You have certainly heard the benefits of avoiding excess sugar. Read on to learn more precisely how sugar AND ALSO SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATE consumption is directly linked to our communiTree's worst skincare nightmares: WRINKLES & ACNE.
When it comes to breakouts, sugar worsens acne due to not one, but TWO biological mechanisms.
In this blog I'll also share with you why craving sugar isn't all about lack of self-control and what you can do to avoid the desire.
Plus some personal thoughts around consuming natural sugars from foods like fruit which might seem controversial.
SUGAR: HOW IT CONTRIBUTES TO ACNE
A 2009 study (Pappas, A. 2009) made evident the distinct link between a high sugar diet and acne outbreaks. “We need to understand why people in indigenous societies do not experience acne while, in contrast, acne is widespread throughout the Western society”. To my delight the study concludes that nutritionists and dermatologists need to work together to better understand and address cutaneous acne.
What do carbohydrates, acne, and inflammation have in common ?
The study suggests that these issues are all related to the insulin hormone — secreted by the pancreas and key to assimilating carbohydrates. Insulin plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar levels .
So when you consume simple or 'fast' carbohydrates (found in sodas, pastries, white bread etc.) as opposed to complex 'slow' carbohydrates (found in peas, beans, vegetables), insulin is secreted very quickly followed by a cascade of events:
Insulin increases androgens (IGF-I), which in turn may dysregulate sebum glands and thus lead to excessive sebum production.
The overproduction of sebum, combined with inflammation may favor the proliferation of bacteria responsible for acne (Pappas, A. 2009). (Learn more about how to maintain your ‘good’ bacteria to keep the bad bacteria at bay here).
So when you consume foods that are said to be ‘high glycemic index’ foods: pasta, white bread, cookies, cereal etc. your insulin goes up fast and this can directly correlate to an increase in acne.
SUGAR: HOW IT CONTRIBUTES TO AGING SKIN
In the context of molecular aging there’s another phenomenon in place that is called ‘glycation’. What is glycation ?
Simply put, it’s the chemical reaction that happens when certain sugar molecules such as glucose or fructose bind irreversibly to protein and lipids throughout the body, including the skin, and harden.
The result is the formation of Advanced Glycation End products, or acronym ‘AGE’ ! When this occurs, the proteins and lipids involved in the glycation process become damaged and are therefore unable to perform their normal functions properly.
When sugar molecules bind to collagen and elastin proteins in the skin, for example, those important proteins are unable to properly support the structure of the skin, leading to wrinkles and other signs of premature aging. Indeed, collagen and elastin play a key role in maintaining cutaneous firmness and elasticity. As AGEs fix onto collagen proteins, the dermis becomes less supple and the skin looses elasticity (Kim, C. S., Park, S., & Kim, J. 2017). It eventually ‘breaks’ and wrinkles appear.
In the long run, AGEs produced by the glycation reaction intensify aging which can be seen at the cutaneous level by:
- Brown spots
- A tired complexion
In addition to being spiked by simple carb consumption, blood-glucose levels can increase due to stress, photo-induced oxidative stress (UV exposure), air pollution, or poor lifestyle habits — all of which together exacerbate the glycation phenomenon (Kim, C. S., Park, S., & Kim, J. 2017).
Two more things that glycation can instigate, and worth noting:
INFLAMMATION. Glycation has also been shown (Van der Lugt, T., et al., 2018) to activate inflammatory pathways throughout the body, worsening inflammatory skin conditions such as ACNE, ECZEMA and ROSACEA.
COMPROMISED BARRIER FUNCTION. The skin’s protective barrier is made up of a bilayer of lipids (Prescott, S.L., 2017). When these lipids are damaged through glycation, the barrier is unable to properly perform its two main functions: 1) to retain moisture and 2) to keep harmful allergens and irritants out. Thus, the result of poor skin barrier function is dehydration and irritation (Kim, J.H., et al., 2018).
If sugar consumption remains reasonable, our bodies can handle it so we want to avoid excess sugar and simple carbs. I’ll talk more about unexpected sources of ‘excess sugar’ and what my personal 'fast carb' quota looks like.
A QUICK LOOK AT WHY WE CRAVE SUGAR
Fruit used to be seasonal and scarce in comparison to vegetables. However vegetables carry little energy compared to fruits. Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, primates who consumed the most calories were the ones best able to avoid starvation and thus passed on their genes. Primates who ate the most fruit were best positioned to pass on their evolutionary traits and it is for this reason that we have evolved to crave sugar, in addition to being able to convert sugar to fat for future use (Wiss, D. A., Avena, N., & Rada, P. 2018, Lieberman, D. E. 2014).
With the onset of the industrial revolution, we’ve been able to grow fruit cheaply and abundantly. Instead of being scarce stores of calories that could enhance survival capacity, fruits became staple foods available year-round.
Technological advances have not only enabled us to grow fruit in abundance, but have also enabled us to extract and concentrate the sugar from fruit, beets, sugar cane & corn. And there’s the problem— ease of access to refined sugar, plus the fact that extracted sugar is not bound to fiber, leading to that spike in blood sugar (Bolton, R. P., 1981)
BEYOND AVOIDING COOKIES: HOW CAN WE ADAPT OUR EATING HABITS ?
Assuming you don't have any underlying health issues (hypoglycemia, intermittent porphyria etc.) that require you to keep tabs on blood sugar levels, you’ve come to understand that sugar has an immediate negative impact on your skin.
With a balanced lifestyle — stress management through forest bathing, outdoor activity, use of clean cosmetics ... it IS possible to preserve your skin’s plumpness, prevent premature aging & the onset of new wrinkles and limit excess sebum production & breakouts.
[Learn how to avoid sneaky toxic ingredients in skincare in our clean cosmetic guide here.]
The issue is that sugar hides EVERYWHERE ! it’s not just about cutting out the sugar we put in coffee, skipping fast food, it’s also about reducing SIMPLE/FAST CARBS found in:
- Potatoes, white rice
- Pasta, couscous, polenta
- Bread, bagels, wraps
- Boxed cereal, cereal bars, trail mix
- Flavored yogurt…
Sugar often hides in sauces and dressings (pasta sauce, curry sauce, ketchup, thousand island dressing etc.) as well as in pre-made meals and snacks. It hides in crust, batters, broths, nut butters, jerky, gluten-free foods, spreads, dips …
While 'natural sugars' in the health food stores seem like good alternatives...
e.g. dry fruit, baking with dates, coconut sugar, maple syrup etc. it must be recognized that these foods have high glycemic indexes.
Beloved raw honey may have a myriad of health benefits, but watch out though— honey still counts as sugar.
The other sneaky source of ‘natural sugar’ is plain fruit. Modern fruit has been bred to have high ‘BRIX’ content — the term we use in plant science to calculate sugar content of fruits and vegetables.
Side note — as part of my plant science education I set off to MIT as a visiting researcher working on hydroponic urban agriculture. Part of my work involved testing lettuce BRIX content in an effort to make schoolchildren more likely to consume lettuce that was unusually sweet. Thinking back, I believe this was a very silly thing to do, as it trained kids' tastebuds to want sweeter food!
MY PERSONAL APPROACH TO EATING FRUIT
In general when it comes to sugar I try to put myself in the shoes of a pre-industrialization woman. I simply try to recognize the process behind every item I have in my pantry and fridge: 'how was it manufactured'? I personally don’t buy any pre-made salad dressings and sauces and I only eat local fruit in season. In fact, I treat eating fruit like eating candy (especially grapes & cherries in the summer) because I believe there are many other ways to ingest antioxidants & vitamins:
Check out my 5 favorite perennial herbs for antioxidants, find out where I get my vitamin C and vitamin precursors like beta carotene.
Our complimentary perennial plant cookbook offers unique recipes you can try.
In my kitchen (not when I'm out) I forgo any form of refined sugar, even cane sugar — opting for more expensive and ‘rare’ sugar forms such as honey & maple syrup or sugar forms that are trickier to process and cook with like medjoul dates, which helps limit my consumption.
On a day-to-day basis I strive to limit myself to one ‘fast carb portion’:
⟡ either a meal that includes bread or pasta for instance
⟡ a sweet treat. These are examples of what my sweet indulgence looks like— a couple pieces of dark (85% +) chocolate, or a tablespoon of maple syrup drizzled over nuts as dessert. Alternatively, I drizzle a tbsp. of honey over a baked apple.
When it comes to cutting down on sugar, I have personally found that the easiest approach is the ‘cold turkey’ approach. It has helped me reset my taste buds in just a week. I do a reset about once a quarter — cutting out all sugar and grains (and red wine!). Just like fasting, I have found this to benefit me in many other ways, as a tool in the anti-inflammatory diet toolbox. After a month I find that my taste buds are much more attune to flavors. For instance, I am able to pick up notes in wine that I wouldn't otherwise be able to notice.
I certainly don't abide by my own rules 365 days a year, and I enjoy eating with friends and family and whatever they have prepared. These are just my guiding principles. In terms of cooking flavorful meals, I favor fats, herbs, salt and spices over sugar.
*Always check in with your health care provider prior to implementing any dietary changes.
⟡ The more you consume fast carbs (simple carbohydrates such as sugar) the more your insulin level goes up, the more sebum is produced which can clog pores and lead to breakouts.
The chain of reactions: Eating fast/ simple carbs → glycemic peak → increase in l’IGF-1 (androgen) → sebum hypersecretion → clogged pores + inflammation → acne breakout
⟡ When sugar molecules bind to collagen and elastin proteins in the skin (a phenomenon known as 'glycation') those important proteins are unable to properly support the structure of the skin which leads to loss of firmness and elasticity in the dermis.
At the cutaneous level, glycation results in sagging and wrinkles
⟡ In addition to the insulin spike leading to acne, glycation is also responsible for the inflammation which can worsen acne breakouts.
⟡ Your desire to eat sugar isn't about your lack of will-power. It's an evolutionary trait stemming from a survival mechanism whereby your body stores sugar as fat— an energy reserve for winter months (when our primate ancestors didn't have access to fruit in the winter).
⟡ Consider thinking about fruit & 'simple carbs' (in bread, pasta, white rice) as part of your daily sugar quota.
⟡ To limit sugar and fast carb consumption on a day-to-day is hard. My best tip is to halt all sugar and fast carbs for one to two weeks to help reset your tastebuds.
Achieve youthful skin with the natural techniques found in our free, downloadable guide ↓
ReferencesBolton, R. P., Heaton, K. W., & Burroughs, L. F. (1981). The role of dietary fiber in satiety, glucose, and insulin: studies with fruit and fruit juice. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 34(2), 211-217.
Kim, C. S., Park, S., & Kim, J. (2017). The role of glycation in the pathogenesis of aging and its prevention through herbal products and physical exercise. Journal of exercise nutrition & biochemistry, 21(3), 55.
Kim, J. H., Yoon, N. Y., Kim, D. H., Jung, M., Jun, M., Park, H. Y., ... & Choi, E. H. (2018). Impaired permeability and antimicrobial barriers in type 2 diabetes skin are linked to increased serum levels of advanced glycation end‐product. Experimental dermatology, 27(8), 815-823.
Lieberman, D. E. (2014). The story of the human body: evolution, health, and disease. Vintage.
Pappas, A. (2009). The relationship of diet and acne: a review. Dermato-endocrinology, 1(5), 262-267.
Prescott, S. L., Larcombe, D. L., Logan, A. C., West, C., Burks, W., Caraballo, L., ... & Campbell, D. E. (2017). The skin microbiome: impact of modern environments on skin ecology, barrier integrity, and systemic immune programming. World Allergy Organization Journal, 10(1), 1-16.
Van der Lugt, T., Weseler, A. R., Gebbink, W. A., Vrolijk, M. F., Opperhuizen, A., & Bast, A. (2018). Dietary advanced glycation endproducts induce an inflammatory response in human macrophages in vitro. Nutrients, 10(12), 1868.
Wiss, D. A., Avena, N., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar addiction: from evolution to revolution. Frontiers in psychiatry, 545.