Sugar During Pregnancy Linked to Allergies

Story at-a-glance

  • Allergies are a sign your body’s immune system is working overtime; consuming sugar during pregnancy may increase your child’s risk of developing allergies and asthma
  • Sugar has a profound effect on the health of your growing baby, and may increase your own risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and brain-related disorders as well
  • Optimizing your vitamin D level during pregnancy may reduce your child’s risk for developing asthma and support your child’s immune system

By Dr. Mercola

Allergies are your body’s reaction to a protein (allergen) and are a sign your immune system is working overtime. According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America,1 nasal allergies affect nearly 50 million people in the U.S., and that number is growing. As many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children suffer from allergic diseases, including asthma.

These conditions are the fifth leading chronic disease in the U.S. and the third chronic disease in children under 18. In 2010, Americans with allergic rhinitis spent nearly $17.5 billion on health care related to the condition, lost more than 6 million work and school days and had nearly 16 million doctor visits.2

During the second encounter with an allergen, your body is ready to react, sending a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes and prostaglandins to protect your body. They trigger a cascade of symptoms associated with allergies, such as sneezing, sore throat, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Histamine may also cause your airways to constrict, triggering an asthma response or hives.

Pollen is one common allergen that triggers this reaction, but other protein molecules may as well, including mold spores, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and cleaning and personal care products. The activation of this allergic response may be related to your dietary intake and your gut microbiome. Recent research has identified a higher risk of allergies and asthma in children born to mothers who ate high amounts of sugar during their pregnancy.3

Sugar During Pregnancy Increases Your Child’s Risk of Allergies

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London evaluated survey data from nearly 9,000 mother-child pairs in the ongoing Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, tracking the health of families with children born between April 1, 1991, and December 31, 1992.4 Lead author Annabelle Bedard, Ph.D., commented on what triggered the researchers to evaluate the association between sugar and allergies:5

“The dramatic ‘epidemic’ of asthma and allergies in the West in the last 50 years is still largely unexplained — one potential culprit is a change in diet. Intake of free sugar and high fructose corn syrup has increased substantially over this period. We know that the prenatal period may be crucial for determining risk of asthma and allergies in childhood and recent trials have confirmed that maternal diet in pregnancy is important.”

Using self-reported estimates of sugar intake from questionnaires, the researchers calculated the amount of sugar the mothers ate during their pregnancy and compared this against the number of children diagnosed with allergies or asthma by age 7. Sixty-two percent of the children did not have allergic reactions, 22 percent had common allergies and 12 percent had asthma.

As a comparison, 10 percent of children in the U.S. were diagnosed with asthma in 2010, six years prior to this analysis.6 When the children were grouped into those with the lowest sugar intake during pregnancy (less than 34 grams or 7 teaspoons) and those with the greatest (over 82 grams or 16 teaspoons) the researchers discovered that children whose mothers ate the highest amounts had a 38 percent increased risk of allergies and a 73 percent higher risk of becoming allergic to two or more allergens.7

Women who ate high amounts of sugar were also twice as likely to have children who developed allergic asthma.8 Co-author Seif Shaheen, Ph.D., said:9

“We cannot say on the basis of these observations that high intake of sugar by mothers in pregnancy is definitely causing allergy and allergic asthma in their offspring. However, given the extremely high consumption of sugar in the West, we will certainly be investigating this hypothesis further with some urgency.”

Impact of Asthma on Your Community

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames the lining of your lung tissue and narrows the airways. The inflammation in your lung tissue is sensitive to environmental stimuli, also called triggers, which differ from person to person.10 Allergy triggers include dust mites, cockroaches, mold, pet dander and pollen.11

However, you may develop an asthma exacerbation from triggers other than allergic proteins. For instance, strong irritants, such as chemical sprays, perfumes and tobacco smoke or scented products may irritate your lung tissue and narrow your airways. Other triggers include cold weather, exercise, upper respiratory infections, food sensitivities and stress.

In the featured study, researchers found children whose mothers ate high amounts of sugar while pregnant developed asthma triggered by allergens and not by fragrances, cold weather, exercise, infections or food sensitivities. In the past 30 years, the incidence of asthma has increased worldwide. While the condition is generally accepted as costly, some countries do not consider it a health care priority.12

The total cost of treatment and lost work and school to society is difficult to estimate, due in part to different definitions and characterizations of the conditions and different assessments of the socioeconomic impact on society. Although variable from country to country, an average cost per patient in Europe is $1,900, while in the U.S. the cost hovers near $3,100.13

Vitamin D During Pregnancy Helps Reduce Asthma Risk

Low vitamin D levels in children who have asthma may increase the number of severe exacerbations they suffer, including the need for a trip to the hospital.14 A previous study, which followed over 1,000 children for nearly four years, found vitamin D insufficiency was linked to a 50 percent increased risk of a severe asthmatic attack necessitating a visit to the emergency room or hospitalization.

A more recent study15 published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology also links low vitamin D levels in pregnant women to a higher risk of asthma in their children.16 This study supports similar findings from Harvard Medical School,17 in which vitamin D intake in over 1,100 mothers from the Northeastern U.S. was assessed. Children from mothers whose intake was higher during pregnancy had a decreased risk of recurrent wheezing by age 3, whether the vitamin D was from diet or a supplement.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology study evaluated the effect of using an oral supplement of vitamin D-3 during the second and third trimester of pregnancy at nearly 4,000 IUs higher than the recommended daily intake of 400 IUs.18 After birth, researchers took a sample of the cord blood, testing the newborn’s innate immune system response known to provide the baby with long-term protection against environmental pathogens.

The samples from babies whose mothers had taken the higher supplemental dose of 4,400 IUs of vitamin D-3 responded with a healthier innate cytokine response and greater IL-17A production after T lymphocyte stimulation. The researchers believe this would likely lead to improved respiratory health as the child grows, since past research has linked a strong immune response with a reduction in asthma.

The lead researcher, Catherine Hawrylowicz, Ph.D., professor of immune regulation in allergic disease at King’s College London, commented on the importance of the results as it relates to both the health of future children and the importance of investigating further links between vitamin D and immunity:19

“The majority of all asthma cases are diagnosed in early childhood implying that the origin of the disease stems in fetal and early life. Studies to date that have investigated links between vitamin D and immunity in the baby have been observational.

For the first time, we have shown that higher vitamin D levels in pregnancy can effectively alter the immune response of the newborn baby, which could help to protect the child from developing asthma. Future studies should look at the long-term impact on the immunity of the infant.”

Impact of Sugar on Your Body

Sugar is 50 times more potent than total calories in explaining the rising rates of diabetes worldwide, explains Dr. Robert Lustig in this short video. While both glucose and fructose are sweet, they are two different molecules.

Research demonstrates not only the detrimental effect sugar has on your developing baby and their future health, but also on your own health. Despite the American Heart Association’s seal of approval on products that meet or exceed their own recommended daily limit on sugar, there is no nutritional reason to eat foods with added sugar.

In fact, the opposite is true. Diets high in net carbohydrates and added sweeteners may do far more than spike your blood glucose and insulin levels. Sugar will overload and damage your liver. High levels of sugar in your body will also trigger metabolic syndrome, a combination of weight gain, abdominal obesity, rising cholesterol levels and elevated triglycerides.

Eating a diet rich in net carbohydrates and excess sugars has also been linked to hypertension. As your insulin and leptin levels rise in response to sugars, your blood pressure also rises. Your body uses magnesium to fully relax your blood vessels, but your body is unable to store magnesium as you become resistant to insulin from a diet rich in sugar. When your body doesn’t have enough magnesium to relax your blood vessels, your blood pressure also rises.

Eating high amounts of sugar is also linked to brain-related health issues, such as depression, learning disorders, memory problems and food addiction. Sugars trigger the reward center in your brain, leading to cravings that may rival cocaine addiction in some individuals.20 However, not all sugars have identical effects. For instance, fructose may activate your brain to increase your interest in food, while glucose triggers your brain’s satiation signal.

Your Gut Microbiome and Allergies

High sugar intake also affects the growth of bacteria in your gut. In an evaluation of data from market research firm Euromonitor, researchers found people in the U.S. ate more sugar per person than any other country evaluated.21 The average person in the U.S. consumes more than 126 grams of sugar each day, nearly twice the amount consumed by 54 monitored countries and twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organization.

Researchers have demonstrated that diets rich in sugar will alter your gut microbiome,22,23 likely since your beneficial bacteria thrive on fiber and pathogenic bacteria thrive on sugar. Increasing the amount of sugar to the diet of mice transplanted with human fecal material demonstrated the gut microbiome would change dramatically within 24 hours of adding sugar to their diet.24

Scientists have found infants who go on to develop allergies start with early-life abnormalities in their gut microbiome and microbial function.25 While research continues to find links between healthy gut microbiota and a reduction in allergic response in adults and children, the evidence to date suggests that your gut microbiome is a significant target in the prevention and management of allergic asthma.26

In a recent scientific review, scientists found an association between immune-regulated epigenetic imprinting from mother to child during pregnancy that may support the immune system of the growing child after birth.27

However, if your gut microbiome is altered from high intake of sugar and net carbohydrates, this may alter your body’s ability to support the growing immune system of your child. In yet another study, doctors were able to associate altered intestinal microbiota with the development of asthma and allergies in children, suggesting the mother’s immune system may also play a role.28

Break Free From Sugar

Research supports making a break from processed foods and added sugars in your diet to optimize your health and the health of your children. While sugar is an additive that can be challenging to reduce or eliminate from your diet, the benefits to your overall health, energy level and brain function may become rapidly evident, helping to motivate your efforts.

If you currently eat a lot of sugar, there’s a good chance you’re struggling with sugar addiction. If so, I highly recommend trying an energy psychology technique called Turbo Tapping. It has helped many “soda addicts” kick their sweet habit, and it should work for any type of sweet craving you may have.

As you begin eliminating sugar from your diet, be sure to avoid most processed foods, as added sugar can be found in nearly 74 percent of processed foods under more than 60 different names.29 If you’re already fighting diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or are overweight, you would be wise to limit your total fructose and sugar intake to 15 grams per day until your condition has normalized.

For all others, I recommend limiting your total fructose to 25 grams or less per day. As you move toward limiting your sugar intake, here are several tips to help reduce cravings and help you on your journey to good health:

Exercise: Anyone who exercises intensely on a regular basis will know a significant amount of cardiovascular exercise is one of the best “cures” for food cravings. It always amazes me how my appetite, especially for sweets, dramatically decreases after a good workout. I believe the mechanism is related to the dramatic reduction in insulin levels that occurs after exercise.

Organic, black coffeeCoffee is a potent opioid receptor antagonist, and contains compounds such as cafestol — found plentifully in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee — which can bind to your opioid receptors, occupy them and essentially block your addiction to other opioid-releasing food.30,31 This may profoundly reduce the addictive power of other substances, such as sugar.

Sour taste:  Simply tasting something sour, such as cultured vegetables, helps reduce sweet cravings, too. This is doubly beneficial, as fermented vegetables also promote gut health. You can also try adding lemon or lime juice to your water.

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What Does Sugar Do to Your Brain?

By Dr. Mercola

While all cells in your body can use glucose for energy, when you burn fat as your primary fuel your liver produces ketones that burn far “cleaner” in that they generate fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) and secondary free radicals than sugars. The conventional view is that you need sugar or glucose to satisfy your energy needs, but only a very small amount of sugar is actually required. Because sugar represents calories, excessive consumption will negatively affect your health.

If you haven’t given much thought to how much sugar you consume and what it may be doing to your health, now is the time to get educated. Overconsumption of sugar is increasingly being linked to brain-related health issues such as depression, learning disorders, memory problems and overeating.1

Your Body Recognizes Sugar as a ‘Drug’

Writing in The Atlantic, neuroendocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, states:2

“… [T]he [U.S.] war on drugs has taken a back seat, but not because it has been won. Rather, because a different war has cluttered the headlines — the war on obesity. And a substance even more insidious, I would argue, has supplanted cocaine and heroin.

The object of our current affliction is sugar. Who could have imagined something so innocent, so delicious, so irresistible … could propel America toward … medical collapse?”

Previous research3 involving humans and laboratory rats suggests consumption of sugar and sweets can trigger reward and craving states in your brain similar to addictive drugs. Not only can sugar and sweets substitute for drugs like cocaine, in terms of how your brain reacts to them, they can be even more rewarding.

The dramatic effects of sugar on your brain may explain why you may have difficultly controlling your consumption of sugary foods when continuously exposed to them. Another study4 suggests a high degree of overlap exists between brain regions involved in processing natural rewards, such as sugar and sweets, and drugs of abuse.

“‘Non-drug’ or ‘behavioral’ addictions have become increasingly documented …  and pathologies include compulsive activities such as shopping, eating, exercising, sexual behavior and gambling. Like drug addiction, non-drug addictions manifest in symptoms including craving, impaired control over the behavior, tolerance, withdrawal and high rates of relapse.”

The Biology of Your Brain: How Bad Habits Like Sugar Addiction Take Root

An article published by CNN Health5 reminds us that the connection between your nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex drives intentional actions, such as deciding whether you will take another bite of chocolate cake, for example.

Your prefrontal cortex also activates hormones like dopamine, triggering thoughts such as, “Hey, this cake is really good. And I’m going to remember that for the future.” Lustig explains the biological process that takes place when you consume sugar or any addictive substance:6

“The brain’s pleasure center, called the nucleus accumbens, is essential for our survival as a species. … Turn off pleasure, and you turn off the will to live. But long-term stimulation of the pleasure center drives the process of addiction.

When you consume … sugar, your nucleus accumbens receives a dopamine signal, from which you experience pleasure. And so you consume more. The problem is with prolonged exposure, the signal … gets weaker. So you have to consume more to get the same effect — tolerance. And if you pull back on the substance, you go into withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal constitute addiction. And make no mistake, sugar is addictive.”

Brain-injury survivor and author Debbie Hampton explains how habits are formed around addictive behaviors:7

“Every time you follow the same path, a specific pattern is activated and becomes more defined … and it becomes easier to activate the circuit the next time. … Pretty soon, the bad habit neuronal pathway becomes the unconscious default, and your brain, wanting to be efficient, just takes the easiest, most familiar route. This is particularly true in the case of depression.

In a depressed brain, there’s less dopamine activity happening in the nucleus accumbens, which means that things that used to be enjoyable are not as pleasurable, and the only things that motivate it have to have a big dopamine payoff, which are the baddest of the bad habits, such as junk food, drugs, alcohol [and] gambling.”

Brain Imaging Shows Food Addiction Is Real

Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition8 examined the effects of high-glycemic index (GI) foods on brain activity, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Twelve overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35 consumed one high-GI and one low-GI meal.

Imaging was completed four hours after each test meal to assess the cerebral blood flow as a measure of resting brain activity. The researchers expected brain activity to be greater after the high-GI meal in regions related to craving, eating behavior and reward. According to the researchers:

“Compared with a … low-GI meal, a high-GI meal decreased plasma glucose, increased hunger and selectively stimulated brain regions associated with reward and craving in the late postprandial period. … [T]he high-GI meal elicited greater brain activity centered in the right nucleus accumbens.”

The study demonstrates what you may experience when eating a high-GI meal. After rapidly digesting net carbohydrates, your blood sugar initially spikes, followed by a sharp crash later. As noted by researchers, this crash in blood glucose stimulated greater brain activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center Lustig mentioned above.

Can Too Much Sugar Contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease?

While insulin is usually associated with its role in keeping your blood-sugar levels in a healthy range, it also plays a role in brain signaling. In one animal study, when researchers disrupted the proper signaling of insulin in the brain, they were able to induce many of the characteristic brain changes seen with Alzheimer’s disease, including confusion, disorientation and the inability to learn and remember.9

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the same pathological process that leads to insulin and leptin resistance, as well as type 2 diabetes, may also hold true for your brain. As you overindulge on sugar and grains, your brain becomes overwhelmed by the consistently high levels of insulin. Eventually insulin, leptin and signaling become profoundly disrupted, leading to impairments in your memory and thinking abilities.

A study published in Diabetes Care found that type 2 diabetes is associated with a 60 percent increased risk of dementia in men and women.10 Research featured in the New England Journal of Medicine noted a mild elevation of blood sugar, such as a level of 105 or 110, is also associated with an elevated risk for dementia.11

Dr. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of the books “Brain Maker” and “Grain Brain,” believes Alzheimer’s disease is primarily predicated on lifestyle choices, including sugar consumption. He suggests anything that promotes insulin resistance will ultimately also raise your risk of Alzheimer’s.

Glucose and Fructose: How Do They Affect Your Brain?

Increases in processed fructose consumption, typically in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), seem to be running parallel to the spikes seen in obesity rates, so much so that diets high in it are thought to promote insulin resistance and weight gain. The Journal of the American Medical Association featured a study12 involving 20 adult volunteers who underwent magnetic resonance imaging sessions at Yale University to identify neurophysiological factors related to fructose versus glucose consumption.

The research suggests fructose — a type of sugar commonly extracted from corn and found in sweetened products like soda — may activate brain pathways that increase your interest in food, whereas glucose ingestion appears to trigger your brain’s satiation signal, effectively telling you “you’ve had enough.” When participants ingested glucose and were then shown food pictures, their brains registered increased measures of satiety and fullness. The researchers noted:

“Glucose … ingestion reduced the activation of the hypothalamus, insula and striatum — brain regions that regulate appetite, motivation and reward processing; glucose ingestion also increased functional connections between the hypothalamic-striatal network and increased satiety.”

In contrast, when the participants consumed fructose and were presented with images of food, more activity was noted in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area linked to increased motivation to seek out rewards, such as drugs or food.13

Subsequent research,14 presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, went a step further to investigate the effects of sugar on food-approach behavior. After ingesting either fructose or glucose, 24 volunteers underwent two fMRI sessions while viewing pictures of high-calorie foods and nonfood items in a block format.

After each block, participants were asked to rate their hunger and desire for food, as well as perform a decision task. The decision task involved choosing between an immediate food reward or a delayed monetary bonus. Hormone levels were measured at baseline and 30 and 60 minutes after the sugars were consumed. The authors of the study noted:

“Parallel to the neuroimaging findings, fructose versus glucose led to greater hunger and desire for food and a greater willingness to give up long-term monetary rewards to obtain immediate high-calorie foods. These findings suggest ingestion of fructose relative to glucose results in greater activation of brain regions involved in attention and reward processing, and may promote feeding behavior.”

Both of these studies underscore the importance of paying attention to the type of sugars you consume. Clearly, fructose disrupts your brain’s signaling mechanism that is designed to tell you when you’ve had enough. Because fructose fails to stimulate insulin, which in turn fails to suppress ghrelin, or “your hunger hormone,” which then fails to stimulate leptin or “your satiety hormone,” you are likely to eat more and develop insulin resistance when consuming fructose.

The second body of research seems to indicate fructose intake can influence you to act impulsively with respect to food, consuming more and more of it even when your body should have told you it’s had enough. As you may imagine, continuing to consume large amounts of fructose will become increasingly problematic if you’ve already developed a bad habit of overeating.

Fructose Packs on the Pounds Faster Than Any Other Nutrient

Because fructose is often consumed in liquid form, mostly as HFCS, its negative metabolic effects are even further magnified. Energy drinks, fruit juices, soda and sports drinks, as well as countless other sweetened beverages, contain HFCS. Like all fructose, HFCS is metabolized as body fat far more rapidly than any other sugar.

Similar to alcohol, the entire burden of metabolizing fructose falls to your liver. This severely taxes and overloads it, introducing the possibility of liver damage. Fructose also promotes a particularly dangerous kind of body fat called adipose fat. This type of fat collects in your abdominal region and is associated with a greater risk of heart disease.

Although HFCS has about the same amount of fructose as cane sugar, it is in a “free” form that is not attached to any other carbs. In contrast, fructose in fruits and cane sugar is bonded to other sugars, resulting in a decrease in metabolic toxicity. Consuming foods containing high amounts of fructose — even if it’s a natural product — is the fastest way to trash your health.  Among the health problems you invite when you consume high amounts of fructose are:

  • Arthritis, cancer, gout and heart disease
  • Insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity and type 2 diabetes
  • Elevated blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and uric acid levels
  • Liver disease, especially non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

In addition, unbound fructose, found in large quantities in HFCS, can interfere with your heart’s use of minerals like chromium, copper and magnesium. Furthermore, as you likely know, HFCS is most often made from genetically engineered corn, which is fraught with its own well-documented health concerns and side effects, many of which are linked to glyphosate or Roundup residues.

How to Manage and/or Limit Your Sugar Consumption

Sugar, in its natural form, is not inherently bad when consumed in amounts that allow you to burn fat as your primary fuel. However, you should avoid all sources of processed fructose, particularly processed foods and beverages like soda. According to SugarScience.org, 74 percent of processed foods purchased from the grocery store contain added sugar.15

Other sources have suggested it may be as high as 80 percent. I recommend your diet be composed chiefly of naturally occurring whole foods, with 10 percent or less coming from processed foods.

I also recommend severely limiting your consumption of refined carbohydrates found in cereal, bread, pasta and other grain-based foods, as they break down to sugar in your body, which increases your insulin levels and causes insulin resistance. As a general recommendation, I suggest you keep your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day, including whole fruit. Keep in mind while fruits are rich in nutrients and antioxidants, they naturally contain fructose.

If consumed in high amounts (especially if you are not burning fat as your primary fuel), fructose from fruit worsens your insulin sensitivity and raises your uric acid levels. Also, be sure to avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose due to the health problems associated with them, which are worse than those associated with corn syrup and sugar. Below are some additional tips to help you manage and/or limit your sugar consumption:

Increase your consumption of healthy fats, such as omega-3, saturated and monounsaturated fats. Your body needs health-promoting fats from animal and plant sources for optimal functioning. In fact, emerging evidence suggests healthy fats should make up at least 60 to 85 percent of your daily calories.

Some of the best sources include avocado, coconut oil, free-range eggs, organic butter from raw milk, raw nuts like macadamia and pecans, (unheated) virgin olive oil and wild Alaskan salmon.

Drink pure, clean water. Drinking pure water instead of sugary beverages like fruit juice and soda will go a long way toward improving your health. The best way to gauge your water needs is to observe the color of your urine — it should be light-pale yellow — and the frequency of your bathroom visits should be around seven to eight times per day.

Add fermented foods to your meals. The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods will aid your digestion and provide detoxification support, lessening the fructose burden on your liver. Some of the best choices include fermented vegetables, kefir made from grass-fed milk, kimchi, natto and organic yogurt made from raw grassfed milk.

Use the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). Join Julie Schiffman in a short EFT-video session to tap your way free from a sugar addiction.

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