Sometimes I write a blog and I find the subject frightening. This is one such blog. In the previous blog on the addictive powers of sugar, I drew on research comparing sugar addiction to cocaine. If we develop a serious cocaine habit, in due course we destroy our nose. Not a pretty look. If we develop a sugar habit – and this time this includes everything with added sugar, not just sweet drinks – we destroy a lot more than our nose. From the outside, for most, the worst thing that happens is we get fat and our skin ages prematurely – and this will matter if we manage to lose weight since we will be slim, but we will also resemble a skinny rhinoceros. That is the outside; on the inside. Well. If we click on the link to Nancy Appleton’s website, we will see a fully cited list of 141 reasons why sugar is ruining your health. 141 horrid health conditions. In this blog, I am going to look at a process called glycation which is partly responsible for developing the major chronic diseases of age such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type II diabetes, strokes, nerve damage, hearing loss – well, the list is 141 conditions long.
So what is glycation? Glycation is when a protein or fat molecule binds to a sugar molecule. The resulting molecule is very damaging to the body. Glycation can happen to food as it is being prepared and it can also happen inside the body when we eat or drink sugar. By sugar I mean glucose, fructose and galactose. Ordinary sugar breaks down to glucose and fructose; fructose is the sugar found in fruit and galactose is the sugar found in milk.
Starting with foods being cooked. The problems arise when a food is cooked with added sugar on the surface which will increase the browning effect. Examples are baked foods such as cakes, doughnuts and biscuits, but also chips or fries can have sugar added for this browning effect as can barbecued meat. Cooking with a high heat accelerates the glycation process.
Inside the body, following a high sugar meal or snack, blood sugar levels rise which means there is sugar floating about in the blood stream. Sugar is sticky, as anybody who has had a bad experience making toffee at home can testify, and it is just as sticky in the body. So when floating about in the blood, it binds to the proteins and these proteins are now glycated.
A simple problem with glycolated protein or fat molecules is that they are physically bigger. When the glycated protein is in the blood, this will present problems in the smaller arteries. They get jammed up – and this is partly why type II diabetics are prone to losing sensation in their feet – and eventually can lose a toe, foot or even a leg due to lack of circulating blood. These big molecules also cause problems in the small arteries of the kidneys and eyes.
The fun doesn’t stop here. These proteins are taken up in the cells, but in this altered state are toxic to the cells where they cause mayhem. The name given to these molecules are advanced glycation end products, shortened to the deliberate name AGEs, because they cause the cells to age. And so here is why a high sugar diet gives us baggy skin – for AGEs damage collagen, ‘an important structural element in the body’1 found in the skin and the blood vessels. Apart from developing a face for us like a shar-pei dog, AGEs are responsible for damaging the collagen in walls of the arteries and this leads them to stiffness, which leads to high blood pressure and it also leads to weakness in the arteries walls, which leads to big or small aneurisms – ie blockages. This in turn leads to heart attacks or strokes. AGEs also damage the protein in the blood, called fibrinogen. Fibrinogen is responsible for coagulation of blood, so glycating this protein will cause the blood to thicken.
These AGEs, both from the doughnuts we eat and those made by our bodies from a high sugar diet, cause damage in all the cells in the body. This is particularly unpleasant in the longer lived cells such as those of the pancreas, nerves, brain and eyes. And so long term regular enjoyment of a cup tea and a biscuit leads to Alzheimer’s disease, nerve damage and eye diseases. In the pancreas, AGEs damage the insulin producing cells, thus increasing the risk of developing diabetes. Our DNA is made of cells – all prone to damage by AGEs and so this is one of the methods we can develop a disease to which we have a genetic predisposition. To have a genetic predisposition to a disease does not mean we are inevitably going to develop the disease, usually we have to do something to switch the gene or genes to their malevolent form. Eating sugar regularly can flick that switch. Never did a barbecued spare rib seem less inviting to me.
So this is an overview of the effects of glycated proteins in the body. Sugar’s bad effect on the body is not limited to AGEs by any means. The next blog will look at how sugar is linked to cancer. Where do cancer cells get their energy from to survive and multiply?
- Collins internet linked dictionary of Medicine [↩]