Sugar has gotten a bad reputation, but for good reason.  After all is the major contributor to obesity and diabetes. But not all sugar is created equal.  All sugar is made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen but these components can be arranged in many different ways, creating a variety of types of sugar.

Common types of sugar are glucose which is easily and quickly converted to energy by all cells in the body and fructose which is only taken up by liver cells and immediately converted into fat.  Now scientists have found another type of naturally occurring sugar called trehalose which may actually help prevent liver disease.

Consuming too much fructose can cause fat to build up inside your liver cells much like too much alcohol can.  This non-alcoholic version of fatty liver disease (NALFD) is relatively harmless with the majority of those affected experiencing little or no symptoms.  But it can progress to hepatitis, cirrhosis and even liver cancer.

NALFD has become a public health issue affecting over one billion people worldwide and upto 80% of the obese population.  It is the cause of over 1 in 10 liver transplants and there is no drug available that will reverse the buildup of fat in liver cells.

Reversing the Fatty Build-up

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis wanted to see if liver cells could be tricked into thinking that they were short of energy and so would eat their own internal fats, a process called autophagy. Recently, research has been showing that this type of mechanism could reverse the buildup of these fatty deposits.

To accomplish this cell deception, the researchers tried trehalose sugar which is found in shiitake and oyster mushrooms.  They found that shiitake blocked the uptake of glucose into the liver cells.  Then the liver cells displayed the features of autophagy, proving that the liver cells were duped into thinking they were starving.

Then, the scientist tested it in mice.  They fed mice a high fructose diet for 10 days so they would develop fatty livers.  Then they added 3% trehalose to the mice’s drinking water.  This reduced the blood levels of fat and cholesterol and prevented accumulation of liver fat.

The researchers suggested that trehalose may have use as a novel “nutraceutical” by triggering autophagy.

Unknown side effects

Before we start replacing all of our sugar with trehalose we need to clarify and understand the significance of the study and note that no longer term effects were studied by the intake of such high amounts of this sugar.

The way trehalose works, is similar to how diabetes causes higher blood sugar levels, potentially dangerous.  Also our intestines have an enzyme called trehalase which converts trehalose into glucose for our cells to use.  This means it would take a substantial amount of the sugar to get past these enzymes and into the liver.  The equivalent dose in humans of the mice study would be adding an additional 1,000 calories a day!  This would probably cause so other side effects.

While direct high-dosage of trehalose seems unlikely as a treatment option, it does give us new ways at looking how we can combat fatty-liver diseases.