Sugar and Eczema
IS SUGAR BAD FOR ECZEMA?
As a certified chocoholic, I’m certainly no saint when it comes to eating high sugar content food like my life depended on it. But like many people, I go through phases with my diet and wonder whether the buzz I get from eating sweets is an actual eczema buzz-kill.
Growing up obsessed with movies like Willy Wonka, with its chocolate river, and the unattainable world of ‘everything edible’, I completely missed an important message that if you eat too much of this stuff, you could balloon out and get rolled off by oompa loompas. The message was so raw.
So, now it’s time to put our investigator hat on and delve into the potential links between sugar and eczema.
WHAT IS SUGAR?
Arousing strong emotion, sugar has become a dirty word, and quite unfairly!
In essence, sugar is simply a carbohydrate which has been a brilliant source of energy to humans for millennia. With the abundance of ‘sweet receptors’ on our tongue, we are quite literally designed to desire sugar because our bodies have evolved to require it.
While there are technically many different types of sugars with various positive uses for the body, the sugar I am talking about is what falls in to the category of ‘free sugars’. This refers to glucose, fructose, and sucrose sugars (basically anything ending in ‘ose’) that are added to foods, and drinks, and those found in fruit juice, syrups, and honey, as opposed to that of most whole foods.
The links between sugar consumption and eczema
The overabundance of free sugars in the average western diet is now a major culprit for preventable health issues and diseases. We have really taken a good thing and turned it into a weapon of mass destruction, which now seems to include the destruction of our skin!
Let me take you through the 5 reasons why sugar and eczema are linked:
What happens when we eat a big sweet meal before bed is the same as what happens at any time of the day, which follows this process:
After eating a meal high in free sugars the body experiences a sedative effect, affectionately known as ‘food coma’.
The body spends the night expending energy trying to balance the blood sugar levels, hence depriving your body of the energy it would normally use to repair the damage throughout the body, including eczema rashes and lesions.
After about four hours once the body has used up this sugar supply, it will experience the sugar ‘crash’ which can cause a bunch of symptoms including headaches, irritability, and of course, hunger.
Cortisol is then produced by the adrenal glands in response to this crash which leads to a quickening heart rate and a worse quality of sleep.
While we may be pretty unaware of this going on, the effects are still very real. And, the problem here is that our bodies heal the most during sleep, and in fact, tissue recovery is at its highest when we are in deep sleep. So, when we deprive ourselves of this nightly tune-up, then eczema just doesn’t have the capacity to heal as well as it should.
In a nutshell, free sugars plus a poor quality sleep does not a healthy skin make!
The link between candida overgrowth and eczema symptoms are slowly becoming better understood, and while I did touch on this a little bit in my article ‘11 Amazing things that happen to eczema when you quit alcohol’, here I will explain why sugar can also wreak havoc on our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts and potentially lead to worsened eczema.
Candida is a fantastic yeast that lives harmoniously with billions of other microorganisms in our gut. They literally have their own ecosystem and feed off the sugar we eat, which in a healthy person should be minimal, comparatively. Given the right environment however with an excess of food supply (sugar), candida will become virulent in the gut which can lead to the destruction of healthy gut flora.
With the imbalance now dominating the GI tract, intestinal permeation can occur meaning bigger particles can pass through in to the blood stream. This is also known as leaky gut. Candida, as well as many other unwanted particles, can now enter the blood stream and overwhelm the immune system potentially leading to an overburdened system and eczema in susceptible individuals.
(It should be noted that oral as well as topical antibiotics are also known to cause candida overgrowth, as well as immunosuppressants such as oral and topical corticosteroids)
Just a few ways to help identify a potential candida overload in your system:
Occurrences of thrush in the mouth or genitals
Persistent urinary tract infections
Fungal infections in the nails / athletes foot
Lethargy and chronic fatigue
Digestive issues such as constipation, gas and bloating, issues to foods you used to tolerate
It is possible to test for candida overgrowth, seemingly both at home and in the doctor’s office. I have no experience with any such methods, but I believe they range from spitting in to a glass of water (at home method) or having eczema lesions tested for yeast cultures (doctor). I’m sure there are more to choose from, but in the absence of testing, a healthy diet is my personal medicine.
There has been a lot of buzz around the term glycation lately, and for good reason.
Glycation is the process following insulin level rise which occurs after consuming a sugary meal. If we don’t actually use up the sugar as energy soon after, then it is destined to be stored as fat aka, junk in the trunk, and insulin production will go in to overdrive.
What happens then is the breakdown of certain components of healthy skin including collagen and elastin. These two constituents are responsible for not just the aging and wrinkling of the skin, but also the ability for the skin to heal and repair itself.
The process looks a little something like this:
Glucose binds to protein molecules resulting in anomalistic chemicals called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs)
AGEs then build up in the body
Healing function of the skin reduces leading to weak and dry skin
In essence, glycation due to a high sugar intake is an important factor for reducing the quality of the skin. This can lead to skin cracking, overall skin fragility, and permeability which may then allow unwanted irritants to enter the skin which can lead to further sensitivity and eczema.
Aside from the aforementioned areas where sugar can potentially lead to eczema, there is yet another way that sugar can circumvent all our good efforts.
Fructose is a type of sugar which has become a problem, not just because it is the main sugar now consumed in such high quantities, but it is the worst sugar for eczema. As a rough guide, fructose is found highest in:
Syrups and sweeteners such as agave and honey and anything containing high-fructose corn syrup
Dried or canned fruits
Sauces or condiments
Energy and cereal bars
When fructose is broken down by the liver and metabolised, uric acid and free radicals are formed which can induce a pro-inflammatory response leading to the damage of cells. This reaction can be responsible for not only skin issues such as eczema, but also many other health issues plaguing the world today including obesity, diabetes 2, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure.
We have simply become a fructose nation!
This is a topic which tends to feel a bit controversial, but hear me out. We need to understand not only what sugar does to us and how it can affect our eczema, but also why it’s so dam hard to stop eating the sh*t! Motivation, it seems, is not the only thing holding us back.
When we indulge in a sugary meal, our brains are wired in such a way to make us feel good… really, really good! This is because the brain sees sugar as a perfect energy source and sends out dopamines, the endorphin responsible for reward, pleasure, and euphoria, to motivate and reinforce this behaviour.
Continual sugar over-consumption means dopamine is continually flushing through our bodies, leading to more and more cravings. In small doses this is actually important, but when sugar is ‘abused’, it can become a real health issue.
To compound the issue, over-eating free sugar can actually reduce the activity of the part of the brain, known as the anorexigenic oxytocin system, which alerts you to being full. Essentially, the red flags don’t go up when they should to stop you from gorging.
Eating the occasional doughnut may not be a big deal, so you don’t need to go emptying the cupboards just yet. It’s only when sugar is consumed too much every day that problems can happen.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) have recommended in their guideline that reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 5% of total energy intake is recommended for health, which translates to an average of 30 grams of sugar for adults.
We are now eating on average 153 grams of free sugars per day, which is a whopping 5+ times what we should be consuming, and it seems that we are so conditioned to eat free sugars that it’s considered heresy to consider a life without it. What to do, what to do!
To put this in to perspective, you can burn through 30 grams of sugar by consuming any one of the following:
20oz bottle of Vitamin Water
A can of Red Bull
A bowl of Raisin Bran or Nutrigrain
Medium slice of sponge cake
Yoplait original yogurt
Dried cranberries – 1/3 cup
Starbucks Greek Yogurt and Honey Parfait
Naked Pomegranate Blueberry Juice
Starbucks Blueberry Muffin
1 ½ cups of orange juice
100ml of Tomato Sauce
So, as a certified chocolate fiend, this doesn’t look like much at all, perhaps an entree at best! But knowledge is power, even if it is bitter sweet.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH SUGAR AND ECZEMA
What better way to test cause and effect than by practicing on yourself! And I have put my body on the line many a time with my penchant for sweeties and all things iced, purely in the name of science, of course.
What I have noticed is that if I have had a binge on ‘free sugar’ foods one day, I will wake up the next day with eczema rashes mainly on my face and neck, especially if I have eaten it later in the day or at night. This rash will generally stay with me for the entire next day and can even take several days and clean eating to completely settle down.
I also find that when I am eating clean and living irritation free, I can occasionally dabble in the art of truffle tasting with little to no issues. It is only when I overindulge or if my system is already overloaded with other environmental problems that this seems to affect me adversely.
After demonising sugar and eczema in this article, the take-home message is that everything in moderation (or sometimes even elimination) is key. Life is here to be lived, and if excess of sugar is leading to worsened eczema and hindering your quality of life, then hard decisions may have to be made.
You have some information to take with you, as unpalatable as it may be, but, better the devil you know.
For some further learning and recommended watching, "Sugar, the bitter truth by Dr Robert Lustig" is a great documentary about what sugar does to us.
* Disclaimer: Always check with a health professional before making changes to your diet.
* Feel free to use this infographic about sugar and eczema on your blog or website, but please ensure you hyperlink back to http://topeczematreatments.com