The Connection Between Glycation, Sugar, and Aging from a Functional Nutrition Perspective
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
We all know that sugar consumption and dysregulated blood sugar can wreak havoc on the body and brain. Yet there are other serious physiological consequences from high sugar intake, some of which are hard to detect until it’s too late. Let’s take a moment to understand glycation and how sugar affects both advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and the aging process.
Glycation is a process where sugar molecules react with proteins or lipids in the body and form harmful molecules called AGEs. These AGEs can cause cellular damage, inflammation, oxidative stress, and other age-related health issues.
Glucose molecules in the body constantly transition between their alpha and beta isomeric forms, alternating between different structural arrangements in a cyclical manner. During this transition, the chemical structure of the glucose molecule temporarily becomes linear instead of its usual looped shape. In this linear form, glucose can readily react with proteins or lipids in the body, leading to the formation of AGEs.
alpha glucose ring (isomer) → linear glucose isomer → beta glucose ring (isomer)
What are AGEs?
AGEs factor into the aging process because they contribute to protein fibers becoming stiff and malformed in the body. AGEs also attach to RAGEs (receptors for advanced glycation end products), which triggers more free-radical damage and promotes more internal and chronic inflammation. Protein stiffness, free-radical damage, and inflammation, have all been linked to chronic disease states such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, as well as inflammatory diseases, like asthma and arthritis.
The connection between AGEs, sugar, and aging
In addition to their contribution to aging and chronic disease states, AGEs have specific characteristics at the end of glucose formation. This transitional phase between the alpha and beta rings involves the presence of an aldehyde molecule. Aldehyde is a chemical structure formed when a carbon atom shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, a single bond with a hydrogen atom, and another single bond with another atom or group of atoms (noted as ‘R’ in the model below).
Understanding the presence of aldehyde molecules during this transitional phase provides insight into the chemical composition and properties of the glucose molecule in its transformation between isomeric forms. By recognizing the presence of aldehydes in the linear glucose structure, we gain a better understanding of the underlying chemical processes involved in glucose interconversion and subsequent reactions with proteins and lipids in the body.
This functional aldehyde group is very reactive to the amino acid lysine. And one of lysine’s superpowers is that it can create spontaneous bonds between proteins and other things – things like this reactive aldehyde. This interaction between lysine and aldehyde groups adds another layer of complexity and contributes to the structural changes and modifications that can impact cellular function, health, and healing.
And this is the chemical process of glycation. The protein that the lysine molecule brought to the party is now glycated (i.e., protein bound to glucose). The chemical process we just went through is not easily reversible and this protein-bound-to-glucose structure is now termed an advanced glycation end product (AGE).
The Functional Nutrition approach to glycation
So what does this mean for you, me and every person on the planet? We all have glucose in our bloodstream all the time. And that means we’re forming AGEs on a regular basis.
The good news is that with normal or regulated blood sugar levels, the AGE production is low. And with a diet high in antioxidants such as vitamin C, quercetin, turmeric, and resveratrol, the ability to rid the body of AGEs is high. In terms of lifestyle, exercise also plays a role in thwarting the accumulation of AGEs.
But what do you think happens when there’s more sugar in the bloodstream? Imagine this whole chemical shift-change happening in multiples. Multiply that again. And again. And now imagine that happening in the body of someone who is sedentary and not eating a rainbow-rich diet.
Whoa, stop the AGEing!
But if all that is not enough to motivate us to cut down the sugar (because, for some, health outcomes just aren’t enough of a motivating factor), we can look at it through a more vain lens. Promoting the production of AGEs actually does accelerate aging.
Our takeaway? Glycation is happening all the time. It’s a natural part of aging. We have the opportunity to either slow or accelerate that aging process by choosing what we eat and how we move, especially as we age. Functional Nutrition Counselors help their client’s reduce exposure to AGEs and improve their health by recommending supportive dietary and lifestyle modifications.
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