Myths & Truths About Sugar In Herbal Preparations Causing Immune System Depression

Myths & Truths About Sugar In Herbal Preparations Causing Immune System Depression | Growing Up Herbal | Today I'm exploring if using sugar in herbal preparations really depresses the immune system.

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.
  1. Lindsey says:

    I loved this post! Great information! Thank you for breaking it down and making it so easy to understand.

  2. Nisa says:

    Hi Megan, Loved the info in this article. Makes sense when you break it all down like that! I do have one bone to pick though. When you say, “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”. Why the burgers? I’m guessing you mean because of the bun? I tend to avoid most carbs and sugar so eat my burgers with all the trimmings but sans the bun. 😉

    • Meagan says:

      Yes Nisa… it’s the buns. As you know, most buns are made from white flour so they break down into sugar faster. My family doesn’t avoid carbs all that much, but we do try to always eat wheat or multi-grain buns so the the sugar break down is slower and we don’t get that blood sugar spike. Learning how foods work in the body is never-ending… I’m not sure I’ll ever really get down pat, but I do try. If we eat burgers we try to have sides that aren’t so high in carbs to help keep some balance although I do love a good burger and fries every once in a while! 😉 Thanks for your comment!

  3. megan says:

    I’ve always wondered this!! I feel so happy to actually know the answer! Thank you so much, I love your site but this article is particular really hit home for me.

  4. Leesa C says:

    This was really great info! Thanks! I didn’t know this and plan to pass the article along; thanks for doing the research and passing it along to us in an easily understood manner! 🙂

  5. Jessica Cowan says:

    Thank you Meagan for this great post. It was very informative and reassuring.

  6. David says:

    Meagan, thanks for this article about how vitamin C works. I’ve always wondered about that process–and also noticed I get sicker, quicker with eating sugar.
    I do have one thought though: the study said 20 teaspoons of sugar will suppress your immune system, but did he test less than 20 teaspoons? If not, it’s possible that 10 or even 5 or 1 teaspoon could still negatively affect your immune system.
    It might still be fine to have a teaspoon of sugar with the medicine, but I would guess that the vitamin C medicine would work better without any sugar to make those phagocytes a little stronger rather than weaker.

    • Meagan says:

      Great questions David. I’m not sure if other amounts of sugar were tested… my guess is that they were as the point of the study was to figure out how many grams of sugar it would take to concentrate the blood enough so that the phagocytes would bind with a larger percentage of sugar than vitamin c. The results were 75-100 grams so that’s anywhere from 15-20 teaspoons of sugar. It seems that any less than that isn’t enough to concentrate the blood and cause a depression in the immune system. I’m in no way saying eating sugar when you’re sick is okay because it’s definitely best to stay away from it if at all possible. My goal was to figure out if the small amount of sugar you get from herbal remedies was enough to be bad for the body and the immune system. When it comes to adults, I think sugar can probably be avoided all together when sick, but it’s definitely helpful to have sweeter tasting medicines (especially natural ones) for kids. Glycerin is always a great substitute for honey if you do want to avoid sugar though as it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Lisa says:

    Hi Meagan! I figured that my daily tablespoon of honey in my tea everyday was a good thing. This was a great post. Thanks!

  8. Jamie says:

    Super helpful information! I was wondering though, I’ve been taking courses at Vintage Remedies and they recommend making all herbal syrups with organic sugar (not honey). I haven’t made any of these recipes yet because I wasn’t too thrilled about the sugar. Do you think it would be the same/worse as using honey?

    • Meagan says:

      That’s really interesting Jamie! I’d be curious to know why that is. I personally prefer to use honey because of all the health benefits it offers. The only time I’d use sugar were if I needed something for a child under 1 year or if I needed to save money. Raw honey is pricy! Let me know what you find out about the sugar vs. honey thing with VR. Thanks!

  9. SVJ says:

    I’m fairly new to your website, so sorry if this is answered in one of your other articles (in which case maybe someone can provide me the link) – but why do the herbal remedies have to be made with any sugar (whether it be honey, maple syrup or otherwise)? Is it merely a taste thing or is there something related to being able to properly formulate the remedy that requires a sugar be used?


    • Meagan says:

      From my understanding it’s for taste. Of course sometimes honey is used for antibacterial properties with wounds, but most times it’s simply for taste. And you’re right, you don’t have to make and use sweet herbal preparations… there are plenty of other options. It’s just that it can help to get kids to take it, and I wanted to know if giving them frequent doses of an herbal syrup was actually harming their immune system when my goal was to help them. Hope that answers your question! Maybe someone else has some input as well.

  10. anne says:


    That was such an interesting piece, thanks so much! I’ve always wondered about using syrups medicinally in light of the apparent paradox of immune suppression with sugar. Mystery solved thanks to you 🙂

    Best wishes,


  11. nina says:

    Very useful article, thank you! I am wondering about the complex carbohydrate solution in the original study not having a depressive effect on the immune system – as we know from all the gut health studies, too many complex carbohydrates can stress the intestines, a key player in our immune system. The depressive effect might just take longer to appear than what the study tested for, or have an overall effect that was not possible to take into account. I have found that low carb, and in fact generally reducing food intake during illness is very supportive. Again, thanks a lot for this food for thought!

    • Meagan says:

      I totally agree that decreasing food intake during illness is helpful. This post is mainly about whether you’re doing the body a disservice by giving it minimal sugars found in herbal preparations which are created to promote healing. In my mind you’re not.

      I also agree that minimizing carbs can be a good thing seeing as how most people eat way too many at once causing the blood sugar to spike. It does seem that if you eat carbs with sufficient amounts of healthy fats and protein, it minimizes that blood sugar spike. So to me, moderation is what I’m aiming for as far as balancing macronutrients in our meals goes.

      As for the study… I think they were saying that complex carbs with sugars doesn’t spike the blood sugar like simple carbs will. It gives more energy over a longer period of time. I’ve not read too many gut health studies as that’s not something we’ve struggled with in my family, but I wonder if those studies are looking at how complex carbs effect those with gut issues, not people with healthy guts. I’m not a carb hater, and I don’t think complex carbs are bad for a healthy person. If you have gut issues or sensitivities, that’s another story.

      Hope that helps you see where I’m coming from. Again, it’s a balance and it’s different for everyone. However, I don’t think sweeteners in herbal preparations are going to depress the immune system.

  12. Monica says:

    I never thought of sweetner in our elderberry syrup to depress our immune system.. in fact it helps when a person is sick, especially if you use the right sweetener though.. in fact I thought it gave the depress immune systems a booth to fight the bad bacteria..each person to their own intake..
    I made plain elderberry tincture for the benefit of adding to teas that is already sweeten with stevia. I was looking for a quick way to tackle sickness until I get unltimate elderberry syrup made. Yes I could freeze it, but I got only so much room in the freezer and takes time to thaw out.. I love the smell of ultimates elderberry syrup throughout my house, the smell is so awesome!

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