Overconsumption of sugars can trigger glycation and early aging

Does Sugar Age You? What You Need to Know About Glycation

Excess sugar is a canny villain. It sweetly enchants us with every comforting bite, delighting our taste buds with a burst of goodness before entering our bloodstream…and then silently wreaks havoc everywhere else. Including our appearance.

Surely, you already know that a steady diet of sugary foods can yield extra pounds on the scale, relegating that favorite pair of jeans to the back of the closet, but did you know high sugar consumption also impacts our skin aging? You read that correctly; too much sugar can speed up the dreaded telltale signs of aging like crinkly eyes, laugh lines, sagging skin and an overall dull complexion. We're not just talking about the obvious culprits either, such as brownies or cookies. A diet heavy in savory starchy foods, like pizza, can not only add extra wobble where we don't want it but also drain the springy and supple structure of our skin cells.

Why? The short answer is glycation, a biochemical process that occurs naturally in our bodies (even now, as you read this). This biological cascade of events has a profound cumulative effect on our cells and leads to the infamous age-related signs visible on our skin.

But don't fret; you don't have to take glycation lying down. The good news is that you can take steps to help slow down this natural (process), while tweaking your lifestyle to support a youthful complexion and overall well-being.

What is glycation?

Glycation, which is also sometimes called "browning," is a normal part of life; you've probably even done it in your kitchen—the caramelized onions that add the savory-sweet taste to your steak are glycated. In short, glycation is a chemical reaction that results in glucose (or sugars) latching onto structural molecules.

In the body, glycation occurs when there's excess sugar in the blood. It triggers a series of biological processes that result in sugars glomming onto proteins, lipids (fat molecules) and even nucleic acids, the building blocks of your DNA. When this happens, it forms advanced glycation end products, aptly shortened to AGEs.  

When AGEs form, the molecule that sugar attaches to is considered glycated—and ultimately damaged. That's because the addition of a sugar molecule changes the structure and function of said molecule (be it a protein, fat or your DNA). For example, glycated collagen becomes rigid and malformed, and those aging-related changes are reflected in our complexion.  

That's not the only damage that AGEs can do to your body, of course—they can have a negative impact on all sorts of cells and bodily functions. But one thing is certain: our dietary habits can be written all over our faces, so to speak; our eating habits can speed up glycation—or slow it down.

What causes glycation?

Glycation is tied in part to the glycemic index, a food classification system that measures how foods, particularly carbohydrates, impact our blood sugar levels. When you take a bite of your cheeseburger, Greek salad or dessert, it's digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a spike in your blood sugar levels (some foods cause a larger spike than others; more on that later). This means blood sugar concentrations increase and circulate throughout the body so that every cell (we have more than 30 trillion cells!) can access nutrients like glucose, amino acids (the building blocks for proteins like collagen), antioxidants, fats, etc. to produce energy and function optimally.

But there's only so much sugar (or glucose) our cells need to produce energy and keep us healthy; any excess sugar in the blood idly circulates throughout the body with two main outcomes:

  1. Glycation

    —Instead of being used to produce energy, excess sugar bumps and bashes against our cells until glycation occurs, compromising the integrity, structure and function of lipids and foundational proteins like collagen and elastin, the two main proteins responsible for the suppleness of our skin.
  2. Fat storage

    —As excess sugars bombard our cells, they travel throughout your body, arrive at your liver, and are eventually stored as fat. Most sugars, however, are transported to and stored in fat cells (adipose tissue).

The constant assault in our cells from excess sugar results in glycation and contributes to increased oxidative stress and inflammation, which, in the end, leaves the cells incapable of functioning correctly. Eventually, affected cells (which make up your tissues and organs) develop different glycation-induced health concerns, such as neurological changes, endothelial dysfunction that affects heart health, and other disorders throughout the body.

How do scientists measure glycation?

Much of what we know about glycation stems from diabetes research, which has revealed that it's possible to assess glycation by measuring skin autofluorescence, because advanced glycation end products (AGEs) or glycated compounds emit light when illuminated in a specific manner. Skin autofluorescence is used as a tool to identify the accumulation of dietary AGEs (which contributes to oxidative stress) and risks for health concerns in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, kidney disease and other metabolic disorders.

What is sugar?

You may think of sugar as the crystal cubes you add to your café con leche, or the velvety taste of chocolate cake, but sugars go beyond coffee and dessert staples. In short, when we say sugars, we're referring to any sweet, soluble carbohydrate. Sugars are building blocks (you may have heard of some like fructose and glucose) that combine to make carbohydrates. When they combine, they form carbohydrates or more complex sugars like starches and fiber—all of which are found in plant foods.

We know, it can get confusing. Carbohydrates get their name from how they are made. We'll get a little "sciency" here. You get carbohydrates when you join a carbon with water (hydrogen and oxygen). You can think of carbohydrates as a large family of molecules made up of carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate)—and sugars, starches and fiber are all members of that family.

Carbohydrates are naturally occurring in different proportions in plant sources. For example, when you eat broccoli, a potato or a peach, you're eating carbohydrates organized differently within those foods. So, broccoli will have more fiber than it does starches or sugars, while a potato has more starch than fiber, and a peach is mainly composed of sugars and fiber.

Our foods' carbohydrate content greatly impacts blood sugar levels. Sugars and starches raise blood sugar levels and sugar more than starches. Fiber doesn't raise blood sugar. As a complex carbohydrate, fiber is tougher to digest, so it doesn't get absorbed into the bloodstream; it, you know, just passes right through you.

You can combine sugars with protein, healthy fats and fiber to slow digestion and keep glucose from entering the bloodstream right away. Pro tip: Add plain Greek yogurt to your overnight oats; have a handful of walnuts with your chocolate. Having morning pancakes? Eat them after you've had hard-boiled eggs or nuts with blueberries (blueberries are rich in fiber and antioxidants).

Sugar, glycation, and aging skin: What's the connection?

The short answer: eating a lot of sugar over many years can damage your skin (and other parts of your body). This is because some of the compounds in our bodies most susceptible to glycation and oxidative stress are the proteins that make up our skin cells, like collagen and elastin.

The longer answer: A large body of research has found that part of the glycation process includes cross linking or a chemical bridge that forms between two or more molecules—in the body, those include proteins, lipids and DNA. The result of this chemical bridge is a re-arrangement of the molecules' structure, leaving them weak, discolored and less flexible. These changes ultimately speed up aging, trigger other health concerns, and can even trigger mutations in our DNA.

How long does it take for sugar to age your skin?

Does that mean that eating dessert tonight will result in an extra wrinkle tomorrow? No; glycation doesn't occur overnight. The effects of AGE accumulation (and the other factors that influence skin aging) become noticeable in your thirties and up; collagen begins to lose its plump and bouncy properties and becomes more susceptible to oxidative stress and inflammation—and perhaps you notice more wrinkles, deeper laugh lines and a less radiant appearance. Your eating patterns and how well you manage blood sugar levels (which can trigger glycation, inflammation, and oxidative stress) can further speed up aging.

Not in a hurry to accelerate the aging process? Changing your eating patterns so that you're favoring lower glycemic index foods to help manage blood sugar levels (even if you don't have type 2 diabetes) can make a difference and even slow things down.

Can you reverse glycation?

Unfortunately, no. To get technical, glycation is a non-enzymatic reaction (a reaction that takes place without enzyme regulation) that occurs in the body (and in nature). Glycation happens in response to high glucose levels in the blood (even from eating glycated foods), impacting structural proteins like collagen, triggering oxidative stress and inflammation, and aging our skin.

That being said, there are anti-glycation "hacks" that can help slow it down and promote healthy skin and a youthful appearance.

How to prevent glycation: 8 anti-aging hacks

Now that you understand the connection between sugar, glycation and aging, let's go over how you can help slow down this process. Here are eight lifestyle changes to help you get started.

(Important note: If you have type 2 diabetes, these hacks should complement any medications you're taking, not replace them; take your prescriptions faithfully to manage your condition.)

1. Limit processed sugars

This one, by now, should be obvious. Processed and refined sugars like baked goods, caramelized (or glycated) foods and fast foods, are quickly metabolized as glucose in the body, significantly impacting your blood sugar (and probably contributing to AGE accumulation and skin autofluorescence). Limit the consumption of these foods to once a month or less. Also keep your eye out for healthy sugar alternatives and foods that score lower on the glycemic index (and don't raise blood sugar levels).

2. Get moving after a meal

Your cells use glucose to produce energy. And your skeletal muscles, the ones you move voluntarily, such as your arms, legs and core, take up 80 percent of the glucose you consume. So, you can help your body fight glycation mediated effects by using your muscles after you eat. The best part? It doesn't have to be a full-blown exercise routine—all body movement counts, so leisure walks, vacuuming and other house chores, dancing, or even washing your car, can help you reduce the impact of dietary AGES.

3. Choose complex carbohydrates

Not all carbs are bad when it comes to blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates or wholefood carbohydrates (your health staples like whole grains, brown rice, fruits and starchy vegetables) will have a lower impact on your blood sugar levels than processed sugars and simple carbohydrates like white rice and bread. Pro tip: Adding anti-glycation nutrients like benfotiamine, carnosine, luteolin, curcumin, taurine and R-lipoic acid can help combat sugar's negative effect on your skin (and the rest of you).

4. Choose whole fruits over fruit juices

Food brands promote orange juice (and other fruit juices) as "healthy." And this is partially true: compared to, say, soda pop, fruit juices are a healthier beverage. But once your body metabolizes those fruity drinks—be it mango or pineapple juice—to your cells, they are just extra glucose and fructose. This is because fruits are composed of sugars (fructose and glucose) and fiber (more complex carbohydrates), and of course vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. When you juice your fruit (or veggie for that matter), that process strips the fiber (and most nutrients) and only the sugars make it to the juicy goodness. If you really enjoy juices, have them after your meal.

Pro tip: Add more nutrition to your fruit juices with antioxidants like flavonoids and polyphenols (plant compounds), or sprinkle some cinnamon, which is rich in antioxidants.

5. Keep blood sugar levels in check

When you think of monitoring blood sugar levels, perhaps your mind immediately goes to type I and type 2 diabetes, but as we've seen so far, blood sugar levels should matter to all of us, including those of us without a type 2 diabetes diagnosis! The best way to monitor blood sugar levels is with a glucose monitor, but you don't need one to do a better job managing your blood sugar levels. Eating healthy, unprocessed foods and getting exercise are key to blood sugar management, after all. (If you are measuring your levels, keep in mind that it's normal for our blood sugar concentrations to fluctuate depending on the foods we eat and how much we move.)

6. Get enough protein

When possible, add protein to your meals, even your snacks. Why? Remember how some foods impact your glycemic index more than others? Well, proteins don't have a huge impact on blood sugar levels. That's because they are large complex molecules that get broken down to amino acids (not sugars), and take much longer to digest. (And besides, protein is good for you! Your body uses proteins for muscles, and even your skin, hair and nails—we're looking at you, collagen.)

7. Bake your own desserts

This one is for those of us with a sweet tooth. Life's too short not to enjoy a dessert or a sweet treat now and then. Now, it's important to remember that anything that tastes sweet can impact blood sugar levels. But we can help manage sugar levels in the blood by choosing foods (and ingredients) that have a lower impact on our blood sugar levels.

That's why we're big fans of baking at home rather than buying store-bought. When you make homemade goods, you will know every ingredient in your brownie, cookie, pastelito, or any other treat you make at home. You can also find substitutes for ingredients that you know negatively impact your body and make you bloated or trigger inflammation. For example, you can choose gluten-free flour and monk fruit as a sweetener instead of white sugar. Healthier swaps for sweets can have a reduced impact on your blood sugar levels.

You can also amp up the nutrition of your sweet treats by mixing in nutrients like protein powder or collagen to add protein; ghee, avocados and nuts for healthy fats; or blueberries or cinnamon for a splash of antioxidants. Pro tip: Always read the label before you buy food products. Choose products with minimal to no added sugars, sweeteners, or flavors.

8. Watch out for AGEs in glycated foods

When we cook (or brown) our food, we are glycating it (or creating AGEs formation) because the heat changes the molecular structure of our foods. Yes, that's correct; how we cook our food matters. That's because cooking foods in high heat increases the AGEs content. Processed and refined foods have high levels of AGEs, but so do fried, grilled and roasted foods. Does this mean you can't enjoy your grilled steak and roasted potatoes? No. And we're not recommending raw foods either. You can still enjoy these foods (and the cooking process if you like to cook), but do so in moderation. Alternatives to high heat? You can steam, boil, stew, sauté, or stir-fry your foods (a slow cooker also works); doing so reduces the amount of heat and adds moisture while you cook.

Pro tip: Marinating your foods in olive oil, cider vinegar (not balsamic), garlic, mustard, lemon juice and dry wines can also help.

Should I never eat sugar again?

Our main takeaway is to be mindful of the foods we eat and the effect they have on our bodies. But swearing off sweets and other foods you enjoy is not the answer. Glucose (or sugar) is not the villain. Every cell in our bodies needs it to produce energy—and for those of us with a sweet tooth, sporadically enjoying dessert does the soul good.

The problem arises when we overindulge in processed and refined foods, baked goods, sweets, or even overeat healthy staples, such as whole grains, fruits, and starchy foods. These foods cause a significant spike in our glycemic index and raise blood sugar levels, triggering glycation with its dreaded aging of our skin, as well as oxidative stress. And let's not forget that there are other, more serious health concerns that can be sugar induced, like inflammation, dementia, cardiovascular health (like endothelial dysfunction), type 2 diabetes mellitus, and much more.

The good news is that you can help your body manage blood sugar levels, reducing the skin aging effects of sugar, promoting healthy aging in skin and immune cells and whole-body health. And, you can do it while enjoying a tasty dessert, every now and then.

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.