Blood Sugar, Diabetes and Inflammation
Managing glucose may calm chronic inflammation. Understand how, and why.
March 24, 2021
Article Summary: Inflammation and Blood Sugar
Inflammation may sound painful, but it’s often a good thing for the body. In fact, you can think of inflammation as a defense mechanism that helps your body heal after it’s been attacked by, say, an infection or an injury. It rallies the body’s defenses (aka your immune system) to get to work so you feel better faster, whether that means protecting a cut from infection or fighting off a virus. In these acute, need-help-now situations, you’ll be glad inflammation is triggered to aid in your body’s healing process. Yes, it might come with symptoms like redness, swelling, or fever, but those are actually signs that your body is flooding the hurt area with immune reinforcements to bring you back to pain-free normal.
Inflammation crosses into the danger zone when it can’t shut itself off. That happens when your body gets signals of assault all the time, so it stays in constant fight-back mode. Sounds exhausting, right? It is. When the body is in a perpetual state of low-grade inflammation, your immune system ends up damaging, instead of healing, your systems. A host of health harms can result, but the opposite is also true. “Strategies that aim to manage inflammation can be effective in treating a range of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer,” says Maziyar Saberi, PhD, systems physiologist and Chief Scientific Officer of January AI.
When it comes to inflammation and blood sugar (or glucose) levels, it’s a bit of a vicious cycle. High blood glucose can trigger inflammation, which in turn contributes to even higher blood glucose levels. The basic connection: When too much glucose circulates in the blood, it triggers an immune response to rush in to repair any damage caused to your body’s systems. Chronically high blood sugar keeps the body on offense, which creates inflammation. That inflammation, in turn, makes it harder for your body to metabolize glucose as it should, so too much stays in the blood, which only continues the cycle.
Here, we’ll break down inflammation’s link to blood sugar levels and diabetes, which starts with understanding how it impacts your metabolic health.
What is metabolic inflammation?
Metabolic inflammation is exactly what it sounds like: Chronic inflammation that takes aim at your metabolism. This is often triggered by excess weight or obesity, and the result is a havoc-wreaking chain reaction in the body that scientists have begun to map out. In the study, “Metabolic inflammation: Connecting obesity and insulin resistance,” published in the journal Annals of Medicine, researchers broke it down like this:
- When you’re carrying extra weight or you’ve crossed the line into obesity, your fat tissue churns out inflammatory proteins called cytokines.
- Those cytokines get in the way of the hormone insulin, keeping it from doing the job of clearing glucose from the blood. That’s a problem, because the foods you eat are broken down into glucose and released into your bloodstream, where it circulates until insulin “unlocks” your cells, so the glucose can enter and be converted to energy. When this pathway is blocked or thrown off, glucose stays in the blood, raising your blood sugar levels.
- High blood sugar tells your system that glucose regulation is out of whack. That triggers even more inflammation as your immune system fires up to solve the problem.
- More inflammation and poor glucose regulation lead to insulin resistance, where the cells no longer respond to insulin, remaining “locked” instead of pulling glucose from your bloodstream. Insulin resistance is a major risk factor for—you guessed it—diabetes.
Does sugar cause inflammation?
Now that you understand how inflammation impacts blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, you may be wondering: Is sugar to blame for all this? We know that a diet high in sugar contributes to obesity, and obesity sets off metabolic inflammation and insulin resistance. So yes, sugar—especially the massive amount added to processed foods—is part of the problem.
But the correlation doesn’t stop there: Many studies point the finger at sugar for contributing to inflammation directly, not just because it causes weight gain. In fact, a study by Swiss researchers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition focused on normal-weight young men between the ages of 19 and 25 who consumed 40 grams of added sugar from soda daily for three weeks. The results showed increased insulin resistance and blood sugar levels, higher LDL cholesterol (that’s the bad kind), and an uptick in inflammation.
Does metabolic syndrome cause inflammation?
In much the same way that sugar can trigger inflammation, metabolic syndrome is also to blame because it puts stress on the body in other ways.
First, let’s start with a refresher on metabolic syndrome. This term actually refers to a cluster of chronic conditions that includes:
- High blood sugar levels
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High triglyceride levels
- High waist circumference
Make no mistake, each condition is unhealthy on its own but having three or more of these markers above a normal range can significantly compound your risk for heart disease, diabetes, or stroke. And because they often travel in packs (if you have one, you’re more likely to have the others), doctors have dubbed this collection of conditions metabolic syndrome.
Once you understand what contributes to metabolic syndrome, it’s not surprising that it stokes inflammation, too. We already discussed how high blood sugar and obesity can contribute, and high cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood) do their part, as well. When poor lifestyle habits—like eating a high-carb diet and skimping on exercise—lead to a rise in triglycerides and high levels of LDL cholesterol, inflammation spikes all over the body, again contributing to insulin resistance and damage to your circulatory system.
How to tamp down inflammation
Now that you’re aware of the way inflammation can go wrong in your body, you probably want to take whatever steps you can to keep it under control. Start with the basics, and you’ll be doing your overall health a huge favor.
- Drop some weight, if you need to. Even an extra 15 or 20 pounds can throw off your system as your fat cells send out compounds that ramp up inflammation. The closer you can get to your healthy weight (even if you don’t reach your summer-bathing-suit goal), the calmer your inflammatory response will be.
- Focus on eating well. That means avoiding simple, processed carbs (including white bread, pasta and rice; baked goods; refined crackers and crunchy snacks), as well as fast foods. Wean off of anything with lots of added sugar, as discussed above, and go easy on red meat and processed meats (including hot dogs and bacon). But instead of thinking about what’s on the “no” list, it pays to focus on the “yes” list, loaded with delicious whole foods (which just means they haven’t been refined or processed, and look a lot like they did when they were harvested). For starters:
- Nearly all veggies, but especially leafy greens
- High-fiber fruits, including berries and citrus
- Healthy fats, including olive oil
- Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
- Fish—especially oily types, like salmon, tuna, and sardines
3. Get moving, and keep moving. Anytime you push your muscles, even just to take a walk or get stuff done around the house, they release anti-inflammatory compounds. So regular exercise, while good for just about every aspect of your health, is an especially powerful weapon against inflammation. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes a week, or just a little more than 20 minutes a day. Doable, right? Just getting up out of your chair and moving around a bit every hour counts, too. As this study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows, a heavily sedentary lifestyle is associated with higher markers of inflammation. Stand up for your health—it’s that simple.