Lupus and the Health Risks of Sugar

Sugar seems to be in everything. The average American gets 270 calories of “added” sugar each day in processed foods and sugary drinks – about 17 teaspoons!  Unfortunately, consuming too much sugar can cause many serious health issues.  So, what does this mean for those living with lupus?  Read on to find out.


A Quick Overview

Lupus can cause a wide range of symptoms and complications, and the exact causes are not fully understood.  One factor that has gained attention in recent years is the role of diet, particularly the consumption of sugar, in worsening lupus symptoms and increasing the risk of other health complications.

Sugar is a very common ingredient in the modern diet, found in a variety of foods and beverages. It comes in various forms, including:

  • Sucrose (table sugar),
  • Fructose (naturally found in fruits, but also artificially in high fructose corn syrup), and
  • Glucose (along with fructose, a type found in honey).

While sugar is a source of energy for the body, excessive consumption has long been linked to a range of health issues beyond lupus, including:

  • Obesity,
  • Type 2 diabetes,
  • Heart disease, and
  • Dental problems.

It is important to note that those living with lupus have a significantly higher risk for each of these conditions already.  So, it pays to reduce sugar consumption to healthy daily levels as much as possible.

More recently, sugar has been found to also have negative effects for those with autoimmune conditions like lupus, and it does so in three ways:

  • By amplifying the autoimmune response;
  • Intensifying systemic inflammation, and
  • By potentially leading to other serious health conditions that complicate lupus even further.



How does sugar specifically affect lupus?

As you may have guessed already, the exact relationship between lupus and sugar is complex and not fully understood. What is known is that sugar can add challenges to those living with lupus in several ways – and trigger as well as worsen lupus symptoms.

Here is what research has shown …

  • Sugar Increases inflammatory biomarkers. Sugar consumption has been associated with increased levels of inflammatory markers in the body, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). High levels of these inflammatory markers can exacerbate lupus symptoms and contribute to lupus flares.
  • Sugar increased cytokine levels. A diet high in sugar can promote the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are signaling molecules that stimulate the immune response. This chronic inflammation can further damage organs and tissues in individuals with lupus, increasing the severity of their condition.
  • Sugar can affect the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system and preventing autoimmune responses. However, a diet rich in sugar can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, leading to dysbiosis, which in turn can lead to certain types of bacteria entering the blood stream and possibly triggering lupus flares.
  • Sugar can cause fatigue and mood swings. Many people with lupus already experience fatigue as a major symptom.  The energy crashes that follow the consumption of sugary foods, especially drinks, can leave those with lupus feeling even more fatigued and drained.  It is also possible for depression and anxiety to be heightened by dramatic swings in blood sugar levels.
  • Sugar Increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Lupus is already associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Excessive sugar consumption have been found to add to these risks by promoting obesity, high blood pressure, and higher triglyceride levels.  These can contribute to heart and vascular diseases like atherosclerosis.
  • Sugar increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. Those with lupus already have an increased risk for insulin resistance and are twice as likely to develop diabetes compared to the general population.  High sugar intake also increases the risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and since both can lead to kidney damage, this alone is reason to be very careful of how much sugar is in one’s diet!
  • Sugar increases the risk for tooth decay and gum disease. Lupus also increases the risks for dental problems and gum disease, and excessive sugar further increases those risks



What can you do to limit the harmful effects of sugar?

To reduce health risks, it is essential for individuals with lupus to be mindful of their sugar intake and maintain a balanced and nutritious diet.  How?

  • Be mindful of added sugars, processed foods, and definitely limit consumption of sugary beverages. For example, the average can of soda contains 8 teaspoons of sugar, while the American Heart Association recommends an average daily limit of only 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men – though this varies depending upon level of activity.
  • Find a practical anti-inflammatory diet that works for you – with  a focus on whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
  • Try using the natural sugars found in whole fruits, which come with beneficial nutrients and fiber that can help regulate blood sugar levels and provide essential vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Stay active or maintain a healthy exercise routine to burn that extra sugar. This can benefit not only your overall health, but also help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and may even lead to an appetite for healthy food.

As always, consult with your healthcare provider, including registered dietitians, t before making dramatic changes to your diet and to develop personalized dietary strategies that best suit your specific needs or before making dramatic changes to your diet.



In Conclusion

The exact role of sugar in the development and progression of lupus is still a subject of ongoing research. However, the evidence suggests that excessive sugar consumption can worsen inflammation, disrupt gut health, and exacerbate the symptoms of lupus and lupus nephritis  So, for individuals living with lupus, it has become increasingly clear that managing sugar intake as part of a well-balanced diet is a wise choice to help maintain overall health!



American Heart Association. (2023, September 12). How much sugar is too much?

Correa-Rodríguez, M., Pocovi-Gerardino, G., Callejas-Rubio, J. L., Ríos Fernández, R., Martín-Amada, M., Cruz-Caparros, M. G., Medina-Martínez, I., Ortego-Centeno, N., & Rueda-Medina, B. (2020). Dietary intake of free sugars is associated with disease activity and dyslipidemia in systemic lupus erythematosus patients. Nutrients12(4), 1094.

Della Corte, K. W., Perrar, I., Penczynski, K. J., Schwingshackl, L., Herder, C., & Buyken, A. E. (2018). Effect of dietary sugar intake on biomarkers of subclinical inflammation: A systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. Nutrients10(5), 606.

University of Würzburg. (2022, March 22). How sugar promotes inflammation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2023 from

Yu, S.X. (2019, July 21). Nutrition for lupus-related conditions: Heart and kidney disease. Hospital of Special Surgery.



Author: Greg Dardis, MS      

Professor Dardis was formerly the Chair of the Science Department at Marylhurst University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Portland State University.  His focus has been human biology and physiology with an interest in  autoimmunity.  Professor Dardis is also a former President of the Board of Directors of Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus.

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