You might’ve noticed statements in magazine articles claiming that sugar is “ageing” and the cause of glycation which leads to skin wrinkling and sagging. These articles generally conclude with recommendations for ‘anti-glycation’ topical skin products and (sigh) a “no-sugar” diet. This post is just a small collection of information to get you thinking and hopefully have you see that sugar* is actually not the bad guy here.
Firstly, I want to say that I don’t think wrinkles are necessarily bad. I’m proud of my 37 year old laugh lines. Wrinkles are indeed inevitable but the thing is, they needn’t develop prematurely, and if you’d rather not accelerate ageing of the skin, know that sugar is not the culprit, but rather the oxidative breakdown of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA).
“Many people are concerned about the spontaneous glycation that supposedly happens in the body when sugars react with proteins, though they are really mostly the result of PUFA degradation.” – Ray Peat PhD
“The fragments of deteriorating PUFA combine with proteins and other cell materials, producing immunogenic substances. The so-called “advanced glycation end products” that have been blamed on glucose excess, are mostly derived from the peroxidation of the “Essential Fatty Acids.” The term ‘glycation’ indicates the addition of sugar groups to proteins, such as occurs in diabetes and old age, but when tested in a controlled experiment, lipid peroxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids produces the protein damage about 23 times faster than the simple sugars do.” (Fu, et al., 1996). – Ray Peat PhD
In fact, sugar actually helps to prevent tissue breakdown (seen in the skin with sagging and loss of muscle tone), by ‘sparing’ protein:
“Sugars* (fruits etc) are far more effective than protein in preventing protein degradation in the muscle.” – Ivy & Portman PhD
The stress of a low-carb / low-sugar diet, and stress in general, decreases our production of carbon dioxide (putting us in a low metabolic state), and actually increases the glycation of proteins. So too does fasting and under-eating, as stored PUFA are released into the bloodstream.
*Sugar, specifically “sucrose”, a simpler carbohydrate found in high amounts in ripe fruits, orange juice, real honey and white cane sugar (pure sucrose), is essential for lowering stress, increasing thyroid (T3) production, supporting metabolism and energising the liver; all factors in lowering catabolic stress hormones, slowing general degeneration, supporting youthful energy production, and a more youthful appearance too.
For more on sugar and exactly what I am referring to when I talk about the healthful, pro-metabolic kind, see here.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) include all liquid vegetable oils (the fats found in most processed foods which include Canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, fish oil, flax oil etc, with the exception of Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and the fats present in things like grains, seeds, nuts, legumes and conventional poultry (see more here). These fats are unstable to oxygen, light and heat and oxidise (spoil) easily resulting in free radical damage (inside and out). Saturated fats on the other hand, such as coconut oil and butter, are protective. You can read more about recent research regarding how we need to rethink fats here and the anti-ageing properties of saturated fats here.
The sun isn’t actually the ‘cause’ of skin ageing either, it only contributes to skin damage with overexposure and when a person has accumulated too many PUFAs in their tissue:
“In the l960s, Hartroft and Porta gave an elegant argument for decreasing the ratio of unsaturated oil to saturated oil in the diet (and thus in the tissues). They showed that the “age pigment” is produced in proportion to the ratio of oxidants to antioxidants, multiplied by the ratio of unsaturated oils to saturated oils. More recently, a variety of studies have demonstrated that ultraviolet light induces peroxidation in unsaturated fats, but not saturated fats, and that this occurs in the skin as well as in vitro. Rabbit experiments, and studies of humans, showed that the amount of unsaturated oil in the diet strongly affects the rate at which aged, wrinkled skin develops. The unsaturated fat in the skin is a major target for the aging and carcinogenic effects of ultraviolet light” – Ray Peat PhD
“While it is important to avoid overexposure to ultraviolet light, the skin damage that we identify with aging is largely a product of our diet.” – Ray Peat PhD
20 minutes of sun exposure at a time on a sunny day is probably enough (build up to this gradually and always avoid burning), however until you’ve significantly lowered your PUFA consumption and the stored PUFA in your tissue, you might be best to shield your face from full sun (ie; wear a hat). Sunlight on the rest of the body is necessary for Vitamin D synthesis.
For further quotes and a full round up of research links regarding polyunsaturated fats and age pigment, see this great post here by Rob Turner.
Important to note: These visible signs of ageing on the skin (wrinkling, sagging, brown spots, loss of muscle tone) are just minor and superficial signs of ageing within. So addressing skin ageing through diet and lifestyle changes is very important to improve the health of the entire body. After all, what keeps the skin healthy also keeps the body healthy.
Consider the foods eaten by the beauties of the past, before Botox, surgical facelifts and sugar phobia:
“Eat the old fashioned way, dairy, eggs, in-season fruits and do not be afraid of sucrose (cane sugar) added to your coffee and milkshakes. Film actresses in the thirties and forties did not need all the facelifts and touch ups that actresses need today due to a healthier diet filled with sucrose, animal protein and saturated fat. Take a look at some movies form the olden days. Remember that sucrose is used for energy and allows proteins to be used for repair work on your skin. A low carb diet will very quickly cause cells to suffer due to wastage of repair material. No sucrose in the diet means that proteins are turned to sugar for energy.” – Dodie Anderson, Nutritionist and Ray Peat’s dear friend of 20 plus years.
How best to eat sugar? Eat enough of it, sucrose, from ripe fruits, fresh orange juice, pure honey (if tolerated) and white cane sugar (in addition to a mineral rich diet), balanced with adequate protein and saturated fat, and eaten as frequently as needed to keep body temperatures healthy**
** A healthy body temperature sits above 36.6 C / 97.8 F a sign that cell metabolism is being supported. You should see a rise in temperature after eating, with a resting pulse ideally between 75-90. More on this here.
a few other skin protective nutritional tactics, apart from avoiding PUFA:
- Saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter
- Vitamin E (although your needs decrease as your PUFA intake decreases)
- Preformed Vitamin A (your best source by far is fresh liver).
- Support healthy Thyroid hormone conversion (this is also supported by sugar and blocked by PUFA).
- Support Pregnenolone, Progesterone and DHEA synthesis; three youth-associated hormones. It takes cholesterol (LDL), Vitamin A and Thyroid to make Pregnenolone, which then (in a well nourished, unstressed and efficiently functioning body) is converted to the other steroid hormones … further reading here.
- Get adequate animal protein (80g daily minimum, and up to 200g for active males) particularly the non-inflammatory kind, including gelatin. Protein is also important for supporting the liver in detoxifying estrogen, and elevated estrogen is related to the formation of age pigment on the skin as well as hypothyroidism.
- Keep your Calcium to Phosphate ratio high. Excess dietary phosphate is one of the factors involved in ageing (of many parts of the body). Emphasise dairy over meats, grains and seeds. More here.
- Keep inflammatory endotoxin down with a daily carrot salad, daily bowel movements, and digestible foods. And sugar helps stop endotoxin entering bloodstream too.
- Reduce stress in all forms. Stress increases our need for sugar and calories in general and cortisol (a major stress hormone) eats up the skin, literally.
- Maintain blood sugar and avoid hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) with, yes, sugar! (in the form of sucrose as previously mentioned, balanced with protein and eaten frequently). Low blood sugar is a stress in itself increasing cortisol (cortisol is released during glucose deprivation).
- Get plenty of deep, restorative sleep (the best ‘facelift’).
practical ideas: foods to prevent premature ageing of the skin (and the entire body for that matter)
- Milk and honey (with the type of milk that you digest best)
- A milkshake made with homemade ice cream with egg yolk
- Homemade custard with stewed fruits
- Homemade crustless cheesecake with cherries
- Homemade jelly (or jello) and cream
- Ripe fruits and high quality cheese (a post coming about cheese very soon!)
- Homemade marshmallows in hot chocolate
- Homemade fruit gummy sweets (recipe for these and other ideas at The Nutrition Coach on Instagram)
- Homemade Pâté and a fruit platter
- An egg (from a pasture-fed hen) cooked in coconut oil or butter, or soft-boiled, with buttered sourdough toast. Along with a large glass of fresh orange juice.
topical considerations: When you consider what PUFAs do to the skin when ingested, also consider their affects when applied topically that oxidise readily with exposure to light and enter the bloodstream too. Look at the ingredients in your “beauty” lotions and makeup and you’ll see polyunsaturated oils as major ingredients: sunflower, safflower and other “vegetable” and seed oils and gums. These so called anti-ageing potions, with their myriad of other toxic ingredients too, may actually be ageing you faster.
Michelle Villett is editor the founder of The Skincare Edit, ex Beauty Editor at Elle Canada and another advocate of the work of Dr. Ray Peat PhD. She has kindly offered this contribution. These are her topical considerations from years of testing and analyzing skin products from around the world:
“Two of the biggest but most disappointing skincare trends from a health perspective over the last few years have been anti-glycation products and oil moisturizers. With glycation becoming a buzzword in mainstream health circles, the beauty industry naturally starting coming out with a whole bunch of topical products that promised to fight this process on our faces, claiming that it makes skin look thinner, saggier and older. “Anti-glycation” ingredients such as the amino acid carnosine, green tea and blueberry and pomegranate extracts were incorporated into various face creams and serums, but according to top dermatologist Leslie Baumann, there is no proof that these products actually penetrate deep enough into the dermis to block glycation. Obviously, there are huge financial incentives behind every hot beauty trend, and I can’t help but notice that one of the biggest proponents of anti-glycation products and a “no-sugar” diet himself, relies heavily on Botox and fillers. (References: here and here).
At the same time that this was going on, oils started becoming extremely popular as face and body moisturizers. Ten years ago, few people would have even considered rubbing straight oil on their faces, but now even big brands like L’Oreal are offering these types of products. These are almost exclusively made up of PUFAs, and since your body absorbs up to 20 percent of what you apply to it topically, they contribute to your overall “PUFA load”. They also oxidize quickly with sun exposure, producing aging free radicals.
The oils to watch out for in your topical beauty products include: argan oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, almond oil and sesame oil (to name a few).
The oils that are considered safe for topical use include: coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil (monounsaturated), vitamin E, shea butter and tallow.
It’s important to check the ingredients lists on even “natural” brands; recently I noticed that Aveda had replaced the jojoba in their face oil with sunflower oil. In fact, natural beauty products can be some of the worst “PUFA offenders” since there’s a strong belief that natural, plant-based oils must be “healthy”.
- Replace your body lotion with a PUFA-free one first. Body products cover the largest surface area of your skin, and we tend to use more of them than other skincare products.
- Coconut oil makes a great and inexpensive body moisturizer; on the face it can be comedogenic (pore-clogging) for some people.
- On your face, use moisturizers and serums instead of PUFA face oils. Look for products with as few PUFAs as far down the ingredients list as possible. Since facial skincare products are only being used in small amounts, the PUFA load in the average moisturizer is fairly low and not something to stress too much about.
- Don’t forget to check for PUFAs in your sunscreens. Zinc oxide is the least toxic sunscreen ingredient.
- In makeup, mineral powder-based products are typically a better choice than oil-based.
- Consider eliminating PUFAs from other products in your beauty routine, including body scrubs, body washes, self-tanners, hand creams, etc.”
This article only skims the surface of a complex topic, so if you’re keen to dig further, here are links to some further reading:
Further reading regarding polyunsaturated fats:
Further reading regarding sugar:
And if you’d prefer to listen than read:
Listen to Dr. Ray Peat, Interviewed on Herb Doctors, KMUD radio, Sugar II (Approx. 22 mins in for comments on glycation specifically)
More regarding glycation:
With Danny Roddy and Georgi Dinkov here.
* In the years since this article was written, we (Kitty Blomfield and I) got to work formulating a skincare range based in 100% saturated fats. See it here.
Disclaimer: My posts are not meant to be individualised treatment plans, protocols, etc. I share what I research and use, and that is it. They are meant to spark thought based on the normal anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the body. The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your information only.