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

Image via

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?

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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?


    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?


  • 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


  • lifelover

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


  • sharon

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


  • chenke

    Great article! Thanks for sharing :)


  • noran

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


  • Jessica Gonzalez

    Thank you, for this information! !!


  • gina

    Even “natural” sugars in raw fruits?


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • Darlene Crist

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


  • 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??


  • ria

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


  • 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).


  • 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!


    itsjustme Reply:

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


  • 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?


  • 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.


  • Dawn

    Eating always increases cortisol no matter what you eat.


  • 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 :)


  • 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?”


  • 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!


  • 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.


  • 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?


  • Janice Hammond Webster

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


  • 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!


  • 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”.


  • 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?


  • Jennifer McKillip Smith

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


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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.



    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?