Sugary drinks link to blood vessel damage and heart disease

Consuming just one sugary drink can trigger harmful functional changes in arteries and increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and early death.

Research from the Australian Catholic University and Avignon Université found drinking a small quantity of sugar-laden drink potentially exposed blood vessels to damage in healthy people - well before obesity or diabetes develops.

Study leader, Jordan Loader, a PhD graduate from ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research and Avignon Université, said the research highlighted how early blood vessels could be damaged by ongoing poor lifestyle choices.

“Sugary drinks include everything from soft drinks, sports drinks and even fruit juices - that’s actually a really important consideration that drinks, which are advertised as healthy, are just as loaded with sugar as a soft drink,” Dr Loader said.

“Our research indicates that significant damage to your heart may have already happened when you are still clinically healthy, or appear to be physically healthy, long before the onset of any overt disease.

“Our systematic review of previous studies demonstrated that blood vessel dysfunction is chronic in people who are already overweight, obese or have type 2 diabetes. We are seeing these changes may occur in healthy people, which is worrying considering its significant role in cardiovascular disease.”

Dr Loader said the consumption of one 600ml sugary drink, containing about 74 grams of sugar, increased oxidative stress throughout the blood vessel network, inducing blood vessel dysfunction and heightening the risk of vessel damage, particularly within the heart.

“The harmful effects of a single load of excess sugar may initially be temporary in a healthy person, maybe only lasting a few hours, but combined with our sugar-rich, high-fat, frequent-consumption western diet it can simulate the chronic oxidative state of someone who has obesity or type 2 diabetes, putting blood vessels at risk of damage for most of the day,” he said.

“This means temporary vascular dysfunction may become chronic well before the presentation of visible warning signs of poor health, like obesity.”

Blood vessel dysfunction is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. It also plays a role in the development of complications in the skin, eyes, kidneys and brain.

“When blood vessels are in dysfunction, they can’t widen appropriately to handle the extra force of the blood when your heart beats harder in everyday situations; for example, when you are under stress,” Dr Loader said.

“Without the capacity to widen normally, the blood vessels become prone to damage and lesions can form, which is where fatty deposits lodge to eventually build up over time, potentially causing a full blockage of an artery; an event commonly known as a heart attack.”

While researchers used sugary drinks as an example, Dr Loader said excess sugar from other sources may have similar harmful effects.

Obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia.

Dr Loader was this week presented with ACU’S Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence in Doctoral Training for his ground-breaking research on this body of work. He worked in collaboration with Associate Professor Guillaume Walther at Avignon Université and Dr Matthieu Roustit at the Université Grenoble Alpes. The studies were published in Obesity Reviews and Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

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