You’ve probably thought about your immune system more in the last few months than ever before. Plenty of us are getting more sleep and chugging orange juice and echinacea tea in an attempt to bolster our body’s defenses. And why not? Pandemic or not, supporting your immune system is an excellent way to protect your overall health and help yourself feel your best.
The catch is that even as we try to give our immune systems a boost, a lot of us are making choices that could actually be undoing the immunity-supporting work we’re putting in. Blame that extra time at home — and the extra trips to the fridge.
If you’re a boredom snacker or you’re prone to treating yourself to an indulgent dessert to counter the stress of these trying times, we’ve got some food for thought. The sugar you’re eating could be hurting as much as your immunity-boosting routine is helping.
What sugar does to your immunity
Studies have shown that consuming large quantities of sugar (like the amount you get from drinking a soda or eating a serving of ice cream) essentially puts your white blood cells into a coma for at least a few hours. If you choose sweets throughout the day, you keep your white blood cells in a repressed state, affecting your body’s ability to defend itself.
Your body sends these white blood cells to fight infection or respond to inflammation. Whenever your white blood cells spot a pathogen — including viruses — they multiply. Your body creates five different types of white blood cells, each designed to do a different job to protect your body.
Ultimately, the white blood cells are basically the active ingredient in your immune system. When they’re not working their best, your immunity is compromised. And studies suggest that taking in lots of sugar inhibits your white blood cells. This study, for example, found that consuming 100 grams of sugar — which is less than two bottles of Coca-Cola — reduced the reactivity of white blood cells by 40% for between 2-5 hours.
Watching sugar to protect your immunity
With added sugars in so many processed foods, protecting your immune system requires some label reading. If you’re working to keep your immunity up, make sure you check the line that lists how many grams of added sugars an item contains. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 36 grams of added sugar each day and says women should stick to 25 added grams or fewer.
To protect your white blood cells and their ability to do their job, try to spread out that sugar consumption throughout the day. Your white blood cells suffer most when you consume large quantities of sugar in one go.
You can still treat yourself (and you should!), just make sure you choose treats with little to no added sugar. When you do, you can savor your way through this stay-at-home season without putting your health on the line.