Oh Sugar, Really? You’re Giving Me Joint Pain and Inflammation?

Cube of brown and white sugar cubesSlavery is alive and well in our society, but it’s not what you may think.  Americans are slaves to sugar, and the bonds are tightening every year at a rate of nearly 2%.  Back in the 1700s, before the conveniences of modern industrialized life, we consumed, on average, 4 pounds of sugar per year. Nowadays, it’s more like 78 pounds per year.  This infographic puts our sugar indulgence in perspective.

And how is that affecting us?  Is it any wonder or coincidence that disease rates have followed a similar sharp increase, as we have been adopting a high-sugar/high-refined carbohydrate diet over the years?  It has taken us many years to finally connect the dots between sugar and disease.

It has been a long road because first, we had to come to understand inflammation and disease and then sugar and inflammation.  We also went through a phase of fearing and blaming fat, while turning a blind eye to and cranking up our sugar consumption via highly processed foods and beverages.

It starts with chronic inflammation and intestinal permeability (leaky gut)

It is now common knowledge that chronic, low-grade inflammation is where disease starts.  Inflammation is the body’s immune response to conditions like infection, injury, fatty acid imbalance or foreign substances like undigested proteins or bacterial waste products called endotoxins finding their way into the bloodstream.  They maneuver their way into the bloodstream when the tightly fitting cells of the intestinal mucosal lining spread apart, which is called intestinal permeability.  This occurs for a number of reasons.

One big reason is gut microbial imbalance, which can result from antibiotic use and/or a low-fiber/high- sugar diet.  Another probable cause of intestinal permeability is emulsifiers in pharmaceuticals and processed foods.  A third and major cause of intestinal permeability is gluten consumption, which causes this issue by stimulating the release of a protein called zonulin.

When toxins and proteins get into the blood stream, the immune system recognizes them as foreign, or non-self, and proceeds to attack the perpetrator as well as its own tissues with inflammatory chemical messengers called cytokines.  This is the essence of autoimmunity.

Genetics determine your weakest link organs and tissues, so to speak, and those can end up taking the brunt of the inflammatory response.  This is why, in response to intestinal permeability, microbial imbalance and even the same environmental trigger, such as gluten, one person will develop Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, another will develop Rheumatoid Arthritis, another will develop Sjogren’s and so on.  In this indirect fashion, by promoting microbial imbalance, sugar can be a major culprit in not only autoimmune diseases, but the secondary symptoms that come with them. Autoimmune super symptoms, which includes joint pain, is discussed elsewhere on this website.

An estimated 52.5 million U.S. adults (about 1 in 5) report having doctor-diagnosed arthritis (inflammation of the joints) an autoimmune condition.  Arthritis is also the nation’s most common cause of disability.  It limits the activities of 22.7 million Americans—for example, preventing them from being able to climb stairs or walk more than short distances.  Not all joint pain stems from autoimmunity, so where is all of this inflammation coming from?

Sugars, carbs, blood sugar and inflammation

Sugars, particularly refined and processed sugars and even those from refined grains, cause and/or contribute to inflammation in ways other than fueling the autoimmune fire via microbial imbalance or perpetuating intestinal permeability.  Whether or not you have autoimmunity or are predisposed to it, when you eat sugary foods and drink sugary beverages, you will get a sharp spike in blood sugar and insulin levels.  In response to a sugar-laden meal or snack, the body typically pumps out more insulin than is needed, and a subsequent blood sugar crash ensues.  This then leads to intense hunger and carbohydrate/sugar cravings in order to bring the blood sugar back up.

Unfortunately, that intense hunger most often leads to another sugar binge, causing the blood sugar to spike again, and the cycle just keeps repeating itself.  This is bad news from multiple angles for those who suffer from joint pain, whether autoimmune in nature or not.  The first reason is that high blood sugar alone causes inflammation.  What’s worse is that these intense swings in blood sugar cause even more inflammation than sustained high blood sugar.  Beyond blood sugar, elevated insulin levels lead to inflammation and increased pain as well.  So, if you have joint pain as well as a potato chip, pasta or candy bar addiction, you can expect to continue having joint pain until you break your addiction to carbs and sugar.

A secondary problem with high blood sugar is that it promotes the production of advanced glycation end-products, or AGEs.  AGEs are inflammatory compounds that form when excess protein and sugar bind together.  These compounds prematurely age our bodies and have been linked to many different serious health concerns, all stemming from increased inflammation.

Break the sugar habit = decrease inflammation and joint pain

Eating for optimal blood sugar, meaning not skipping meals and focusing your palate on getting just the right amounts of quality proteins, healthy fats and colorful veggies, with added sugars, processed foods, refined and even whole grains taking a smaller role, is a great way to lower your intake and production of AGEs and improve your overall inflammatory status.  This will not only help to decrease inflammation and pain, it will help to prevent premature or excessive aging and chronic disease.

When we break the sugar habit, we are able to appreciate the sweetness of whole foods like fruits and vegetables; however, forever abstaining from sweet treats is a bit more austere than most of us care to live our lives.  What we can do is choose alternatives to sugar that provide intense sweetness without the dramatic glycemic (blood sugar) impact.  Coconut palm sugar and honey are examples of sugar alternatives with lower glycemic indexes.

Just make sure to eat alternatively sweetened treats just as sparingly as you would sugar-laden treats.  Most still contain simple sugars, which if eaten to excess or along with a high-carbohydrate meal, can contribute to increased inflammation and joint pain.  For an extensive breakdown of the natural sweeteners available and their respective glycemic index ratings, see this list.

Reducing your sugar intake and eating for optimal blood sugar is one of the most fundamental things you can do to reduce inflammation and pain.  You can eat loads of superfoods and take all of the best anti-inflammatory supplements, but if you’re not covering the basics with your diet, you will continue to live in pain.  Balance your blood sugar and be amazed at the changes you feel.


About the Author

Angie King-Nosseir MS, RD is an Integrative and Functional Registered Dietitian, with a passion for walking with people along their path toward health transformation. Angie has a Master’s degree in Nutrition, is a Certified LEAP Therapist, corporate wellness health coach, freelance nutrition and wellness writer, and certified yoga instructor. She is trained in Functional Nutrition and Medicine through the Institute for Functional Medicine and in Food as Medicine through the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

This post contains opinions of the author. is not a medical practice and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  It is your responsibility to seek diagnosis, treatment, and advice from qualified providers based on your condition and particular circumstances.  Camino Real Ventures, Inc., the company that makes available to you, does not endorse nor recommend any products, practices, treatment methods, tests, physicians, service providers, procedures, clinical trials, opinions or information available on this website.  Your use of the website is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy



  1. I’m been drink soda for the majority of my life, and, as a result, I’ve developed diabetes. I had no clue that your sugar intake can actually affect inflammation and joint pain. What is an optimal blood sugar level?

  2. using “slavery” as a term to describe what is actually an addiction is pretty dumb and what youd expect from a clueless white person. stop being stupid and try being professional and scientific and describe it as what it really is: an addiction. this post contains the opinions of the reader.

    • White person? Only a racist would say that

    • Calm down, you were not a slave, it’s just a word…can’t hurt you

    • “What youd expect from a Clueless white person “,Greg you are a RACIST dog, and picking on someone who has made a good effort to helpnin people in general whatever there color .actions speak louder than words,let people be creative with there words dog,have you heard the weeknd ,he doesnt hold back with his words and if he did there would be no creativity ,loosen up and stop picking on white people

  3. Yes its an addiction. But the author used slavery as us being slaves or hostages to the food corporations that make the crap food that is sold to us. They know that sugar causes addiction and that’s why in the 80s food started getting packed with more sugar. They are doing this on purpose at the expense of our health to make a dollar. Sorry to inform you but slavery is not just a term to do with race. Read a book.

  4. Agree with Matt
    why to pinpoint non relevant and take the topic in useless direction. Reduce sugar that’s all. What I learnt here.

  5. I have been obese my entire life. I stand 5’2″ female and graduated high school at 240 pounds. My weight continued to sky rocket. Although I was always large, I work hard and play hard. I was 24 and 312 pounds a point of no return. I had the gastric bypass. I was pleased with the results. I got down to 184 and an excellent waitress which was success for me. I got pregnant and had to slow down. The weight flew back on until last year, and at 34 years the scale now said 304. I decided to do the paleo diet. Which is high fats and very few carbs. I lost 50 pounds last year and all my pain went away. Got back on sugar and I had pain again. Got back off sugar pain gone. Simply put when I cut carbs I loose weight, eat as much as I need, and my pain deminishes. Sugar is posion and I may eat sugar occasionally but I hate what it does to me. Oh yes I am 254 now and plan to loose another 50 lbs this year.

  6. Anise Leinen says:

    Substituting “natural” sweeteners is no improvement. Noncaloric sweeteners are no better either. It all just keeps you addicted to the taste and constantly expecting everything to taste sweet. The only way to do this is to immediately, 100%, without exception, get rid of EVERY added sweetener– yes, including stevia and whatever other “natural” noncaloric sweetener is in fashion this month. Get rid of them all. Never eat or drink them again. Never means never. Not at Christmas, not on Thanksgiving, not on your birthday, not because the cake happens to be there– they all have to be 100% gone forever. If you’re adding a substance to a food or drink because it makes that food or drink taste sweeter, it has to disappear. This isn’t a popular point of view, which means that almost nobody does it. But it’s what you have to do– “reducing” sugar and any other sweetener accomplishes very little in the long run. Why do you think that over 96% of all diets fail within a few years??

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