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Sugar and the Microbiome

The idea that our bodies are inhabited by trillions of bacteria is no longer a farfetched Sci Fi scheme. We now know that our colon is home to critters of all kinds – friendly and not so friendly microorganisms doing their part to stay alive. Moreover, they help us survive, aiding everything from our digestion to immunity. Studies have linked our gut microbes to mood regulation, tendency towards obesity1, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health2, colon cancer3, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome4. On a daily basis, these microbes help us metabolize foods and ascertain key nutrients, producing their very own metabolites (enter: postbiotics) which also help or hinder our health.

To fuel their function and performance, these industrious microbes rely on the same food sources that their human hosts do: whatever enters the gastrointestinal tract. Like a pregnant mama feeding for two, every time we eat, we’re feeding a few extra trillion little cells. As a result, this really ups the ante on caring about what it is we consume.

Sugar and the Gut

Most of us know excessive sugar consumption isn’t good (as tasty as it is). Consequently, consuming too many refined sugars is implicated in a slew of conditions including inflammation, oxidation and obesity – all of which contribute to increased risk of chronic disease. But our penchant towards the sweet stuff may be partly due to our consuming it in the first place. Studies have revealed how excessive sugar consumption can trigger neuroadaptations in our reward systems that disassociate eating behavior from our actual caloric needs and thus, can lead us to want to eat more than necessary.5

Research also indicates that a diet high in sugar changes the makeup of our microbiome, helping bad bacteria thrive, suppressing good bacteria and creating an imbalance that wreaks havoc on the digestive system. Recent studies have shown that high sugar intake increases the relative abundance of Proteobacteria in the gut6. These bad guy bacteria have been identified as a possible microbial signature of disease. Several studies demonstrate an increased abundance of Proteobacteria in metabolic disorders and inflammatory bowel disease. Also, more recent studies suggesting a sugar role in lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, the evidence to support this is still scant.7 Nonetheless, it should be noted that all of these conditions are sustained by various degrees of inflammation, which thus represents a core aspect of Proteobacteria-related diseases.8 Clearly, we don’t want to feed those guys!

While excess sugar fuels these not so friendly microbes, research has also shown it decreases the abundance of Bacteroidetes in our gut. At the same time, these Bacteroidetes can help to protect against the effects of endotoxins and reinforce gut barrier function. Thus, a high sugar intake can stagger the balance of our microbiota to basically increase pro-inflammatory properties. Additionally, it can decrease our body’s capacity to regulate gut tissue integrity and mucosal immunity. As a result, a high sugar diet can modify our gut microbiota, promote metabolic endotoxemia, systemic (low grade) inflammation and the development of metabolic dysregulation.9 And, that’s just from one study! Further, other studies are attempting to look at how the gut microbiota responds to modern sugar alternatives aka sweeteners and the impact these have for our health.

Better Gut Health

Obviously, we want to tip the scales towards better gut health and the gut-wrenching truth regarding sugar is it’s not great for us. So, eat sugar sparingly and avoid other microbiome depleters like alcohol, artificial sweeteners, processed and packaged foods.

Moves you can make for a balanced, well-functioning microbiome include:

Focus on your gut health from the inside out.

Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement can support your microbiome against the devastating effects of sugar. Probiotics can help replenish depleted beneficial bacteria to help crowd out the bad guys who feast on sugar in your gut and block harmful bacteria from colonizing within your GI tract.

Eat a variety of plant-based foods.

A whole food, plant-based diet provides the perfect food for your friendly microbes. Called prebiotics, these indigestible fibers are the ideal fuel source for your hard-working, health-helping flora. Although most vegetables (and some fruits) provide prebiotic fibers, here are some options to inspire you: garlic, asparagus, flaxseeds, apples, artichokes, almonds, chickpeas and bananas.

Stay active and take time to relax.

Studies show that people who are active have healthier microbiomes than those who are more sedentary10, so make exercise a daily priority. Additionally, because stress can deplete your friendly flora, taking the time to consistently relax and unwind can also help to keep your microbiome healthy and happy.


  1. Davis, Cindy D. “The Gut Microbiome and Its Role in Obesity.” Nutrition today vol. 51,4 (2016): 167-174. doi:10.1097/NT.0000000000000167.
  2. Yoshida, Naofumi et al. “Gut Microbiome and Cardiovascular Diseases.” Diseases (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,3 56. 29 Jun. 2018, doi:10.3390/diseases6030056.
  3. Sánchez-Alcoholado, Lidia et al. “The Role of the Gut Microbiome in Colorectal Cancer Development and Therapy Response.” Cancers vol. 12,6 1406. 29 May. 2020, doi:10.3390/cancers12061406
  4. Pimentel M, Lembo A. Microbiome and Its Role in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Dig Dis Sci. 2020 Mar;65(3):829-839. doi: 10.1007/s10620-020-06109-5. PMID: 32026278.
  5. Clara R Freeman, Amna Zehra, Veronica Ramirez, Corinde E Wiers, Nora D Volkow, Gene-Jack Wang. Impact of sugar on the body, brain, and behavior. Frontiers in Bioscience-Landmark. 2018. 23(12); 2255-2266.
  6. Satokari, Reetta. “High Intake of Sugar and the Balance between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria.” Nutrients vol. 12,5 1348. 8 May. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12051348
  7. Rizzatti, G et al. “Proteobacteria: A Common Factor in Human Diseases.” BioMed research international vol. 2017 (2017): 9351507. doi:10.1155/2017/9351507
  8. Rizzatti, G et al. “Proteobacteria: A Common Factor in Human Diseases.” BioMed research international vol. 2017 (2017): 9351507. doi:10.1155/2017/9351507
  9. Satokari, Reetta. “High Intake of Sugar and the Balance between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria.” Nutrients vol. 12,5 1348. 8 May. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12051348

Monda, Vincenzo et al. “Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects.” Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity vol. 2017 (2017): 3831972. doi:10.1155/2017/3831972

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