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The Science of Skin Care: Refined Sugar

Christmas Treats
Be careful about how much sugar you eat this holiday season.

The winter holidays bring many joys: friends, family, gifts…and sweet treats. The tastes of the season—cookies, pies, candies, tarts and fruitcakes—can enrich your holiday experience if eaten in moderation. However, all the sugar affects more than just your waistline.

Systemic Effects of Sugar

Your body eventually breaks down everything you eat into its smallest components—proteins and amino acids, fatty acid chains and simple sugars. You need these components to build new tissues, regulate body chemistry and provide energy, and when you eat nutrient-dense foods—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats—your body gets sugar plus the stuff that can counter the negative effects of sugar.

A diet of highly processed foods full of refined sugars, on the other hand, is anything but kind to the rest of your body.

Sugar:

    • Is addictive
    • Can be intoxicating, much like alcohol
    • Increases emotional instability
    • Exacerbates, possibly incites, inflammation
    • Impairs satiety cues
    • Causes endocrine disruptions and/or imbalances

A diet high in sugar is likely to cause weight gain, but not just because of the calories in sugar itself. The addictive nature of sugar, paired with the way it impairs leptin, the “satiety hormone,” and fails to suppress ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” increases overall appetite, making you eat more (often more sugary foods) and more often. Obesity and/or diabetes are common results, and both diseases are associated with increased inflammation, which has been linked to the development of some cancers; inflammation in the vascular system increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Effects of Sugar on Your Skin

Even if you do not have systemic sugar-related health issues, a diet high in refined sugars will affect your skin health. The body treats fructose, one type of simple sugar, like it would a toxin (e.g. alcohol)—it is metabolized by the liver. (Remember the connection between liver and skin health?)

Your liver and kidneys are the two organs most involved in detoxifying your body. The more fructose your body must metabolize, the more you are taxing your purification systems. When these systems get fatigued, toxins build up and hormones get out of balance. The results are often written all over your face—acne breakouts, a dull complexion, dry skin, etc.

In addition to compromised liver and kidney function, sugar has other skin-specific consequences. Sugar can:

  • Lower Vitamin E levels
  • Change the structure of collagen
  • Increase free radicals and oxidative stress

The decrease in antioxidants coupled with an increase in free radical activity will speed up or exacerbate damage to components of the dermal matrix, resulting in a loss of firmness and elasticity. In other words, sugar increases the likelihood of sagging and wrinkled skin and impairs your body’s natural ability to rebuild and rejuvenate.

Promoting Skin Health

Refined sugars, like high fructose corn syrup and highly processed natural sugars like agave nectar, are certainly skin baddies. But you do not need to fear them or try to cut them out of your diet completely, which, let’s face it, during the holidays seems next to impossible. Enjoy your favorite holiday treats in moderation and choose the treats that only come around this time of year over the sweets (like soda and chocolate-covered nut clusters) that you can get any time.

Of course, to combat the aging effects of sugar, make sure the bulk of your diet is rich in antioxidants and other skin-friendly nutrients and stick your skin care regimen.

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