How Sugar Ages Our Skin

How Sugar Ages Our Skin

It’s fairly common knowledge that excessive sugar consumption is bad. We know it leads to weight gain and diabetes, and are even becoming more aware of the role it plays in a wide range of diseases, from PCOS to heart disease.

One of its least discussed effects, however, is the one it has on our skin: a high-sugar diet can accelerate the ageing process of our skin, by damaging its proteins and interfering with its repair process.

Here’s how.

Sugar’s Effects on Our Skin

When in high amounts in our blood, sugar molecules aren’t absorbed by our cells. They build up in our skin, where they have the ability to attach to its proteins (largely collagen and elastin) and alter their structures.

In doing so, they –

1] Create a stiffer skin structure

Collagen and elastin are normally linked to each other in a mesh-like pattern, providing structure and support to the surrounding cells and proteins.

This link gets disrupted when sugar molecules bind to the proteins, which hampers the strength and flexibility of the matrix they form, resulting in a stiffer structure that loses some of its resilience.

When our skin’s structure gets damaged, that’s what eventually leads to the typical signs of ageing like fine lines and wrinkles.

2] Reduce the repair and production of collagen

Our skin produces fresh collagen every 30-45 days, to repair the daily damage it faces (from the sun’s UV rays, pollution and other harmful factors). 

This process is regulated by a family of proteins called MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases) that are triggered when our skin is exposed to damage. MMPs are designed to break down complex collagen and elastin structures, so that they can be remodeled- but when our skin’s proteins are altered by sugar molecules, they become highly resistant to MMPs. This impairs the skin’s repair process, along with its production of fresh collagen.

3] Exacerbate the damage caused by UV rays from the sun

The protein and fat molecules modified by sugar are known as Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs).5-7 These are structurally less stable than the original protein molecules.

If ‘unstable molecules’ sounds like a familiar concept, that’s because you’ve heard of them before. ‘Free radicals’ are unstable molecules, notorious for the damage they cause to our skin.

In their instability, AGEs end up magnifying the production of free radicals caused by UV radiation as well.

AGEs and Antioxidants

AGEs aren’t just produced in the body; they’re also pre-formed in foods that are grilled, roasted or fried. They begin accumulating in the body and, once formed, can only be removed by the body’s various antioxidant systems.

Unfortunately, the activity of these systems decreases with age. It’s been estimated that the formation of AGEs in our skin accelerates in our 30s, and accumulates in the deeper layers of skin (the dermis) over time.7

Ways to limit AGE production

1. Reduce sugar consumption

Sugar tastes great and also makes us feel good, as it leads to the release of dopamine– a chemical that improves our mood and triggers the reward and pleasure centres of our brain.

This is the same process responsible for promoting the addictive behavior commonly seen in other addictions (such as cigarettes and cocaine), and, in the context of sugar, makes us crave more. It’s best to limit the consumption of high-sugar foods, as far as possible.8

2. Choose low-glycemic foods

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a simple relative measure of the extent to which carbohydrate-containing foods can raise our blood glucose (sugar) levels.

High GI foods (like white bread, pasta, white rice, cookies, and potatoes) readily convert to sugar in our bodies and can promote the formation of AGEs.

Choose low-GI foods like leafy greens, vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, seeds, to minimise the elevation of your blood sugar.

3. Identify hidden sugars through food labels

Increasing the sugar content of processed foods is a proven method for food companies to improve the taste as well as the shelf life of their products. Consuming processed foods (both sweet and savory) can add up to a significant source of sugars.

Entirely avoiding heavily processed foods would be ideal, but for anyone who does consume them, take a look at a food product’s label to identify whether it contains hidden sugars before picking it up at the store.

4. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods

A study has found that antioxidant-rich spices can inhibit the production of AGEs; in particular, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, garlic, oregano and allspice were found to help protect against AGEs. Other natural antioxidants such as vitamin C and curcumin are also believed to help reduce AGE-formation.9-11

5. Get vitamin B6 in your diet

Pyridoxamine, a naturally occurring form of vitamin B6, seems to be effective against AGEs, as it inhibits the intermediate stages of AGE formation.12

Foods rich in B6 include organ meats, legumes, spinach, whole grains, sunflower seeds, bananas, mushrooms, and nuts like pistachios.

6. Exercise

Physical exercise effectively inhibits the generation of free radicals and improves the body’s antioxidant activities, which could help inhibit AGE formation.

A study found that lifelong trained athletes had 21% lower contents of AGE accumulation in the patellar tendon (a ligament that connects the knee cap and the shin bone), compared to age-matched untrained subjects.13

7. Decrease other dietary sources of AGEs14-15

For one, we should avoid cooking techniques that give a brown or black color to the food due to smoke. Cook meat slowly at lower temperatures and avoid burnt meat.

It’s also a good idea to use acidic marinades, such as lemon juice and vinegar, before cooking- these can substantially reduce the amount of AGEs in foods, without compromising (and, most times, even improving!) their taste.

Consuming copious amounts of sugar has more than one detrimental effect on our body- and its dramatic acceleration of skin ageing is the tip of the iceberg. Our country has an incredibly high rate of sugar consumption, but we can all do our bit to help more people understand its effects and cut down on its intake. We hope this article has been helpful and would be glad to hear your feedback on the information- leave a comment below or email us at


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Dr Meghna Motwani, Ph.D.

Dr Motwani is Nutrova’s Head Research Scientist with a PhD in Stem Cell and Biomaterial Research. She led India’s one-of-its-kind clinical study, where the effects of oral consumption of collagen were evaluated on several skin health parameters. She is the brain and backbone of research at Nutrova with her work published in the prestigious Nature Materials and Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.

More by Dr Meghna Motwani

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