Do Not Snort Sugar: How Studies Can Be Misinterpreted

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Doing this is not going to be good for your lungs. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The list of things that you should not snort is very long. The list includes condoms, chocolate, bicycle parts, and Avengers figurines. It also includes sugar.

But somehow headlines such as “Snorting sugar could help fight lung disease, study says” in the New York Post and “Study: Snorting Sugar Could Help Ward Off Lung Disease,” have appeared over the past week. Huh? Which study said that about snorting sugar?

It appears that these headlines were referring to a study published in the journal Nature Immunology entitled, “The lung environment controls alveolar macrophage metabolism and responsiveness in type 2 inflammation.” Is that just a complicated way of saying, “snorting sugar can help fight lung disease”? Uh, no.

Let’s take a closer look at the study. First of all, the study was on mice, who are different from humans. Mice don’t typically wear underwear and are rarely on social media.

Secondly, the study did not have mice snort sugar. No, it wasn’t because the researchers couldn’t find small enough straws for the mice to hold. Rather, the study focused on cells called macrophages that can be found in different parts of the body including the lungs. Macrophages are important defenders of the body, detecting, swallowing, and destroying bacteria and other microbes that invade the body as well as showing parts of these invaders to other immune system cells to trigger more of an immune reaction.

Thirdly, the study did not have the macrophages snort sugar. Macrophages are single cells that do not have noses. Instead, the study found that macrophages in the alveoli (which are little air sacs in the lungs) of a mouse were less responsive to interleukin 4 than macrophages in other parts of the mouse’s body. Interleukin 4, not to be confused with Mambo number 5, is a substance that can help trigger steps that your immune system uses to defend the body, including getting macrophages going. It seemed like these macrophages were less able to take up and use glucose (which is a type of sugar) when they were sitting in the alveoli. Cells like macrophages use glucose as an energy source. 

Fourth of all, the main conclusion from this study is that perhaps helping these alveoli macrophages get, take up, and use more glucose may help them better defend the lungs. The researchers did note that glucose levels in the alveoli tend to be a lot lower than in blood. This study did not prove that glucose is the key and only suggested it as a possibility.

Finally, the study’s senior author Andrew S. MacDonald, PhD, who is a Professor at the University of Manchester, hypothesized that in the future, finding a way to increase the alveolar macrophages’ use of glucose could play a role in treating certain kinds of lung disease. A University of Manchester press release quoted MacDonald as saying, “it is possible that provision of glucose could increase inflammation to help protect against some lung infections. It’s reasonable to suggest that short term inhalation therapy might one day work as such a treatment.” This is still speculation as going from mice to men is a big leap. Again, nothing in this study proves that snorting sugar will ward off lung disease.

Folks, unless you are a giant macrophage living in the enormous alveoli of a frighteningly gigantic mouse, you should not snort sugar. Even if you were such a giant macrophage, you would be a giant cell with no arms or nose. Plus, the study in Nature Immunology did not necessarily show everything that might happen if you got more sugar.

Snorting sugar can cause you real harm. It can cause irritation and damage to everything that air may touch as it travels from your nostrils through your nasal cavity through your windpipe and bronchi and down to your lungs. Sugar can change the chemical balances in all these locations and thus make you more susceptible to infections and other damage.

The risk of snorting sugar is real. I previously wrote in Forbes about people snorting powdered chocolate. Several years ago, kids snorting crushed up candy called Smarties made headlines in the USA Today and other media outlets. Here’s a news report from 2014 on snorting Smarties:

Snorting candy is not very smartie. Unfortunately, though, if something can go up an orifice, there is decent chance that someone somewhere will try it. Therefore, it is important what you tell people.

The study in Nature Immunology should not change how you view snorting sugar. It remains a risky thing to do. Yes, maybe, possibly, potentially, some day glucose may maybe, possibly, potentially, be part of some possible, potential therapy for certain kinds of lung disease. But this possibility is still in its very early days, and there is a huge difference between glucose being part of a treatment and directly snorting sugar. 

These days in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., there can be unhealthy pressure to make scientific studies seem more immediately relevant. There has been less and less funding, patience, and tolerance for science in general, but especially science for the sake of science and studies that simply explore possibilities.

This is unfortunate, because real science takes time. Many of the greatest advances in science were actually accidents or unexpected results from years of tinkering. Portrayals of fictional scientists like Tony Stark have not helped. Real scientists don’t just decide that they are going to solve a problem, go in to a lab with all kinds of technology sitting around unused, work by themselves, and then emerge a few days later with a solution. Most real scientists also don’t fly around in an Iron Man suit.

Instead, it frequently takes many years to go from discovering something that occurs in cells to becoming a real treatment for humans. In fact, often, promising ideas hit dead ends. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the science was a waste.

Yes, a headline with the words “alveolar macrophages”, “glycolysis”, and “interleukin 4” may not get much attention unless perhaps the word “Kardashian” is included as well. But just because a scientific study doesn’t get headlines, doesn’t mean that it is not important. The reverse is true as well.

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