Think your diet doesn’t affect your skin? Think again. (Especially if you have a sweet tooth.)
You're all too aware that if you indulge too often in those cakes, pies, and other sweets, you can expect some extra pounds to show up on the scale.
Turns out you may also expect a few more wrinkles to show up on your skin.
It’s true! Researchers have found over the years that excess sugar in the bloodstream can encourage a process called “glycation,” which in turn, ages the skin.
We have the scoop on glycation, and what you can do to keep your skin looking young without always having to deprive yourself.
What is Glycation?
Usually, when you eat food, the body breaks down carbohydrates into sugars like glucose and fructose. It then uses these sugars to fuel everything you do. Sometimes, however—particularly as we age, and when we consume too many sugary or high-glycemic foods—these sugars react with proteins and fats in an abnormal way, producing harmful molecules called “advanced glycation endproducts (conveniently acronymned: AGEs).” This process is called “glycation.”
The more AGEs we have in our bodies, the more we age. Scientists have discovered this through study of diabetics. The key here is blood sugar—the higher the level of glucose in the blood, the more AGEs. Diabetics have the most difficult time of anyone controlling their blood sugar. Scientists have found that as a result, they tend to age faster than those without high blood sugar.
A 2001 study, for example, noted that AGEs cause “the complications of diabetes and aging,” with the AGEs particularly affecting things like collagen (which gives skin its firmness) and elastin (which helps skin bounce back after being stretched).
A 2003 study also noted that AGEs formed “crosslinks” between proteins, changing their structure and function so much that they caused things like retinopathy, nerve pain, atherosclerosis, and more.
Others Can See the Effects of Glycation
In 2001, while some researchers were looking into how AGEs cause disease, others were looking into how they affect human skin. The British Journal of Dermatology reported that after the age of 35, glycation in the skin increases and continues to do so as we get older. Worse—when we’re exposed to UV rays, it accelerates glycation, further aging the skin.
Scientists exposed glycated skin cells to UV rays, and found that the formation of AGEs increased. “These results confirmed a marked increase of AGEs during intrinsic ageing in normal human skin,” the researchers wrote, “and also suggest that glycation is enhanced in photoaged skin.”
A later 2011 study found similar results, with researchers reporting that exposure to UV rays “drastically intensifies AGE accumulation.” They added that AGEs “modify skin collagen by reducing skin elasticity, and one result is wrinkle formation.”
Other effects of AGE formation include:
- Age spots
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Hardness of skin
- Dull skin
- Uneven skin tone
- Sagging and bagging
- Degradation of collagen
It was a 2013 study that really brought it home. Researchers tested the blood sugar levels in about 600 participants—men and women aged between 50 and 70. Then they showed pictures of the participants to another group of people who had never seen them before. They asked this new group to guess the age of the people in the photographs.
The results: those with higher blood sugar levels were rated as older than those with lower levels. For every 1 mm/liter increase in blood sugar, the perceived age was increased by five months! The researchers noted that even among non-diabetic participants, “higher glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age.”
How to Reduce AGEs & Delay the Aging Process
Now we know that the more glucose we have in our bloodstream, the more likely we are to be producing AGEs and aging our skin. What can we do about it?
Fortunately, there’s a lot that we can do! Here are ten tips to help you keep your skin looking smooth and glowing even as you get older.
- Control blood sugar levels: If you’re diabetic, you already know this is key to your overall health, but now you know it can also be an anti-aging technique. Even if you’re not diabetic, though, blood sugar spikes can affect the condition of your skin. Try to maintain a steady level. How can you tell? By the energy you feel. Fuel your body with low-glycemic foods and eat every three to four hours.
- Cut back on sugary items: Next time you feel a craving for that powdered donut, look in the mirror. Is it worth new wrinkles? This may help you choose a piece of fruit or cup of unsweetened yogurt instead!
- Choose low-glycemic foods: It’s not just sweets that increase blood sugar. Remember that many foods, like white bread, white rice, white potatoes, and similar items break down quickly in the body, spiking blood sugar levels. These are foods that rate high on the glycemic index. Choose foods on the lower end—they take more time to break down, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you satisfied. Look for nuts and seeds; lean meats; eggs; tofu; most vegetables; healthy grains like barley, quinoa and rolled oats; yogurt; and low-glycemic fruits like berries, plums, peaches and cantaloupe. For more low-glycemic foods, see this handy chart.
- Watch the barbeque: Barbequing, searing, and broiling food can actually create AGEs in the food—before you even eat it! Whenever you see that blackened meat look, you’re looking at AGEs. If you eat them, you’re adding to what’s already in your body. Consider enjoying food not so well done, and cook meats low and slow.
- Protect your skin: UV exposure increases the formation of AGEs. Protect your skin from the sun, always! Try zinc oxide. Remember that glycation affects all of your skin, not just your face, so protect hands, neck, arms, and legs, too, whenever they’re exposed.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Research has found that excessive weight or waist size can increase the formation of AGEs.
- Lift a few weights: Muscles consume glucose, so the more muscle you have, the more glucose your body will take up. As we age, we naturally lose muscle. Reduction in muscle mass can increase blood sugar levels, leading to increased AGEs. Regular weight training can help counteract this affect.
- Watch the alcohol intake: Researchers have found that alcohol enhances glycation stress.
- Boost your antioxidant intake: All fruits and veggies, as well as things like dark chocolate and tea, have powerful antioxidants that help protect cells from glycation. Getting a regular supply of these in your diet helps to save your skin from the effects of AGEs.
- Consider a vitamin B supplement: Studies have found that vitamins B1 and B6 help inhibit the formation of AGEs. Another promising compound that protects against AGE formation is carnosine.
Ulrich P, Cerami A, “Protein glycation, diabetes, and aging,” Recent Prog Horm Res, 2001; 56: 1-21, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11237208.
Melpomeni Peppa, et al., “Glucose, Advanced Glycation End Products, and Diabetes Complications: What is New and What Works,” Clinical Diabetes, October 2003; 21(4): 186-187, http://clinical.diabetesjournals.org/content/21/4/186.full.
Jeanmaire C., et al., “Glycation during human dermal intrinsic and actinic ageing: an in vivo and in vitro model study,” Br J Dermatol. July 2001; 145(1):10-8, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11453901.
Masamitsu Ichihashi, et al., “Glycation Stress and Photo-Aging in Skin,” Anti-Aging Medicine, June 13, 2011; 8(3):23-29, http://www.anti-aging.gr.jp/english/pdf/2011/8(3)2329en.pdf.
Lucy Elkins, “How giving up sugar can take 20 years off your looks,” Daily Mail, April 4, 2012,http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2125217/How-giving-sugar-20-years-looks.html.
Raymond Noordam, et al., “High serum glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age,” AGE, February 2013; 35(1):189-195, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11357-011-9339-9.