Do you suffer from “sugar sag?”
As the years begin to add up, our skin can start to give away our age. And we spend incredible amounts of money on products and treatments to help reduce the visible signs of aging, such as wrinkled and sagging skin.
You may not realize, however, that one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal for great skin is your diet.
Of course, there are a number of foods and nutrients that can help you to protect your skin against the ravages of time, including salmon and other fatty fish, nuts, avocados and colorful antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies.
Unfortunately, there’s one ingredient in your diet that could be undermining all of your other efforts to live healthy: sugar!
Recent studies show that sugar not only adds to your waistline, but can cause “sugar sag” – premature and unfortunate wrinkling and sagging of your skin.
But how? Let’s look first at the process called glycation and how it impacts that aging of your skin.
The link between AGE and aging
To understand how sugar ages your skin and causes “sugar sag,” you first have to understand what happens when you eat sugar.
Any time you have a high-sugar or high-glycemic food (anything from a cupcake to a piece of fruit to a piece of bread), your body converts these food sugars into glucose. And glucose in turn raises your body’s insulin levels. The more refined the sugar, such as corn syrup or white bread, the bigger the spike.
This digested sugar attaches itself to proteins in a process called glycation to create new chemicals in your body known as advanced glycation end products, perhaps ironically known as AGEs.
The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs your body develops. And as these AGEs begin to pile up, they damage surrounding tissues. The most vulnerable tissues they attack? Collagen and elastin.
Collagen and elastin are the components of your skin that keep it elastic and resilient. If collagen and elastin are damaged by AGEs, they lose their resiliency and spring, causing the skin to wrinkle and become slack. Thus the “sugar sag.”
The study of AGEs first emerged in research related to diabetes – in fact, diabetics can have up to 50 times the level of AGEs in the skin compared to those without. Which can go a long way in explaining how those with the disease tend to suffer more from age-related skin changes.
New research has expanded beyond diabetes to understand the ways in which AGEs make us look older.
The newest “sugar sag” research review
One large review of the research on AGEs and aging skin was published in 2015, and the results were conclusive – glycation plays a critical role in skin aging.
Your skin ages two ways – from internal factors, such as changes in collagen levels and the structure of the skin, and from external factors, including UV radiation from the sun.
Unfortunately, high AGE levels due to poor diet damage the skin from the inside out and can be created from the outside in. As mentioned above, AGEs damage collagen and elastin, leading to saggier, less resilient skin. And high levels of sugar in your diet boost AGE levels.
However, this research also revealed that AGEs are not only created by diet, but they’re also created or “activated” by UV exposure, creating a “vicious cycle” of AGE creation and skin damage from both directions, internally and externally.
An additional review, published in 2012, concurred that ample evidence exists to show the role that AGEs play in skin aging. They point to a few key dietary interventions with promise, with an emphasis on the need for future human studies on how nutrition may help to counteract the effect of accumulated AGEs.
High blood sugar makes you lookolder than you are
Not only are AGEs slowly impacting your skin, they’re also making you look older than your calendar years! One fascinating study, from 2013, found that long-term exposure to high levels of glucose makes people look older than they really are.
This study was the first to find a relationship between individuals’ blood sugar levels and their perceived facial age. The research team analyzed the non-fasting blood sugar levels of more than 600 men and women in the Netherlands, who were also photographed.
Next, they gathered feedback from 60 independent “judges” to determine how old the subjects looked. Researchers were then able to compare the test subjects’ actual age to their socially perceived age.
The research team found that people with high blood sugar levels consistently looked older than those with lower blood sugar levels. In fact, for every unit increase in blood sugar, they saw a comparative increase in age.
In addition, they found that adults with diabetes, who’ve experienced a longer exposure to the effects of high blood sugar (and higher AGE levels), looked older than adults without diabetes, even taking into account external factors that can increase skin aging, including sun exposure, overall weight and smoking.
Diana van Heemst, one of the study’s authors, notes: “The results from this study further underscore how important regulation of blood glucose levels is for well-being and health in advanced middle age. The associated benefit of looking younger might provide an extra motivation to bring about healthy lifestyle changes in 50-to-70 year olds.”
David Gunn, co-author, adds: “This is the first time that a relationship between high blood sugar levels and facial ageing has been identified. While there’s an extensive body of research which shows that consistently high levels of glucose in people’s blood stream is bad for their health, this study suggests that it's also not going to help them keep a youthful appearance.”
Early research points to antioxidants for protection against glycation
According to the comprehensive reviews, there’s an abundance of research that not only shows the damage AGEs can have on your youthful appearance, but also some insights into possible dietary changes that may slow aging due to AGEs.
Suggested dietary changes include first and foremost limiting dietary sugar by understanding the glycemic index, the scale which determines how quickly blood sugar levels rise after ingesting particular foods.
Early studies also suggest that you need plenty of powerful antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, slower, water-based cooking methods (such as steaming) instead of grilling, frying or roasting also protect from AGEs that come directly from your diet (as opposed to being created in your body).
Additional research also indicates that nutritional supports such as green, tea, vitamin C, vitamin E, blueberry extract and various herbs and spices (ginger, cinnamon, cloves, marjoram, rosemary and tarragon) may all help to protect the skin by inhibiting the glycation that creates AGEs.
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Gkogkolou P, Böhm M. “Advanced glycation end products: Key players in skin aging?” Dermatoendocrinol. 2012 Jul 1;4(3):259-70. doi: 10.4161/derm.22028. PubMed PMID: 23467327; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3583887.
Janovska J, Babikovs S, Kisis J, Voicehovska J, Kasparane L, Dorizas AS. “Glycation and ageing: measurement and treatment.” Prime Journal. 17 March 2016.
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Noordam R, Gunn DA, Tomlin CC, Maier AB, Mooijaart SP, Slagboom PE, Westendorp RG, de Craen AJ, van Heemst D; Leiden Longevity Study Group. “High serum glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age.” Age (Dordr). 2013 Feb;35(1):189-95.