So here we are, sitting in our homes surrounded by our snacks, and many of them aren’t very healthy. Sugar looms large in the lockdown. To help manage the effects of that sugar, there’s an important habit we should adopt if we’re not already doing it: drink plenty of water.
This sounds like old advice, but new research offers a new reason to pay attention, especially under our current circumstances.
We know that excess sugar in our diets has a slew of life-lessening consequences tied to disorders falling under the label “metabolic disease,” including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and inflammation, to name a few. But it’s also possible there’s another, less obvious reason for sugar’s link to decreased lifespans – it leads to the build-up of a toxic biological waste product.
Researchers tripped on this finding while studying the effects of excess sugar in the diets of fruit flies (aka Drosophila). The tiny flies share a surprising set of similarities with humans, making them a convenient study subject for topics like this.
“Just like humans, flies fed a high-sugar diet show many hallmarks of metabolic disease. For instance, they become fat and insulin resistant,” said Dr. Helena Cochemé, the principal investigator of the study, in a press statement. “Obesity and diabetes are known to increase mortality in humans, and so people always assumed that this was how excess sugar is damaging for survival in flies.”
Turns out, that’s not exactly the case. The researchers focused on the flies’ increased thirst in the presence of more sugar—which is also a symptom of metabolic disorders like diabetes—and found the more water the flies drank, the longer they lived despite negative effects from sugar.
“Water is vital for our health, yet its importance is often overlooked in metabolic studies,” added Dr. Cochemé. “We were surprised that flies fed a high-sugar diet did not show a reduced lifespan, simply by providing them with an extra source of water to drink. Unexpectedly, we found that these flies still exhibited the typical metabolic defects associated with high dietary sugar.”
Studying the flies’ renal systems more closely, the researchers found that excess sugar caused the accumulation of a toxic molecule called uric acid. In flies, and humans, uric acid is the waste product from the breakdown of compounds called purines, which are building blocks in the DNA of all plants and animals. Too much purine breakdown in the blood is a sign of health trouble ranging from arthritis to heart disease, and uric acid is particularly hard on the kidneys, where it can crystallize and cause kidney stones.
By giving the flies more water, the researchers found they could prevent kidney problems and protect the flies against the decreased lifespan associated with a sugar-heavy diet.
That does not mean, however, that drinking more water is a free pass to consume more sugar. Too much excess sugar is unhealthy for more reasons than I can cover here, and our best policy is to avoid eating and drinking it. But this study suggests that when we do consume it, drinking more water may decrease the accumulation of uric acid, which is important for our bodies overall.
Studying the effects of excess sugar in healthy humans, the researchers found parallels with the fly study. “Strikingly, just like flies, we found that dietary sugar intake in humans was associated with worse kidney function and higher purine levels in the blood,” said Professor Christoph Kaleta, co-author of the study. Future research will explore other overlaps between findings from the fly study and effects in humans.
The bottom line: consuming excess sugar is a bad idea and should be avoided, but this study suggests that when we find ourselves eating too much of it—as we’re likely to do given the circumstances—drinking more water can be an important safeguard against some of its effects, not the least of which is the accumulation of toxic waste products in our bodies.
So, keep a thermos full of clean, cold water with you as you move about your home and sip it instead of sugary drinks that contribute to the problem. Plus, water keeps you hydrated and your brain will appreciate that as well.
The study was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.