Does quitting sugar heal autoimmune disease?

Posted on January 15th, 2014

This is actually a post I’ve been busting to write for a while. And I really rather like that I’m finally writing it in Thyroid Awareness Month. As many of you know, I first quit sugar because of my autoimmune (AI) disease. I have Hashimotos. And a big part of why I’ve stuck to the sugar-free program is that it’s made such a damn big difference.

Image via inspirationlush.com

Image via inspirationlush.com

So the simple answer is this: Quitting sugar has had the biggest impact on my AI, more so than my medication or any other medical fix (and, trust me, I’ve tried everything). In the past three years, I’ve been able to better manage my AI, but also – yes – heal and reverse the damage.

  • I have zero thyroid antibodies now.
  • I’m on the most minimal dosage of thyroxin.
  • My hormone levels have fallen back into the right range (more on this soon!).

It’s taken years to get to this point. I put it down to the massive change to my diet that quitting sugar precipitated. And to breaking the clusterf*ck cycle that autoimmune disease invariably locks you into.

But why? And how? Let me explain…

Warning: Like most of my AI and thyroid posts this is a long one. And as I always remind people, even if you don’t have an AI, you’ll probably find it helpful because the advice I share relates to all of us. Or you probably have a loved one who has an AI…please share this with them.

Sugar mucks up your gut

Blood sugar imbalances inflame the digestive tract, causing leaky gut (literally, a perforated gut lining). In turn, leaky gut triggers the development of AI. Toxins are able to pass through the perforations into the bloodstream triggering an autoimmune reaction as our antibodies head out to attack the foreign invaders. These little antibody soldiers can then get confused and head off to attack parts of our bodies, such as the thyroid.  Gluten, for instance, has a very similar molecular structure to the thyroid gland.

Sugar causes inflammation

The process above obviously creates inflammation, which compromises immune function. In addition, sugar compromises the ability of our white cells to destroy toxins. This effect begins within 30 minutes of eating the stuff and lasts for five hours.

Insulin spikes destroy the thyroid gland

As many of you know (yeah?), sugar causes our pancreas to secrete insulin to move excess sugar from the blood into our cells where glucose is used to produce energy. But over time, the cells lose the ability to respond to insulin. Our poor little pancreas responds by pumping out even more insulin, leading to insulin resistance.

Studies have shown that these repeated insulin surges increase the destruction of the thyroid gland.

Also, this: we’re programmed to see low blood sugar as a threat to survival. Thus our adrenal glands respond by secreting cortisol. Cortisol then tells the liver to increase the amount of glucose available, bringing blood sugar levels back to normal.

As you know, again (um, yeah?), cortisol is the “flight or fight” hormone,  reserved for special occasions (like being chased by a tiger or some such). It causes an increase in heart rate, oxygen, and blood flow while shutting down digestion, growth and reproduction so all energy can go to our brains and muscles.

Problem is, if cortisol is over-used ‘n’ abused (from eating sugar daily), this all suppresses pituitary function. Um, which is vital to thyroid function (the hypothalamus, thyroid and pituitary work as a threesome).

And around and around and around we all go, right?

Flipside, a bung thyroid can then cause insulin issues

How’s this work? Our thyroid function depends on blood sugar being kept in a normal range, and keeping our blood sugar in a normal range depends on healthy thyroid function.

How so? Low thyroid function slows down the way we process sugar – in our cells, guts, the insulin response and the clearance of insulin. Which means…

We might even have normal levels of glucose in our blood, but because we’re slow to respond to it, and to absorb it we very easily get hypoglycemic (and thus clutch at sugar)…know this…

Anyone with thyroid issues has a much harder time with sugar than everyone else.

You have to break the clusterf*cky cycle… yourself

It’s been shown an increased frequency of thyroid disorders in diabetics, and a higher prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome in people with wonky thyroids. It’s hard to say which comes first – metabolic issues or bung thyroids…chickens or eggs. But does it really matter? At the end of the day, my friends, it all comes down to sugar. And the solution really is to quit it.

For me, I know my AI issues stem back to a sugary carb addiction in my late teens. It led to gut issues, insomnia, addictions, hormone issues, nervous disorders, adrenal collapse…and then Graves (another form of thyroid disease) … and then Hashimotos.

The only way to break the cycle – and to eliminate both the trigger and exacerbator – is to quit sugar. 

Anyway, I reckon that’s enough for now. It was quite a rant. Got any further questions?

If you’d like to quit sugar, why not sign up for the next round of my 8-Week Program

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  • Virginie

    Hello Sarah, I too have Hashimoto and struggle with different symptoms. I have been diagnosed last year and I am trying to find things that work for me on top of my compound meds. I read lots of different things but a lot of them come back to point A which is heal your guts! A lot of people advise a paleo diet, no grains, no dairy, no soy and of course no sugar. My question is: on top of the no sugar diet that you have, do you also have eliminated grains, dairy and soy?

    [Reply]

    Virginie Reply:

    I have another question. Have you dropped all kind of sugar or natural sugar such as honey, maple, stevia or especially (the best) Agave?

    [Reply]

  • amy

    Hi Sarah, I’m sorry if I’ve missed this in a post elsewhere but I can’t seem to find it.. Does the sugar in coconut water cause an insulin spike? And is it to be avoided when going cold turkey? Thanks

    [Reply]

  • lifelover

    interesting, they came to the conclussion that my thryoid CAUSED my dibities and loosing weight has been so hard, thank you for this

    [Reply]

  • sharon

    wow makes perfect sense to me especially the leaky gut thing, which I have felt I have for some time.

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  • chenke

    Great article! Thanks for sharing :)

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  • noran

    what do you mean exactly by no sugar? u mean white sugar or fruits included too? thanks

    [Reply]

  • Jessica Gonzalez

    Thank you, for this information! !!

    [Reply]

  • gina

    Even “natural” sugars in raw fruits?

    [Reply]

  • Kimberely

    Thank you so much for this article. You essentially encapsulated all that I have struggled with much of my life. But never realized it was thyroid – until finally diagnosed this year with Hashi’s and adrenal insufficiency. I’ve gone off sugar before, but now more than ever I see clearly the connection to this issue.

    [Reply]

  • Because_Me

    I wish it was this “easy” for all of us. I quit sugar, gluten and most processed foods and am still suffering. Diet is a HUGE part of dealing with autoimmune disease but sometimes you really do need a good doctor and medical intervention. I am glad this works for many though.

    [Reply]

  • alevi7

    Hi Sarah – I’m interested to know what the minimal amount of thyroxine is? At the moment, I have normal T3 and T4 levels but my antibodies are sky high. I’ve been told that I should take minor amounts of thyroxine to deal with this. Thanks.

    [Reply]

  • Deston

    I’m 18 yr old guy with Hashimotos hypothyroidism. I’m super active and maintain high grades and try to be active. I weigh 155lbs but I’m tired and I feel like my head is constantly foggy and slowed down. Seeing this kind of gives me hope that I can play sports and not rely on a adrenaline rush to wake up.

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  • Stephanie

    By quitting sugar, are you talking about 0 grams or do you manage to certain macros each day like 50 grams or something? I don’t see how you can quite sugar entirely and ever eat out again, since sugar is in just about everything.

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  • Darlene Crist

    Did you just cut out sugar or other things ..pasta , bread, potatoes. You know Carbs.

    [Reply]

  • ria

    hello i would like to aks if just quitting sugar is effective or if u have to quit gluten as well?also if u quit sugar but eat substitutes such as aspartami it is ok??

    [Reply]

  • ria

    forgot to tell i have hashimoto from 10 years old (so the last 20 years) and many many antibodies

    [Reply]

  • Jenny

    I agree sugar is not good! I’m assuming you mean white sugar? What about coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey…? Same effect? Are you off those, too? (I have Hashi’s, too).

    [Reply]

  • Kirsty

    When you say “quit sugar,” are you referring to refined sugars only. I consume about 3 or 5 tablespoons of raw honey each day in different forms and I’m wondering if this is holding me back from healing. Any thoughts? This is the only “sugar” I consume apart from fruit.

    Thanks for a great post!

    [Reply]

    itsjustme Reply:

    Honey, particularly honey derived locally, has many medical wonders attached to it.

    [Reply]

  • Delia

    What about artificial sugar? I know it’s a no no for many things, but does it fall into the category of sugar where this is concerned?

    [Reply]

  • Dawn

    I believe ‘adrenalin’ is the fight or flight hormone? Which makes me worry about the accuracy of the other comments. Shame I thought it was an awesome article apart from that.
    I know it isn’t a scientific review but a few refs. about where you got the info (time of immune function activity after intake of sugar for example) would be useful.

    [Reply]

  • Dawn

    Eating always increases cortisol no matter what you eat.

    [Reply]

  • Dawn

    I was reading a study which said eating increases your cortisol levels. I am adrenally insuffient and I am not aware that carbohydrates and sugars suppress cortisol? I shall have to research :)

    [Reply]

  • itsjustme

    So what did the author quit?

    White sugar? Refined sugar? Anything with sugar added, even if it was something with honey?

    I thought the consensus was that nobody knows what causes autoimmune diseases. It’s theorized it’s anything from stress to a “who knows why it happens?”

    [Reply]

  • suzanne

    When you say you don’t have sugar does that mean no Stevia or Monk fruit either? Or fruit? I am assuming you don’t have honey or maple sugar but curious about fruit. Have you given up fruit too? Thanks!

    [Reply]

  • Sandra E.

    I think it’s important to mention (since I have blood sugar issues, hypothyroidism, severe weight gain and gut issues) that “sugar” is not just the granulated thing or a syrupy thing…but many other things like carbs…that our bodies convert into sugar. I think that’s why going sugar free/carb free/gluten free go hand in hand. Carbs and gluten are ultimately processed as sugar by our bodies. I agree, sugar is the ultimate evil for these disease issues.

    [Reply]

  • Mary W

    So does quitting sugar actually mean NO sweetener period? Is there any acceptable sugar substitute or are you saying stay away from it all?

    [Reply]

  • Janice Hammond Webster

    Do you have to quit all sugars, like fructose in fruit?

    [Reply]

  • Jamie

    I’ve been hypo-thyroid since I was 18 (now 48) and was given synthetic replacement which helped minimally. I am so thankful to have information, now. Back in the day, you had to just trust your doctor. Thank you!

    [Reply]

  • http://batman-news.com Hope

    do you mean ALL sugar? honey? fruit? sweet potatoes? “sugar” is just such a “broad” term. I follow AIP for my Hashi’s, but, struggle with too much fruit or sometimes “honey”.

    [Reply]

  • Stephanie Robbins

    When you say you quit sugars do you mean refined sugars or ALL sugars? I guess what I am really asking is do you still eat fruit? I just started on no refined sugar. Giving up fruit is really hard for me. I also have stevia because I heard that doesn’t spike your sugar levels. What do you think?

    [Reply]

  • Jennifer McKillip Smith

    I wonder if similar results would appear for those with other AI diseases?

    [Reply]

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  • Chelsea

    Hi Sarah, I very randomly came across your book and article and what you’ve written is giving me so much hope! I ordered your book and am going to give this my best shot. I’ve recently been diagnosed with Hashimotos 6 months ago. In that time that I’ve started medications, I’ve contracted daily headaches, 15 pounds of weight gain, and mild to severe depression and mood swings. Also my TSH has jumped from 5 to 16. To say the least, I’m frustrated with drugs and doctors. Thank you for giving me hope that there are others out there who feel like I do and that this might get me out of this awful ditch.

    [Reply]

  • shelley.personal2@yahoo.com.a

    Hi Sarah I have an AI but not Hashimoto’s (I have dry eye syndrome and a high ANA). Do you have a view of gluten and diary in affecting AI too?

    [Reply]

  • Carmen

    Would love if you could cover graves in a post one day. Heaps on info on hashis and diet etc but not much info out there on graves.

    [Reply]

  • Niki

    Hi I have just been told to go on medication to bring my levels right. This is so I can have a baby but I don’t want to take the medication. Just started reading your posts and would love to know if it’s just sugar that I need to quite or a variety of different foods?

    [Reply]

  • TheUtubekaz .

    that just clarified so many things for me in terms of my reactions to sugar. Wish I had this info a looking time ago!! But also glad I found it now :-)

    [Reply]

  • Fran Flossy Clarke

    Hi Sarah , I have been on the I quit Sugar trail for a year now and am also passing on the good news to my patients ( I am a dental Hygienist). I am finding it hard to convince my boss to look into the effects of sugar, and when I suggested that sugar is as addictive as smoking , he was very defensive saying that I didn’t know what I was taking about and where are the studies. I need some help in finding an avenue to approach this with him !! Any Ideas ??

    [Reply]

  • Shanon McQuitty

    I was wondering how you did it… Did you do it gradually? Follow any sort of program?

    [Reply]

  • Dr Harry Math

    Hi Sara,

    Wonderful concept thank you very much for the great initiative. Btw just wondering what is your perception of Sugar with relation to other forms of its existence like Jaggery (Available in Indian food store) and honey? do you suggest they are equally harm full? any comment is highly appreciable!

    [Reply]

  • Deb J.

    Last year (Jan/13), as a New Year’s resolution, I made the decision to quit sugar and gluten. I was not diagnosed with Graves or Hashimotos specifically but was put on thyroid hormone replacement. I went cold turkey on sugar and gluten. I read your book Sarah and was determined-I am a Taurus so used my stubbornness to advantage. At first, I did not feel great. I went to see my physician and she increased my dose of medication (after my TSH had returned slightly elevated). I was not feeling better as I saw my dosing rise and my TSH stay pretty much the same. Over one weekend, my dose was doubled and I started getting a racing heart and palpitations. I had been doing a lot of research into the function of the thyroid and knew something obviously was wrong. I took my own health into my hands, and found a new physician as well as saw a naturopath. It was actually my new physician who came out and asked if I had considered going off the medication altogether which I did. Like most people, I had been told once you start hormone therapy, you are on it for life. In the end, it is now a year later and I have noticed such a change. With careful attention to my diet and with regular exercise, I have noticed more energy, more clarity etc. All of the things that are expected. I was so grateful to have a physician who was supportive and open to helping me. I would not recommend making changes to medications without seeking a physician’s help. I am so grateful for your book and website Sarah. I still get days where I do not feel 100% but I usually can look back and link it to something I should not have eaten earlier. It takes patience and willpower but it can be done. Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication!!

    [Reply]

  • laura

    I am all for quitting sugar (I bought your books over a year ago but need to get back on the bandwagon) but curious how do you know it has helped your thyroid issue when you are still on medication for it?? I recently fell pregnant and it was discovered I have an under-active thyroid so was put on the lowest thyroxin too which after a couple of weeks has balanced my levels. I want to test the sugar theory but how do you know it really improves the AI disease whilst still being on the medication?

    [Reply]

  • Breanna Hendricks

    Although I have not been officially diagnosed with an AI, I have had symptoms of Hashimotos and was diagnosed with hypothtroidism almost 12 years ago. I quit sugae 8 weeks ago prescribed by a naturopath who said I had candidiasis. Two months have made a world of difference. Like Mary, my skin is clear, hair is thick,healthy and shining , I have lost 15 pounds effortlesly, my gut is healing fast, and I dont remember feeling this good since I don’t know when. 30 is the new 20 for me!

    [Reply]

  • Carmen

    Your article is very interesting! I have bee diagnosed with Hashimotos 8 years ago and been struggling with it since. My thyroxin pills were upgraded 3 times already. I quit sugar 124 days ago and it did wonderful things for me. I lost 15 pounds and my skin and hair looks so much better. Only I have not gotten my Energy back and I just had to upgrade my thyroxin pills again. I am under a lot of stress at work and know I need to work on that. I just started the Paleo diet and hope it will increase my health.

    [Reply]

    Terri Reply:

    Some of the tired could come from your adrenals. My Thyroxine was upped and upped High dose 200. Still felt like crap. Low sugar and grain diet. Felt Terrible.. Went to a naturapath homeopath. She came up with adrenal fatigue. Taking some support for that and my thyroxine is being dropped slowly.

    [Reply]

  • Jane Augsburger

    I am just so gutted that I started taking thyroxine. I am now on 100mp’s a day and I have been told I cannot get off it. I am a hypo, not a hippo!!! Although sometimes I wonder for my addiction to sugar rules over me!! Its been two and a half years and even if I miss even one day of thyroxine my Hashimotos madness comes back to bite me and my family on the bottom, ouch!! Last year I went very strict sugar free for about 6 months and then easing off, slowly until Christmas came and I could not get that sugar down faster enough. Started again sugar free this year but not so strict, I can eat a small amount of fruit and I add tomatoes, onion, carrots, pumpkin, beetroot etc to my dishes, which I never would have done last year. I want to be sugar free but i feel so disillusioned, the diets I have done have helped me but they have not been it, I still need thyroxine and I wanted to get off it. I take lugol’s iodine and my diet is fairly ash alkaline. My body aches as soon as I use it, and yoga and stretches make it worse. I am fine most of the time but that is because I don’t do anything, the odd bit of gardening, I never run or go on long walks…. I am taking big hunk of space here!
    I have been following you a bit and admire what you do, I did not know that you were a hashimotos woman too!

    [Reply]

  • Lauren

    Sarah, what a breath of fresh air! I have been following you for a while, I even began my own quitting sugar journey two years ago with your PDF program. I have thyroid issues and have been on a journey to heal it for a while. I have been told by more than one professional that I will never remove the antibodies in my thyroid. What a sense of relief when I just read that you have heal all of yours! Thank you for speaking out, thank you for showcasing your journey. I am do grateful. I have one question for you, maybe you can point me in the direction. I really want to join your 8 week program and quit sugar with a support team to help keep me inspired. I would like to know the average cost of the weekly shop when following the menu? I know it will be a rough figure, but any kind of idea would be good for my budgeting purposes :).

    [Reply]

  • Kath

    Thanks for the post. It does explain a lot. I have given up sugar for over 4 months now, and defiently have more energy, clarity of mind, clearer skin and brighter eyes. I am able to focus better and do things I wouldn’t have had the energy to do before. It makes a lot of sense as when I was having blood tests a few years ago, trying to seek an explanation of why I was always fatigued and getting sick, the doctor did mention something on the blood test about my thyroid. At the time he said to come back in 6 months, which I forgot to do. Further tests with another doctor found I have hypoglycemia. Plus I have recently discovered I have a slow metabolism. Just reading this blog confirms to me the link between all these conditions and symptoms and reminds me that it’s best to eat a healthy, natural, low sugar diet. So thanks for the reminder and inspiration! I wonder if there is also a link with these conditions and the amount of processed foods (additives and preservatives) we eat? Do you know of any good research information on that?

    [Reply]

  • Karen Burge

    Dear Sarah, I was really struggeling with my health feeling really tired and aching joints. I deceided I had to cut bcak on sugar and while searching my hardrive on my computer I found your I Quit sugar ebook. After reading your first page I remembered that I fogot that I was diagnosed with Graves 6 years ago, my heart was in AF and shock treatment had not been effective in assisiting my rythem to reset. So 6 years ago I left the toxic
    relationship and quit sugar, I was powering and forgot all about it, then over the years I have fallen back into old habits. Soooo THANKYOU for shaing your story :-) now I am getting back on track, I also publish a bi-monthly magazine called Wellbeing Guide in the Newcastle region and am going to focus on addiction for the upcoming July/August edition. I would really love to use your program as a guide. My phone number is 0411 483 895 or email is info@wellbeingguide.com.au.

    Thank you for your time,
    Karen Burge

    [Reply]

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  • Mara Zampariolo

    Sarah I dunno how i can thank you enough. i suspected this after observing my symptoms and the weird reactions I got every time I ate sugar, but you confirmed it and now i have a reason to be completely sugar-free. I am just wondering if fruit is allowed or not? it has a lot of sugar in it..

    [Reply]

  • Irene

    I am 4 months sugar free and feeling great! I have not yet had new blood work for my Hashimoto’s but my rheumatoid factors have all dropped. I have my life back and it’s due to sugar free.

    [Reply]

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