How Sugar Ages Our Skin

One of the things I learnt early in the piece is that too much sugar is not good for us. When we published Lifestyle (our women’s health and beauty magazine back in the 1990s and early 2000s) we would often write about the damaging effects of sugar and refined carbs on our bodies in terms of not only weight gain, our teeth and insulin resistance but also skin problems such as acne, fatigue, heart disease, joint health and so on. The extent to which diets high in sugar and refined carbs would contribute to skin ageing, however, was often highly speculative.

Within the past decade, scientists have finally concluded that sugar also affects how our skin ages. In a collaborative effort between Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, and Unilever in the UK back in 2011, scientists discovered a direct link between the amount of sugar circulating in our blood and how old we look. What sweet sorrow, to finally have this confirmed.

The researchers measured the blood sugar levels of 600 men and women aged between 50 and 70. They then showed photographs of these people to a board of 60 independent assessors and found that those with higher blood sugar looked older than those with lower blood sugar. In fact for every 1mm/litre increase in blood sugar, the perceived age of that person rose by five months.

And if you want to dismiss this cruel twist with some sweet talk about other mitigating factors, think again. Senior scientist at Unilever, Dr David Gunn who was involved in conducting the trial assures us that, ‘We took into account other factors such as whether or not that person smoked and yet still the effects were clear — the higher the blood glucose, the older the person looked,’

It was clear, a diet high in sugar is a disaster for the face.


The problem with sugar is that it makes the skin lose the plump, elastic qualities that underlie a more youthful appearance. The technical term for the process by which this occurs is called ‘glycation’ whereby sugar attaches itself to any protein in the body and produces harmful molecules called ‘advanced glycation end products’ (ironically often called AGEs). These AGEs in turn deactivate you body’s natural antioxidant enzymes.

In our skin elastin and collagen are the two proteins that keep our skin looking firm, plump and youthful. Elastin keeps our skin ‘elastic’ and flexible with plenty of recoil. So that whatever facial expressions we make, our skin ‘springs back’ to how it was before. Collagen is responsible for keeping our skin plump and taught by ‘bulking’ it out.

When our blood sugar spikes, the glycation process results in enzymes proliferating that break down the elastin and collagen in our skin. When this occurs our skin gradually becomes thinner and more rigid, causing it to lose it’s elasticity, resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin. It also becomes harder for the skin cells to repair normal damage. The skin therefore also becomes more prone to the damaging effects of the environment and UV rays.

How much sugar we can tolerate before the signs of glycation start to show depends on our age, metabolism and how much we exercise. For example, an active 25-year-old body can tolerate more sugar than that of a sedentary 45-year-old plus. So as the years go by we get away with a lot less and do need to be mindful of what we eat, particularly when it comes to a sweet tooth or comfort foods.

So what to do?
It’s not just sugar, refined carbs also cause a spike in blood sugar, so this is something to bear in mind.
• Cut back on all additional sugar, obviously.
• Gain your comfort in lower GI food options such as brown rice and sourdough wholemeal breads.
• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
• Retrain your tastebuds to get a taste for sour, with things like sauerkraut, kefir etc.
• Hydrate and nourish your skin with mineral rich bone and vegetable broths.

Author: Karen Farley
13 January 2021
Copyright 2021

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