From a health perspective we have been told that fat is the bad guy but now it seems that fat isn't all bad and the new "baddy" is sugar. Not only does sugar consumption in excess convert to fat and contribute to the development of health issues such as obesity, insulin resistance, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes but it also contributes to skin ageing and deeper wrinkles.
The process by which sugar ages the skin is called glycation and occurs when excess sugar in our blood stream randomly reacts with proteins (such as collagen) and DNA. The end result of sugar molecules inappropriately binding to protein molecules or DNA is the creation of AGEs or advanced glycation end products. AGEs in the body lead to cross-linking, which occurs when chemical bridges are formed between proteins, creating a harder, less elastic structure or material. This has implications for internal structures such as the arteries, gut lining and brain, significantly contributing to issues such as atherosclerosis, age-related memory loss, cataracts and diabetic complications. However, it can also cause the structural protein of our skin (the collagen fibres) to lose strength and flexibility leading to less skin elasticity and more lines and sagging.
The production of AGEs is directly proportional to the level of circulating glucose in your blood stream i.e. the higher your blood sugar the greater the rate of glycation and cross-linking.
Keep in mind that sugar isn't the only cause of cross-linking in the body, others including smoking, UV-radiation, by-products of alcohol consumption and excess production of free radicals in the body are also potent inducers of cross-linking and skin ageing. The combination of any of these factors including a high sugar diet will certainly increase any risk.
So what can you do to minimise cross-linking and its effects on your skin? The easiest way is to avoid the triggers:
- Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen including zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to protect from UV damage.
- Avoid smoking
- Reduce your consumption of alcohol
- Increase antioxidant rich foods to maintain your antioxidant defence against free radical production - these are the ones with colour such as fruit, vegetables, and legumes.
- Reduce your intake of refined sugar in all forms including cane sugar, corn syrup and starch rich foods. Packaged cereals, soft drink and lollies are all sugar rich and nutrient poor so are ideal to avoid.
- Topically a nutrient called carnosine has been shown to inhibit protein and DNA cross-linking induced by glucose.
- Alpha lipoic acid is a strong anti-inflammatory. It is a fat-soluble antioxidant, which allows it to penetrate the skin effectively unlike water-soluble ingredients. The antioxidant effects protect the skin cells from free radical damage and reduce inflammation, a key driver in skin ageing.
When it comes to sugar consumption the key message is to cut out or reduce your consumption. While it may be hard to cut sugar out completely, try swapping packaged cereals for homemade muesli, soft drink for mineral water with a twist of lime and lollies for fresh fruit. Your body and skin will love you for it.