Could Sugar be the Cause of My Joint Pain?

Have you ever noticed that you have pain after eating a lot of sugar? You may be unaware of how sugar affects your body, but sugar and pain are interconnected. This might surprise you, but sugar can wreak havoc on your body and cause all sorts of health issues. One of those issues is inflammation. I was recently discussing this with a friend who asked me to write on the topic of excess sugar causing joint pain. This is something I have noticed with my own body, particularly as I have gotten older. I’ve also noticed I have more headaches when I consume a lot of sugar.

Can sugar cause an increase in pain?

If you’re wondering whether or not sugar causes pain— Yes, excess sugar certainly does!

Knee pain

Sugar can cause inflammation.

Before I go on to explain sugar and pain, you will need to understand that inflammation is at the root of pain. Whether acute or chronic, nerve pain or injury pain, inflammation is the root of it all (Omoigui, 2007).

Research on pain and inflammation

I searched for studies linking inflammation and high-sugar diets, and found a lot of them. I have included a few examples below.

  • Chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases are linked to high sugar diets (Xiao, et al., 2022).
  • Sugar-sweetened sodas increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (Yang Hu, 2014).
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages leads to exacerbations in inflammatory bowel disease (Shon, et al., 2022).
  • Children’s sinus symptoms were reduced by reducing sugary drinks (Sawani, et al., 2018).

Falling icing sugar on fresh donuts on old wooden table

Why sugar causes pain?

Next, let’s talk about the established and emerging reasons why sugar is associated with inflammation, pain, and disease.

The immune response from excess sugar

Newer studies detail exactly how sugar causes all this havoc. Excess sugar, including glucose and fructose, can trigger a response from your immune system’s white blood cells. When people consume a high-glucose diet, it can cause their immune system’s T cells and B cells to overreact. A high fructose diet can cause a similar reaction from two other types of white blood cells called macrophages and dendritic cells (ZHANG Wei, 2022).

Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response system. Studies suggest that this exaggerated response from your immune system is one explanation for why you experience pain in your joints after high sugar consumption.

Blood cells in the vein

Advanced Glycation Endproducts

AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, are yet another way high-sugar diets cause pain. The formation of AGEs occurs when sugar combines with proteins, fats, and other ingredients in food. Over time, AGEs naturally accumulate in your body, so as you age, you have more stored AGEs. AGEs promote inflammation and oxidative damage.

Browning, searing, or caramelizing food at high heat accelerates the formation of AGEs, but the body also produces AGEs when it processes sugar without using high heat (Tuffs University, 2010).

In addition to causing pain, AGEs can also damage organs and contribute to chronic diseases.

flame broiled hamburgers cooking over grill

Sugar, the gut microbiome, and pain

You may also find the answer in your gut and microbiome. Sugar ends up in your gut when you binge on sweets. A high-sugar diet reduces the diversity of bacteria in your gut microbiome. It also fosters the growth of bacteria that prefer sugary foods. Our gut is kind of like a second brain, producing hormones, signaling molecules, and neurotransmitters. Several of these signaling molecules are derived from byproducts created by the microorganisms in your gut as they digest food (Novelle, 2021).

Chronic pain can result from these signaling molecules increasing your sensitivity to pain (Guo, Chen, Xing, & Liu, 2019).

How to reduce pain caused by sugar

The first and most obvious way is to reduce or eliminate added sugar in your diet. A good guideline to follow is the sugar intake guidelines provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines on sugar intake. CDC and WHO recommend no more than 10% of your daily calories come from added sugars (World Health Organization [WHO], 2015; Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], n.d.).

Here are some other ways to reduce the impact of sugar

  • You can swap sugar for spices or extracts, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.
  • Replace sugar-sweetened beverages with water or herbal tea.
  • Instead of using high heat, steam, poach, or boil to reduce AGE formation.
  • Marinate your foods prior to cooking. Marinating can cut AGE formation up to 50% (Uribarri, et al., 2010).
  • Adding fermented food to your diet, since the fermentation process reduces sugar content, and improves the diversity of your gut microbiome.
  • Make your microbiome more diverse by eating foods high in probiotics and prebiotics.

References
Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (n.d.). Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html

Guo, R., Chen, L., Xing, C., & Liu, T. (2019). Pain regulation by gut microbiota: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential. Br J Anaesth, 123(5):637-654. doi:doi: 10.1016/j.bja.2019.07.026

Knapp, S. (2020). Dendritic Cells. Retrieved from Biology Dictionary: https://biologydictionary.net/dendritic-cells/
National Institute of Health. (2023, January 06). Lymphocyte. Retrieved from National Human Genome Research Institute: https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Lymphocyte

Novelle, M. (2021). Decoding the Role of Gut-Microbiome in the Food Addiction Paradigm. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 18(13):1685. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390%2Fijerph18136825

Omoigui, S. (2007). The biochemical origin of pain – Proposing a new law of pain: The origin of all pain is inflammation and the inflammatory response. Part 1 of 3 – A unifying law of pain. Medical Hypotheses, 69(1), 70-82. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2006.11.028

Sawani, A., Farhangi, M., Aluganti, C. N., Maul, T. M., Parthasarathy, S., Smallwood, J., & and Wei, J. L. (2018). Limiting Dietary Sugar Improves Pediatric Sinonasal Symptoms and Reduces Inflammation. Journal of Medicinal Food, 21(6). doi:https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2017.0126

Shon, W.-J., Jung, M. H., Kim, Y., Kang, G. H., Choi, E. Y., & Shin, D.-M. (2022). Sugar-sweetened beverages exacerbate high-fat diet-induced. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2022.109254

Tuffs University. (2010). Are AGEs in your food aging you? Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, 28(1), 4-5.

Uribarri, J., Woodruff, S., Goodman, S., Cai, W., Chen, X., Pyzik, R., . . . And Vlassara, H. (2010). Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical. J Am Diet Assoc, 110(6), 911–16.e12. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018

Vankin, L., & Baniyash, M. (2011). Inflammatory Response and Immunity. Encyclopedia of Cancer, 1859–1864. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-16483-5_304

World Health Organization [WHO]. (2015). Guideline: sugars intake for adults and children. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028

Xiao, M., Fang, N., Hantian, L., Shu, P., Xinzou, F., Xiaoshuang, S., . . . Dunfang, Z. (2022). Excessive intake of sugar: An accomplice of inflammation. Frontiers in Immunology, 13. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2022.988481

Yang Hu, K. H.-D. (2014). Sugar-sweetened soda consumption and risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(3), 959–967. doi:https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.08691

ZHANG Wei, M. X. (2022). Research Progress in High-Sugar Diet and Inflammatory Diseases. JOURNAL OF SICHUAN UNIVERSITY (MEDICAL SCIENCES), 53(3): 538-542. doi:doi: 10.12182/2022056010

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