Sugar Wrinkles: A special report

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - It's something we all have in common, and it can expose some of our internal secrets: Skin.

"It's definitely the largest organ," said Dr. Patricia Farris, a clinical associate professor at Tulane's School of Medicine.

The layered wrapping makes up about 1/7th of our body weight, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"It really is a manifestation of our internal health," Farris said. "As dermatologists, we'll very often diagnose diabetes, kidney problems or liver problems, or conditions like lupus, auto-immune diseases, because the skin is really a window to the inside, so it's one of the few organs that you can actually see."

Sure, the clock of life ticks toward maturing skin.

"That we call natural aging, or intrinsic aging and that truthfully we can't do anything about," said Dr. Farris.

But Farris, a nationally recognized dermatologist, adds that the biggest factor in skin aging appears to be environmental, and she's not just speaking about the sun or pollution.

"We now even put poor nutrition in that category, because all of those factors can contribute and accelerate aging of the skin."

One of the big offenders is a popular condiment.

"Unfortunately, in the United States we eat tremendous amounts of sugar. Each individual eats about 70 pounds of sugar a year," Farris said.

Excess that can turn into an enemy internally and externally.

"Things like sugar, it actually breaks down the collagen and elastin fibers that actually keep your skin plump and stop it from sagging, so in dermatology we call that the 'sugar sag.' If you eat too much sugar, that sugar has to go somewhere, so it'll attach to protein molecules like collagen and elastin," Farris said.

It is a process called "glycation."

"It's a non-enzymatic process where the sugar molecules have to go somewhere, so if you eat a high sugar diet, or high-glycemic index diet, your sugars go up and down, up and down all day. It makes you feel badly," said Dr. Farris.

NIH research on glycation and the skin appears to back that up.

"In this system, we observed that dermis and epidermis are both modified due to glycation…In conclusion, in skin, glycation is involved in a very complex aging process and simultaneously affect, directly and indirectly, certain cells, their synthesis and the organization of the matrix," researchers wrote.

"You can see that all of this pink is what we refer to as the extra-cellular matrix, this is the collagen molecules, this is the elastin molecules. When the extra-cellular matrix is firm and plump, that keeps the skin tight. The minute that extra-cellular matrix begins to break down whether it's through glycation or after sun exposure, we start to see the skin sagging. This is the structure of the skin," said Dr. Farris as she handled a skin model in her office.

On the street, many people were surprised to hear about the connection between over-consumption of sugar and wrinkles.

"No, and I'm super into nutrition. That's weird, and I never even heard of that," said Shannon Nicole.

Dr. Farris authored a book, "Sugar Detox," on the topic of eating too much sugar and the consequences.

"So in the sugar detox what we did was for the first three days we really took all sugars out of the diet…The first week we start to add back natural sugar like berries, and things like dairy, small amounts, and we slowly build up. And it's incredible what happens when you clear your palate, things like almonds sort of taste sweet to you," Farris said.

And she said she has seen positive results on wrinkles when people curtail sugar.

"Absolutely, and what I always tell people is it really takes a comprehensive approach," Farris said.

Still, not all sugar is bad.

"The way we define whether a sugar is healthy or not is is it added sugar? So is it a food product that they've added sugar to the product? And products that have added sugar are not healthy because there's calories associated with the sugar that you ingest but there's no nutritional value," said Dr. Melinda Sothern, a metabolism scientist at LSU Health New Orleans' School of Public Health.

And sugar shows its strength inside our bodies.

"When you ingest added sugar, it changes the body's metabolism," continued Dr. Sothern.

But does it age the body internally?

"Well, inflammation ages the body," sh said. "So if sugar leads to a heightened inflammatory state - and there are good studies that suggest that it does - that added sugar is associated with increased inflammation."

Federal dietary guidelines recommend consuming less than 10-percent of daily calories from added sugars.

"When the body ingests sugar, the chemicals that are released, insulin, tells the body that, let's use this sugar as fuel, let's use this carbohydrate as well, and it's the preferred fuel source. That means that if you have stored fat, your body won't use the stored fat. And if the stored fat is in the tummy area, it is really bad fat. It is fat that contains toxins, and those toxins can be uploaded into the organs and cause a lot of problems," said Sothern.

The American Heart Association recommends men have no more than 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of "added" sugar daily, and women 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons per day.

While labels on packaged goods show the amount of grams of sugar in products, it is not always easy to tell exactly what the "added" sugars are. That's because sugar has many names.

"Sometimes it's disguised as foods that end in "ose," you know - fructose, sucrose - and so you have to kind of be careful and read the fine print and also corn syrup is an added sugar," Dr. Sothern stated.

Many foods pack natural sugars.

"So eating fruits and vegetables, they contain all those colorful antioxidants, we call those polyphenols, those nourish the skin, they block free-radicals which are damaging molecules that again can break down collagen, elastin, and accelerate aging," added Dr. Farris.

But just how much impact could the elimination of sugar, or a significant reduction in the consumption of it, make, in terms of staving off wrinkles?

"I would say that eliminating sugar, or reducing your sugar intake, would be great for your general health, but you will also improve your skin health, as well," Farris said.

Dr. Sothern agrees.

"Of course, if you're taking in too much added sugar and that's promoting inflammation, it's going to promote aging…You should not daily consume sodas, you should not daily consume cakes and cookies," Sothern stated.

Some sugar consumers said they buy into that idea.

"I do believe that to an extent, sometimes you are what you eat, and I guess a lot of corn syrup and sugars that are added into foods make you not appear your age sometimes," said Edward Pina.

"I'm definitely going to take my friends for fewer daiquiris, that's for sure," said Nicole.

"Lasers, and fillers, and things like that we can make sure skin look tremendously better, but nutrition really falls on the preventative side.  If you eat well from the get-go, you're going to be healthier in general and your skin's going to fare better in the long run," said Dr. Farris.

"If you want to have a healthy inside and outside, limit the intake of sugar," added Dr. Sothern.

A move, experts believe will prevent wrinkles from getting a premature start.

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