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Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, M.D.

Most of us already know that eating sugary foods isn’t our friend when it comes to taking care of our health. A chocolate frosted cupcake sure feels great going down, but what’s not so great are the many troubling effects it has on your body once you digest it. Scientists have long known that consuming too much refined sugar increases the risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes and creates inflammation in the body, which can elevate the risk of heart disease and cancer. But it wasn’t until recently that researchers uncovered another ugly truth about sugar, which is how it affects our skin and appearance. Although there are many factors that can age the skin, sugar is one of the worst culprits around. Let’s dive into the science and find out how a sugar habit can make an unwelcome appearance on your face.

AGEs and the “sugar sag” 

To really understand the impact sugar can have on the way we look, it’s helpful to understand the complex process behind it, called glycation. After we eat a sugary food, the sugar in our blood naturally increases. The sugar molecules in the form of glucose or fructose then attach to our body’s proteins and produce compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The proteins highly susceptible to damage are collagen and elastin, both essential proteins that help keep skin youthful, elastic, supple, and firm. AGEs cause structural and functional changes in the skin, making collagen and elastin dry, stiff, and brittle. For this reason, glycation is often credited for causing “sugar sag,” a visibly aged complexion in the form of sagging, wrinkles, and fine lines. 

The continual build-up of AGEs in the body is a hallmark of the aging process in humans – and AGEs don’t only impair the skin. There’s also evidence to suggest that AGEs play a role in hastening the aging process by graying our hair, and are also linked to a variety of other health conditions like atherosclerosis, chronic kidney disease, and COPD. People with higher amounts of AGEs are also more prone to infection due to the suppression that AGEs can have on normal immune function. 

When it comes to sugar and glycation, there appears to be a cumulative effect: the more sugar you eat, the more AGEs accumulate in the body’s tissues, and the more damaging it is to the proteins around them. 

The internal and external mechanisms of aging

While aging is an inescapable part of life, different factors and mechanisms we’re exposed to can speed up the process. With aging skin, the factors that accelerate it can be thought of as being either endogenous or exogenous. Endogenous factors originate from within the body, whereas exogenous factors result in changes originating from the outside. AGEs carry out their aging effects in both endogenous and exogenous ways. 

As we learned, a sugary diet can significantly contribute to the formation of AGEs within the body through the attachment of glucose or fructose to collagen and elastic proteins, resulting in diminished skin function and the visible signs of an aging face. In addition to this, we’re exposed to external factors in our environment that increase AGEs within the body every day, from outdoor pollution and our screen’s blue light to the sun’s  ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation exposure is a well-known contributor of age-related changes like skin cancer and  eye disease

What’s equally alarming is that not only do AGEs weaken collagen functionality and make us look older than we are, they are also shown to disarm the body’s natural, protective antioxidant enzymes we rely on to defend against harmful free radicals, leaving our skin even more defenseless from these environmental stressors. 

Sugar’s ability to shorten telomeres for aging

AGEs can do a number on our appearance, but there’s another notable way that sugar can advance the aging process, and that’s by shortening our telomeres. Telomeres are the DNA-protein caps found at the end of chromosomes that protect the DNA from damage and keep the chromosomes stable. With each cell cycle of growth and division, telomeres naturally get shorter. When a telomere’s length becomes too short, the cell can no longer divide and breaks down. Shorter telomeres are associated with diabetes, inflammation, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, and some cancers. The telomeres in our skin cells  are believed to be especially prone to shortening because of their rapid rate of growth and harmful environmental exposures.    

What role does sugar play in this process? Scientists have figured out that a steady diet of sugar can itself bring about the shortening of telomeres, as shown by one American Journal of Public Health study that analyzed the association between the regular consumption of sugar-sweetened soda and telomere length. After confirming that the older subjects did show shorter telomeres, the authors also found that sugar-sweetened soda consumption was inversely associated with telomere length. That is, the more sugary soda the subjects drank, the shorter their telomeres became. In fact, each daily 8-ounce serving of sugar-sweetened soda equated to 1.9 additional years of aging. For each 20-ounce serving, the subjects could expect 4.6 additional years of aging. 

Why does this happen? Scientists believe that the sugar in sweetened soda increase inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body, quickening telomere shortening and the advancement of aging and metabolic disease.  

The signs sugar is showing up on your face

Around the age of 35, we can expect to see the first visible effects of glycation and the signs of collagen and elastin wear and tear. How to tell if sugar might be the culprit? Look out for these signs:

  • Deep lines appear along your upper lip
  • Crevices appear around your laugh line
  • Discoloration or dark spots appear on the skin
  • Sagging around the jawline, neck, and chin
  • Acne

How your food choices can combat aging

Given that glucose and fructose play such a critical role in glycation and aging, it’s easy to see how a diet chock-full of sugar can wreak havoc on the skin – which also means we can take back control over how we age. One of the best ways to combat the effects of sugar is to maintain a steady level of blood sugar by avoiding sugars as much as possible. 

How we choose to eat can significantly slow the skin aging process. But this is often much easier said than done. The reality is, sugar is found everywhere both in plain view or invisibly tucked away within our favorite foods. Dodging the obvious offenders like cake, cookies, and ice cream can be a breeze, but evading sneaky sugar sources found in “healthy” foods like cereals, breads, yogurts, condiments, and even pasta sauces can be pretty tricky. 

So, what can you do? Become a “sugar detective” and follow a low-sugar diet to limit glycation. 

Learn how to spot the sugar content on your food’s nutrition labels, especially on packaged, processed foods which are notorious for harboring added sugars. Sugar can go by many different names, so if you notice concentrated fruit juice, honey, agave nectar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, malt syrup, sucrose, or dextrose (just to name a few) on the label, leave it on the shelf.  Nix fruit juices, even those that are 100% fruit, sports drinks, or any other sweetened drink, and quench your thirst with water or unsweetened tea or coffee. 

As an extra one-two punch against the effects of glycation, spices like cinnamon, oregano, allspice, and cloves are shown to inhibit AGEs production, as do aromatics like ginger and garlic, so use them liberally in your cooking.  Resveratrol, the potent antioxidant found in red wine, and L-carnitine, an antioxidant naturally abundant in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products, also appear to reduce the tissue damage caused by glycation. Dietary choices that result in taking in less calories than you need per day is known as a powerfully effective way to slow the aging process down as well, by preventing the accumulation of AGEs in the body and potentially extending your lifespan.

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