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(Don’t) Pour Some Sugar on Me: The Bitter Truth about Sugar & Aging of the Skin

Nov 04, 2015 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lisa A. Lewis

If you have a sweet tooth, you know how difficult it can be to resist an extra piece of cake or one more scoop of ice cream. And while the effects of sugar on your waistline are well known, you may not realize that sugar can also have an impact on your skin. Indeed, eating excessive amounts of sugar causes a process called glycation, which leads to aging of the skin.

Glycation occurs when sugar molecules, such as glucose or fructose, attach to proteins, resulting in the formation of damaged compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). This makes the cells less pliable and more susceptible to premature aging. Collagen and elastin, the protein fibers that keep the skin firm and elastic, are the most vulnerable to damage. Both lose elasticity and then become easily fragmented and broken, which causes wrinkles and sagging.

According to F. W. Danby, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, who wrote an article entitled “Nutrition and Aging Skin: Sugar and Glycation” that was published in Clinics in Dermatology, the official journal of the International Academy of Cosmetic Dermatology, glycation is increased in all body tissues when the amount of sugar is elevated and is accelerated by ultraviolet light in the skin. For this reason, Danby strongly stresses the importance of wearing hats and using broad-spectrum “physical” or “mineral” sunscreens that protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

The effect of sugar on aging of the skin is an area of concern that warrants additional research. Hopefully, future studies will yield ways to inhibit the production of AGEs. But, unfortunately, the damage caused by AGEs is currently irreversible.

“The appearance of youth depends on maintenance of youthful, flexible, and repairable collagen fibers,” Danby says. “There is no known (to me) [means] that will selectively remove and then repair the glycated areas, and therein lies the problem: irreversibility. In microscopic slides of sun-damaged but protected skin, you can see fresh pink collagen being made just under the epidermis, covering up the old damaged blue-gray, mushy collagen underneath. The skin will always try to heal itself and is pretty successful given the right conditions.”

The Role of Diet

According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a nutrition advisory panel that helps shape the country’s official dietary guidelines, Americans consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugars a day. Added sugars refer to sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing and don’t include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in milk (lactose) and fruits (fructose). Although sugar has earned a bad reputation, perhaps this assessment is undeserved. After all, sugars are not “bad,” and sugar is a natural part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.

“People should limit sugar because it adds extra calories and delivers zero nutrients,” says Maureen Shackelford, a registered dietician at Anne Arundel Medical Center. “In the current state of an obesity crisis, we need to minimize extra calories and focus on nourishing our bodies with the nutrients they need for us to perform our best—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I think we have forgotten that food is fuel, not exclusively pleasure. So we need to be more mindful of what we choose to eat in an effort to optimize our health.”

In order to limit the amount of sugar you eat, it’s important to read the labels on the foods you buy. Nutrition labels don’t list the amount of added sugars in a product separately, so look at “Sugars” on the “Nutrition Facts” label. This amount includes both added and naturally occurring sugars. It’s also essential to recognize the different names for sugar [see sidebar]. Look for these sugars in foods in which you may not expect them, such as bread, salad dressing, tomato sauce, yogurt, and canned fruit. These products are often sources of “hidden” sugars, so check the labels carefully before purchasing them. In addition, Shackelford recommends avoiding processed foods, eating foods in their natural state, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy, and choosing foods that contain three ingredients or fewer because they are less likely to contain added sugars.

The Importance of Skincare

In addition to limiting your sugar intake, you can protect your skin from the signs of aging by adopting an anti-aging skincare regimen.

“It’s never too late to start a good skincare regimen,” says Emma Lanuti, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist at Annapolis Dermatology Associates. “For most people, their daily regimen should consist of a gentle face wash, a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and a topical retinoid at night.”

Glycation Be Damned

Since the damage caused by glycation is irreversible, prevention is the primary defense against the formation of AGEs. You can protect your skin and maintain a more youthful appearance by:
  • Limiting the amount of sugar you eat
  • Using broad-spectrum sunscreens
  • Adopting an anti-aging skincare regimen

Other Names for Sugar

• Agave syrup
• Brown sugar
• Corn sweetener
• Corn syrup
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Fruit juice concentrate
• Honey
• Invert sugar
• Malt sugar
• Molasses
• Syrup
• Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)