drinks, but also used in large quantities in industrial foods. Sugar is added to fruit yoghurt, ketchup, crunchy muesli, chips, frozen pizza, bread, sausage and gherkins.
The consumption of excessive sugar has emerged as a significant contributor to the promotion of chronic intestinal inflammation, with far-reaching implications for the rise of autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease. Through extensive research, it has become evident that the modern diet, characterised by a surplus of added sugars, plays a pivotal role in disrupting the delicate balance of the gut microbiota, compromising intestinal barrier function, and fuelling a pro-inflammatory environment.
The prevalence of autoimmune disorders, including Crohn’s disease, has escalated in the UAE in recent years, mirroring global trends in developed nations. This escalation can be attributed, at least in part, to the adoption of a Westernised diet, which is often high in refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods. The UAE’s rapid socioeconomic growth, urbanisation, and increased reliance on convenience foods have further exacerbated this issue.
Notably, the chronic inflammation resulting from excessive sugar intake not only affects the gastrointestinal tract but also triggers systemic inflammatory responses, leading to a cascade of immune dysregulation that can manifest as autoimmune disorders. The burden of these conditions on public health is substantial, necessitating urgent attention and targeted intervention strategies.
To combat this growing health concern, awareness campaigns, public health initiatives, and educational programs should be developed to educate individuals about the potential risks of excessive sugar consumption and its link to chronic intestinal inflammation and autoimmune disorders. By addressing the impact of sugar on intestinal health, it is possible to mitigate the rise of autoimmune disorders and foster a healthier future for the UAE population.