The Truth About Our Skin’s Worst Enemy: Sugar
by Jena Kincaid Saturday, March 18
Sugar…oh so sweet. Oh, so easy to love. Oh, so terrible.
In large amounts, so common in the American diet, sugar is damaging to just about every organ and body system. The pancreas, liver, brain, gut, immune, hormonal, and even skin. The problem is in the very finite mechanisms within every one of our cells sugar is needed, constantly and always.
So what gives? How can something so necessary be so bad for us?
It starts with what types of sugar we are eating, how much we eat it, and at a basic level what the food’s glycemic index and loads are.
Every carbohydrate (aka sugar) has been measured for its glycemic index, which is how fast it makes the blood sugar (glucose) levels increase. The glycemic load takes this one step further and brings into account serving size. The glycemic load is a more accurate reflection of sugar's impact on the body, and the more concerning to me.
A fast rise in blood sugar means a fast fall as well, and a complex system of hormones rapidly fluctuating…this is, over a long period of time, bad for us. The foods which do this are called high glycemic foods and while these types are okay to eat on occasion, eating them throughout our day leads to skin problems such as premature aging and acne among other health issues.
HOW SUGAR CAN LEAD TO ACNE:
First, sugar can actually lead to blocked pores. Back to that good old glycemic load, when we eat high glycemic foods our pancreas produces insulin and lowers something called ILGFBP-3. This ILGFBP-3 is the hormone that controls our new skin cell’s natural death process, (1). When it is low, skin dies off slower, causing stagnation and blocked pores. Think of this as a glue-like mess of cells always on top of our skin… this makes a perfect cafeteria for bacteria to feast on, hello pimples!
Second, sugar is inflammatory and inflammation is at the root of acne. When we eat refined sugars and starches our bodies produce excessive amounts of pro-inflammatory cytokines and free radicals. These keep the immune system always “on”, meaning the body is constantly irritated and inflamed (2). These cytokines also make our skin cells extra sticky, leading to even more of that glue-like mess of cells on top of our skin.
Third, sugar causes excess oil production. High insulin levels increase our male hormones or androgens, and androgens control our skin’s oil levels. So when we eat a high glycemic food and our insulin spikes, the androgens do as well, causing overly oily skin.
HOW SUGAR CAN CAUSE SKIN TO AGE:
Excess sugar intake causes a little process called advanced glycation, and this leads to a build up of advanced glycation end-products or AGE…great acronym right?
AGEs are basically waste products from exposure to high glucose levels, (5)…and they are no friend to our skin! These AGEs stiffen and cross-link our collagen and elastin fibers (our skin’s structural support) which makes us look old!
In addition AGEs yellow the skin, causes age spots, dehydrate it, and slow down cell turnover meaning lackluster, limp, and saggy skin, (1, 3, 4). AGEs also cause free radical formation and inflammation - which is no friend of our skin either. So remember, because AGE formation comes from eating too much sugar, avoid all refined sugars and excessive amounts of natural sugar to help avoid one avenue of premature aging.
To drive the point home, this study found that high glucose levels were associated with higher perceived age levels thanks to our friend AGE. A group of 600 people were photographed and 60 others were asked to rate their age. The higher the blood sugars of the subjects the higher their perceived age was! In non-diabetic’s every 1 mm/liter increase in blood sugar, the perceived age was increased by five months and in diabetics it was 1.6 years. Amazing!
WHAT TYPES OF SUGAR ARE OKAY?
Refined carbohydrates like white flour (bread, pasta, pastries, etc.), white sugar, cane sugar, white rice, white potatoes and the like are all high on the glycemic index, meaning our skin’s enemy. Here is a great chart of the glycemic index and load of 100 common foods.
A good rule to go by is the closer the food is to nature the better, and anything with white sugar, white flour, or white starch is a no-no. Food that’s heavily processed not only contains loads of refined carbs but a host of other age damaging ingredients like toxic fats (more on the right types of fat here), GMO’s, artificial colors/flavors, and preservatives. None of which are beneficial to our skin.
When you do eat sugar from any source (which is ok, we all do!) try to ensure its glycemic load is below 10. Whole grains, sprouted wheat, quinoa, nuts, berries, watermelon, citrus, apples, and beans are all low. Some surprisingly high foods are raisins, dates, and figs. Even bananas and grapes are moderate on this scale, so don’t go crazy with these either. Look for a glycemic load below 10, 10-20 is moderate, and any food above 20 is high and should be eaten as minimally as possible.
As far as sugar substitutes go, the liquid sweeteners I prefer to use are honey, maple syrup, and stevia. Agave is also low, but I don’t recommend it for other reasons which is an entirely different blog post. Avoid white sugar at all costs! If solid sugar is a must, try raw coconut sugar or sucunant. Do remember that the glycemic index/load is somewhat irrelevant to sweeteners because it doesn’t measure fructose, so don’t get caught up in their numbers too much. Sweeteners, no matter the type should ALWAYS be used in moderation.
Although necessary to live, sugar is our skin’s enemy. Causing acne and premature aging, sugar destroys our skin from many avenues. Keep your sugar sources as close to nature as possible: maple syrup, fresh fruits, sweet potatoes, etc. By avoiding white processed flours, sugars, and foods, we can have radiant skin. Grab a pear with cinnamon instead of that candy and swap honey for sugar the next time you bake. Not only will your skin remain beautiful but your entire body will thank you for years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: JENA KINCAID, RN
Hi there! I’m Jena, guest posting from the holistic lifestyle blog, Clean’s the New Black. I am an RN who is driven to educate people about wellness and staying disease free. I understand the ravages our toxic environments are taking on us and believe we can all become our healthiest by living a natural holistic toxin-free lifestyle. You can find me on my blog Clean’s the New Black or at my social media links below!
Photo Courtesy: Jena Kincaid
- Schaffer, J. (2016). Irresistible You: Smart and Schique Solutions for Clear, Radiant, Youthful Skin. Sapphira Press
- Giugliano D, Ceriello A, Esposito K. The effects of diet on inflammation: emphasis on the metabolic syndrome. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006 Aug 15;48(4):677-85. Review. PubMed PMID: 16904534.
- Cai, W., He, J. C., Zhu, L., Chen, X., Zheng, F., Striker, G. E., & Vlassara, H. (2008). Oral Glycotoxins Determine the Effects of Calorie Restriction on Oxidant Stress, Age-Related Diseases, and Lifespan. The American Journal of Pathology, 173(2), 327–
- Gkogkolou, P., & Böhm, M. (2012). Advanced glycation end products: Key players in skin aging? Dermato-Endocrinology, 4(3), 259–
- Raymond Noordam, et al., High serum glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age, AGE, February 2013; 35(1):189-195,