Ask Carla: What is glycation?

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Carla Oates The Beauty Chef Founder & CEO

It’s no secret that excess sugar consumption can negatively impact our health and wellbeing—wreaking havoc and causing a myriad of issues including weight gain and impaired gut health.

But unfortunately, sugar can also be detrimental to our quest for glowing skin and speed up the skin aging process due to a natural process known as glycation. If you’ve never heard the term, below we’ve taken a deep dive into what glycation actually is, why it’s so bad for our skin and how to combat its effects.

What Is Glycation?

Put simply, glycation occurs when there is too much sugar in the bloodstream and it begins to attach itself to proteins and lipids—creating byproducts called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). While our bodies have the ability to rid ourselves of these harmful compounds—through antioxidant activity—it can be difficult to keep up when we consume too many through our diet. 

The result of too many AGEs can therefore be detrimental to our health, triggering systemic inflammation, damaging our cells and healthy proteins. In fact, when we have sustained high blood sugar levels, the result of glycation can not only contribute to more serious, chronic and debilitating health conditions but worringly, premature aging of the skin and body.

The Link Between Diet and AGEs

Unfortunately, our diet is the biggest contributor to the formation of AGEs—with some foods containing naturally high amounts of AGEs, as well as certain cooking methods (including barbecuing, broiling, roasting, toasting and frying) which can exacerbate our intake further. In fact, studies show that methods of cooking that include dry heat can promote AGE formation by as much 10–100 times! And while there are certain foods—particularly those that are naturally higher in fats and proteins—which are already more AGE-dense and therefore more susceptible to increased AGE formation during food preparation—it’s also our consumption of highly processed foods and our dietary sugar intake that can lead to endogenous AGE formation. On the flipside, carbohydrates including fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains contain fewer AGEs naturally, even after cooking. 

How Glycation Affects Our Skin

Given glycation causes inflammation and damages the healthy proteins in our bodies, unfortunately this also includes the collagen and elastin proteins in our skin which are responsible for keeping it healthy, firm, plump and bouncy. The damage is done when AGEs attach themselves to healthy molecules, leaving them weakened, more rigid and brittle. If the collagen is therefore unable to function properly, the structure of the skin on a cellular level becomes impaired—damaging the delicate skin barrier, causing thinning of the skin, a loss of hydration, reducing elasticity, increasing the signs of aging including fine lines and wrinkles, as well as exacerbating inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea, acne and pigmentation.

Unfortunately too, the cycle of glycation and the damage it can cause to the skin can leave it more susceptible to free radical damage from other sources—including the sun and UV rays, smoking and pollution—which in turn creates even more AGEs.

As explored above, however, it’s our diet that has the most profound impact on the number of AGEs formed—and in particular, excess sugar consumption being linked to increased glycation and increased collagen damage.

How To Combat Glycation

While glycation can’t be stopped–it is a natural process, after all—the effects of glycation can be slowed by taking better care of our bodies and nourishing it both inside and out.

Clean up your diet
From a dietary standpoint, reducing your excess sugar intake is a great start—especially sugar that comes in the form of processed and refined carbohydrates, refined white sugars and foods containing high-fructose corn syrup as studies show that these sugary culprits can increase the rate of glycation exponentially. And while all carbohydrates are converted into sugar molecules, complex carbohydrates found in wholefoods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and oats, are processed differently by the body and in simple terms, you get less glucose more slowly.

The bonus of including an abundance of colourful fresh fruits and vegetables too, is that you naturally boost your intake of free radical-fighting antioxidants—and although these compounds can’t halt glycation in its tracks, antioxidants can help to mitigate the effects of oxidative stress (which occurs as a consequence of glycation and damages our cells and DNA), contributing to countless chronic health issues, not to mention accelerating the aging process of the skin and body.

Consider the way you cook your food
As illustrated above, many modern cooking methods increase AGE production—and while it’s nice to have a barbecue from time to time, incorporating more raw foods in your diet and cooking with moist heat (like steaming), using shorter cooking times, lower cooking temperatures and adding acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice can all help to reduce your intake of AGEs.

Curb your sugar cravings
While making the effort to clean up your diet is undoubtedly essential—our consumption of sugar is often impulsive so supporting your body to curb its sugar cravings can be a great place to start and we can do this by looking for ingestible beauty supplements that contain micronutrients that help to naturally balance our blood sugar levels (making us less likely to reach for that bar of chocolate come 3pm!). Chromium, for example, is one such micronutrient that helps to break down dietary fat and support effective sugar metabolism for healthier blood glucose levels—while green tea is also known to help slow the effects of glycation thanks to its high antioxidant content.

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