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H O W   S U G A R   A F F E C T S  O U R   S K I N 

Slice of Cake

Do you ever notice how certain things you do have a pretty quick effect on your skin? Dehydration, for example. If I don’t drink enough water for just a day, I notice the effects the next day. My skin looks tired, my fine lines and crows feet look more pronounced and the skin under my eyes is darker. 

Caffeine and alcohol are both diuretics, so we should be matching them drink for drink with a glass of water ideally. 

What about the things we eat? If we have skin that loves to go red, itchy and sensitive or we have rosacea, then eating hot or spicy foods might mean that our  skin reacts angrily. Exercise is the same, going for a run or doing a vigorous HIIT session can mean that we have a  red ‘glow’ to our skin for what seems like hours afterwards. 

So, it’s clear, our eyes might be the windows to our soul, but our skin can give a lot more away.

But what about sugar? Can sugar have an effect on our skin that we might not even be aware of? Could it be causing some of the skin symptoms such as spots and irritation that we’re struggling with, without us even making the connection? 

What is Sugar?

Sounds like a simple question 

Well, yes, but chemically speaking, what is it? 

Dependable Wikipedia reliably tells us that sugar is a “soluble carbohydrate”, of which there are a few different types. The sugar we described above, usually referred to as table sugar, is actually called sucrose and is a complex sugar, made up of molecules of two simple sugars - glucose and fructose. 

When we consume sucrose, the body breaks it down into its simple sugar constituent parts. Glucose is the body’s preferred source of energy, and it uses it to power both us and all the biological systems in the body. 

And as we well know, any excess sugar, or rather in this case, fructose and glucose in the diet is stored, unfortunately, as fat. If we eat a high sugar diet, we’re likely to gain weight. If we cut sugar out, we’re more likely to lose weight.

A Quick Word on Carbs and Fruit

Carbohydrates, such as pasta and bread, are actually, again chemically speaking, long chains of complex sugars. When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into sugar. 

Whilst this is essentially a true fact, there’s a lot more at play. We need sugar, and by eating unrefined, brown carbs, such as brown bread and pasta instead of the refined white versions, we’re going to feel full and energised for longer. 

If we exercise a lot, then carbs will help out there too, and again, eating the slow release brown versions will do us more favours. White bread and pasta get broken down really quickly, flooding the bloodstream with sugar, giving us a sugary high. Which is very quickly followed by a sugary low and a crash in energy levels. 

So, let’s not demonise carbs, but choose them carefully and make around a  third of your plate carbohydrate, less if you’re planning a sedentary day or you’re on a weight loss plan.

So now, fruit. Fruit is exceptionally good for us. It’s full of essential vitamins and minerals, and crucially, gut loving fibre. But it’s also fairly high in a simple sugar called fructose. 

Our five a day should really be made up more from veggies than fruits, because of their sugar content. We’re in no way saying don’t eat fruit, but just be aware that  sugar is sugar (according to the body) and you may want to consider that if you’re eating a large punnet of strawberries, four bananas and a couple of apples every day. 

So now we know what sugar is, what about its  effects on the skin?

How Does Sugar Affect the Skin?

The bottom line is really that  sugar is an inflammatory food. This means that eating a lot of sugar, whether from cakes, pasta or berries, can cause an increase in inflammation. (However, sugary foods such as cakes that are minus any of the good - read, healthy - stuff are more likely to have an effect since brown pasta and fruit also contain anti-inflammatory vitamins and antioxidants.) 

But what does this mean for our skin? First up, a quick chat about inflammation. 

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation at low levels is a good thing. As part of the immune response, it helps the body fight infections and disease. It also helps the body fight invaders. When we have a cold for example, we might get a temperature, and that’s inflammation - the body’s way of getting rid of the cold bug. 

Skin wise, imagine a splinter in your finger. The area will feel warm and will look puffy and red. That’s inflammation at work, trying to rid the body of this foreign invader. 

So, inflammation at normal levels is good. But things go awry when inflammation becomes chronic. 

What is Chronic Inflammation, and What Causes it?

Chronic inflammation occurs when inflammation hangs around for too long. This can be down to factors such as a lingering infection, or an autoimmune condition. 

But chronic inflammation can also be  caused by lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking pale rosé in pub gardens too frequently, being obese or overweight or suffering long term, chronic stress. 

It can also be caused by our diet - if we eat a lot of processed, high fat, high salt, high sugar foods, then we could be inviting chronic inflammation to the tasty party. 

What Does Chronic Inflammation Do to the Skin?

When we eat sugar, our body releases the hormone insulin to deal with it. Insulin herds the sugar around to where it’s needed. The problem is, insulin also triggers inflammation, and inflammation can make  existing skin conditions such as acne, worse. The same can be said for skin conditions such as eczema and rosacea.

But what about if we don’t have existing skin conditions? Well, we still don’t escape. As inflammation can also  accelerate the skin ageing process by encouraging the breakdown of collagen fibres. As you may know, collagen is the protein responsible for keeping the skin smooth, plump and youthful, so the last thing we want to do is encourage its breakdown. 

More signs that your skin might be  suffering the effects of chronic inflammation include skin rashes, redness, itching, dryness, scaling, skin thickening, blisters, spots and cracked, weeping or bleeding areas. So, not good. 

Reducing Chronic Inflammation in the Skin

Chronic inflammation isn’t just caused by our sugar intake, as we discovered above. There are lots of contributing factors, some we can’t help or control, others, we can. 

Limiting our sugar intake is one thing we can do to help the health and appearance of our skin. That means keeping the sweet treats to a minimum, choosing wholewheat carbs over refined white ones, being mindful of our fruit intake and opting for water and herbal teas over squashes and fizzy drinks.

To give you skin the best chance of being happy, your skincare is important too.

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