As Mary Poppin’s song states, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… in the most delightful way!”
Yes, it’s true that sugar does make medicine taste better (prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal), but it’s also been shown to drastically inhibit the immune system when consumed in large amounts.
With that being true, why then do so many herbalists suggest using sugars (even natural ones like honey and maple syrup) in herbal preparations? After all, aren’t herbs supposed to be beneficial to the body? Why would you combine something good for the body with something bad for the body?
This is something I’ve often wondered so I decided to do some research and see if I could come up with an answer… or a least one that would suffice for the moment. Here’s what I’ve found!
Sugar, White Blood Cells, and Vitamin C – A Competition
How A Simple Vitamin Can Boost The Body’s Defenses
In 1970, microbiologist, Dr. Linus Pauling, discovered the relationship between vitamin c and its ability to shorten the common cold.
His research revealed that phagocytes (several types of while blood cells) need to have 50 times the concentration of vitamin c inside their cells than is found in the blood stream around them in order to actively be on guard against these invaders that make their way into the body.
You see, phagocytes are constantly on the go. They eat dead cells and other waste products as well as the bacteria and viruses that end up in the body, and as you would assume, all this work takes a lot of energy. Where do they get this energy? Well, from several sources… vitamin c being one of them. Vitamin c to a phagocyte is like coffee to most people… it gives an extra boost!
As far as everyday work is concerned, we take in enough vitamin c through our diets to help these cells do their job, but when the body comes down with an infection the phagocytes have to work harder because there’s more stuff in the blood to be cleaned. Make sense?
Dr. Pauling made the connection back in 1970 that when a person has a cold, if they would just take more vitamin c (either through dietary means or via a supplement) the phagocytes would clear the virus from the body faster making the cold less severe and shorter in duration. (Billiot, 2012)
Vying For Sweet Attention
Unfortunately, getting the body’s phagocytes at such a high concentration of vitamin c isn’t as easy as it sounds.
You see, phagocytes have receptors on them where vitamin c molecules attach. Its like a puzzle, and the receptors and the vitamin c are a perfect fit. However, there’s something else that’s a perfect fit too.
Glucose. Yep, sugar, and that means that vitamin c and sugar are vying for attention… the phagocytes attention that is.
When the sugar level in your blood gets to a certain concentration, the phagocytes can easily mistake that sugar for vitamin c. Instead of absorbing more vitamin c from the blood stream, they start absorbing sugar.
So what happens when a phagocyte has a high concentration of sugar it in?
It gets slow and sleepy, and doesn’t clean the blood as quickly as it would if it were full of vitamin c.
Sugar & The Immune System
I’m sure you’ve heard it said many times that sugar depresses the immune system, but what about natural sugars? Herbal remedies contain natural sugar like honey and maple syrup. Is using a natural medicine made with a natural sugar counterproductive?
Let’s first look at how sugar depresses the immune system.
Dr. Sears says in his article – Harmful Effects of Sugar – that EXCESS sugar depresses the immune system. He says that studies have shown that “downing 75 to 100 grams of a sugar solution (about 20 teaspoons of sugar) can suppress the body’s immune responses. Simple sugars, including glucose, table sugar, fructose, and honey caused a fifty- percent drop in the ability of white blood cells to engulf bacteria. In contrast, ingesting a complex carbohydrate solution (starch) did not lower the ability of these white blood cells to engulf bacteria.” He goes on to say that these effects can be seen anywhere from 2-5 hours after ingesting this much sugar. (Sears, 2013) If you’re interested in looking at the study that showed these results, they’re from a 1973 Loma Linda University study which can be found in the reference section of this post. (Sanchez, 1973)
Okay, so excess sugar in amounts of 100 grams can seriously slow these phagocytes down for 2-5 hours which means instead of your immune system having the advantage during that time period, the infection has the advantage. That doesn’t sound to good to me. Does it you? I mean, if you’re sick you want your body to get better as quickly as possible, right? Right.
So basically, don’t eat a bunch of simple carbs or sugars at one time (if at all really) so your blood doesn’t have a sugar surge. Sorry… no burgers, fries, or cokes… especially when your sick. Or cake and cookies either.
Now what about honey that is used in herbal preparations like electuaries, syrups, and oxymels? Is that too much sugar to be consuming when you’re sick?
If Sugar Depressed The Immune System, Then Is Honey A No-No In Herbal Preparations When Sick?
So far we know the following 3 things:
- vitamin c and sugar compete for our phagocyte’s attention
- vitamin c gives phagocytes a boost and sugar slows then down
- excess sugar (100 g/20 tsp. at one time) can depress the immune system for 2-5 hours
So how does this relate to using honey in herbal preparations.
First, let’s look at how many teaspoons of honey equals 100 grams of sugar.
The answer is 14.
14 teaspoons of honey = 100 grams of sugar.
Next, let’s look at the amount of honey used in a common herbal preparations like elderberry syrup. Elderberry syrup is used to boost the immune system and give the body some extra vitamin c at the same time.
In my recipe for the Ultimate Immune Boosting Elderberry Syrup, 1 cup of raw honey is used. 1 cup of honey = 48 teaspoons, and 48 teaspoons of honey = 340 grams of sugar.
So my ultimate immune boosting elderberry syrup contains 340 grams of sugar.
Now, we need to look at how many teaspoons are in the entire batch of syrup and how much sugar ends up in each teaspoon.
There is a total of 3 cups of syrup in my elderberry syrup recipe (2 cups of herbal decoction and 1 cup of honey).
3 cups of syrup = 144 teaspoons.
So if there are 144 teaspoons of syrup total and there are 340 grams of sugar total, that means that each teaspoon contains 2.36 grams of sugar.
Lastly, we need to figure out how much sugar is taken in with each dose of syrup.
Most all elderberry syrup recipes come with two dosage guidelines.
- one for preventing sickness
- one for aggressively boosting the immune system during sickness
Let’s look at the one you would take if you were actually sick.
When a child is sick, the recommended dosage of syrup is 1 teaspoon every 2 hours. For an adult, it’s 1 tablespoon every 2 hours.
So every 2 hours a child gets 2.36 grams of sugar from their syrup and an adult gets 7.08 grams.
As you can see… this is no where near the amount of sugar needed to depress the immune system.
2.36/7.08 grams of sugar every two hours is not enough sugar to concentrate the blood with glucose and cause phagocytes to absorb more of it than vitamin c. Even if you were taking a straight dose of garlic honey for an infection, 1 teaspoon of honey = 7 grams of sugar which is still no where close to the amount needed to depress the immune system. And, if you chose to use actual sugar in your recipe instead of honey (like you could if your child were less than 1 year old and couldn’t have honey yet), the amount of sugar in each teaspoon would be even less than it is with honey.
Conversions were made using Traditional Oven’s Bee Honey Conversion Calculator.
Don’t Stress About The Sugar In Herbal Preparations
As you can see… people are right to think that sugar can depress the immune system, but it takes a good bit of it all at one time. With today’s diets, and the addition of high fructose corn syrup to EVERYTHING, that’s definitely easy to do, but when it comes to getting that much sugar out of dosages of an herbal preparation, it’s highly unlikely that your or your child will take enough to cause that to happen.
So stress less and know that putting raw honey in your herbal preparations is adding health benefits to the body more than it’s harming the body.
What do you think about using sugar in herbal preparations? Are you for it or against it? If you’re against it, what do you do instead? I’d love to hear your thoughts about today’s post in the comments below!
- Billiot, M. (2012, July 6). Sugar and Your Immune System. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://alternativehealthatlanta.com/immune-system/sugar-and-your-immune-system/
- Sears, W. (2013, August 9). Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/family-nutrition/sugar/harmful-effects-excess-sugar
- Sanchez, A., Reeser, J. L., Lau, H. S., Yahiku, P. Y., Willard, R. E., McMillan, P. J., … & Register, U. D. (1973). Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 26(11), 1180-1184.