Sugar and Aging: How Removing Sugar from Your Diet Can Help Slow the Formation of Wrinkles

+ Rebecca

Here’s another reason to cut back on the amount of sugar you eat every day.

It could be accelerating the look of aging.

This is what beauty experts have suspected for a long time, and now science is catching up. Excess sugar in the bloodstream encourages a process known as “glycation,” which is believed to contribute to the aging of skin.

Ready to ditch that afternoon cupcake?

What is Glycation?

In 2001, researchers published a study that explained that “glycation of the dermis [skin]” usually starts around the age of 35, and then “increases rapidly with intrinsic ageing.” Sun damage makes it worse, causing additional damage to the elastic fibers of the skin. (Think sagging and bagging.)

Just what is glycation? Revert back to your chemistry class. If there’s too much sugar in the bloodstream, protein molecules can cross-link with sugar molecules, creating new sugar proteins called “advanced glycation end products (AGEs).”

The body sees these AGEs as invaders, and encourages the immune system to go after them. That causes inflammation, which is unhealthy for the entire body and has been linked to some of our most deadly diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

The interesting thing is that AGEs like to migrate toward the skin, particularly into the collagen and elastin fibers. There, they compromise the nice structure your body has built in the lower levels of the dermis. Like termites chewing away at the foundation, these AGEs weaken collagen and elastin.

That causes symptoms like the following:

  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Sagging and bagging
  • Loose, floppy skin
  • Age spots and hyperpigmentation
  • Thinning and poor texture
  • Reduced level of skin repair

High Blood Sugar Linked with Looking Older

This gives you another reason to avoid sun exposure. UV rays accelerate the damage AGEs cause, so the combination of a high sugar level and sun exposure spells disaster for your skin. A 2011 study, for example, found that glycation can be induced and affected by many factors, including exposure to ultraviolet light, “which drastically intensifies AGE accumulation.”

The researchers went on to suggest something else: reducing or managing levels of blood sugar-in addition to managing cholesterol and triglyceride levels-could reduce the skin-aging affects of glycation.

A 2012 study even found a link between the amount of sugar in the blood and the appearance of aging. Scientists from the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands measured blood sugar levels in 600 men and women aged between 50 and 70. They then showed pictures of these people to a completely different group of participants. They asked the individuals in the other group to guess the ages of the people in the photographs.

The results showed that those participants with higher blood sugar levels looked older than those with lower blood sugar levels. For every 1 mm/liter increase in blood sugar, the perceived age of the person increased by five months.

Effect Depends on Your Overall Body Condition

We’re not saying that if you indulge in that birthday cupcake you’re going to look several months older. Instead, it’s all about the overall amount of sugar in your bloodstream, and how well your body manages it. If glycation starts around the age of 35, it makes sense that we’re likely to manage sugar less well as we age.

“How much you can tolerate before glycation occurs depends on your age, metabolism, and how much you exercise,” Dr. Aamer Khan, a cosmetic dermatologist, told The Daily Mail. “If you’re an active 25-year-old, your body can tolerate more sugar than if you are a sedentary 45-year-old.”

Researchers from the 2001 study concur, noting that muscle training is particularly important. “More than 70% of blood glucose is consumed in skeletal muscle,” they write, “and reduction of muscle mass increases insulin resistance.”

So if you’re over the age of 35 and you just love your brownies, what can you do?

10 Tips to Help Prevent and Reduce Glycation

Turns out there are a number of steps you can take to keep AGEs from ruining your complexion.

  1. Cut back on sugar and high-glycemic foods: You don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but realize that as a whole, Americans eat way too much. It’s hard to avoid it-it’s in everything, even our soups and condiments. Make a point of reducing at least one sugary item in your diet every day. If you’re a soda drinker, that’s a good place to start! When your cravings hit, try sour fruits (like lemons, limes, and berries) to soothe them. Fermented foods also help combat sugar cravings. Think kefir, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, and unsweetened yogurt.
  2. Eat organic: Most organic soups and condiments have much lower levels of sugar than other types. Read your ingredient levels and try to make your regular foods sugar-free.
  3. Eat healthy! Choose more whole foods and fewer processed ones. Hit the produce aisle. Make healthy choices and you’ll keep your blood sugar (and cholesterol and triglyceride) levels in check.
  4. Keep your muscles strong: Want to eat that brownie or afternoon piece of cake? Make sure you’re not shirking your regular muscle training. Weak muscles mean more glycation! Get strong.
  5. Limit alcohol: Researchers note that alcohol metabolites enhance glycation, so if you want to avoid those wrinkles, limit the after-work cocktails.
  6. Use safe skincare with natural ingredients: Research is still early in how topical application of some ingredients may counteract glycation, but there is promise that natural extracts of chamomile, hawthorn berry, grape leaf, blueberry, pomegranate, and others may be effective in inhibiting AGE formation.
  7. Watch how you cook: Foods cooked too long at high heat can form AGEs. (Think blackened meats, fried potatoes.) Choose steaming, boiling, and poaching more often.
  8. Get enough vitamin B: Early studies show that vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B6 (pyrixodine) may both inhibit the formation of AGEs. Remember that as you get older, it’s more difficult to absorb vitamin B, so you may need to add a supplement to your diet. Foods rich in these vitamins include trout, tuna, lean pork, turkey, chicken, macadamia and pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, green peas, squash, asparagus, dried prunes, lean beef, bananas, and avocadoes.
  9. Wear sunscreen: Remember that UV light makes glycation worse. Protect your skin from the sun. Stay out of direct light between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and use a safe sunscreen like zinc oxide.
  10. Get more antioxidants: Foods rich in antioxidants fight the effects of aging by reducing free radical damage. They can also help keep sugar from attaching to proteins, so there are fewer AGEs formed in the first place. Think colorful fruits and veggies! Apples, in particular, are known to have anti-glycating antioxidants.

Did you know about sugar and glycation? Have you tried to cut back on the sugar in your life?

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,

Masamitsu Ichihashi, et al., “Glycation Stress and Photo-Aging in Skin,” Anti-Aging Medicine, June 13, 2011; 8(3):23-29,

Lucy Elkins, “How giving up sugar can take 20 years off your looks,” Daily Mail, April 4, 2012,

Raymond Noordam, et al., “High serum glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age,” AGE, February 2013; 35(1):189-195,

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